On Feb. 2, 1973, the famed production premiered after The Tonight Show.
For much of the 1970s and some of the ’80s, a weekly syndicated rock show called The Midnight Special beamed live performances into American homes by dozens of artists. The show was focused on popular music, and in that capacity they provided platforms for one-hit wonders and platinum artists to showcase their work as if they were in concert, no lip-syncing allowed. Among them: Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Dr. John, Elton John, Todd Rundgren, Minnie Riperton, ELO, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Dolly Parton, Sylvester, Blondie, ABBA, and so many more.
Here’s Blondie’s television debut, for example.
Created by producer Burt Sugarman, in TV markets large and small The Midnight Special was a Friday night mainstay, one that preceded the arrival of Saturday Night Live by a few years and most certainly inspired Lorne Michaels and crew to book live music on the show when it first aired in 1975.
The Midnight Special introduced itself as a pilot in 1972, and those few early episodes included the Everly Bros., the Isley Bros., Linda Ronstadt and War. The pilot season also featured an early TV appearance by comedic genius Andy Kaufman.
It got picked up for its first official season in early 1973 and on Friday, February 2, the show made its premiere in a coveted time slot: immediately following The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Though the show’s bookers closely followed the popular music charts and, as such, tended to steer clear of the kind of musical esoterica within the In Sheep’s Clothing collection, the volume of performances yields dozens of remarkable sets. One reason, Sugarman told Goldmine, was scheduling: The Tonight Show had a very conservative viewership.
“What I did was put on middle-of-the-road acts after ‘The Tonight Show’ because that’s what [my next-door neighbor] Johnny Carson’s demo was,” Sugarman said. “I put on John Denver or Mama Cass, and then around 1:45, I’d switch over and get heavier. That seemed to work.” Acts usually played two or three songs each, and the production quality is stellar across the board.
When Robert Fripp took to The Midnight Special stage in 1979, he felt the need to thank the producers for offering a platform for such experimentation.
Kraftwerk released their breakout album, Autobahn, in 1974, where it became an unlikely late-night staple on FM rock stations. Less than a year later, the group appeared on The Midnight Special to play an 8-minute version of the work.
Two years earlier, David Bowie had entered American living rooms for the first time to perform ‘Space Oddity.’ It’s a mesmerizing TV moment, and a portent.
Few musical disconnects are as pronounced as the seemingly lit-up members of country funk band Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show introducing a young upstart named Prince. Here’s the Purple One’s first televised performance of “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”
One of many curious aspects of Donna Summer’s performance of her disco classic ‘I Feel Love’ is the live instrumentation. After all, the recording’s main innovation was a reliance on synthesized rhythms to propel dance floors. But producer Sugarman’s insistence on playing live seemed to dictate that Summer hire a band to do what Giorgio Moroder’s synthesizers did on the hit record.
And, finally, here’s Bill Withers with a string section performing ‘Ain’t No Sunshine.’
Most of the show’s performances have been uploaded onto YouTube, though the quality is so-so on many of them (and chances are a few of these embeds will vanish at some point). Wikipedia has a list of artists who appeared on The Midnight Special, and a quick YT search will likely yield the clip of your choice.