Remembering ‘The Midnight Special’

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It was a far different time in music and television. There were only four TV networks, and they all signed off at 1:00 a.m. Most musical performances on TV were lip-synced. (The old saw about how “things were better back then” does not always hold true.)

Producer Burt Sugarman pitched NBC on a Friday night musical variety show that would follow the high-rated The Tonight Show at 1 a.m. and retain some of its audience. The network didn’t bite. So he bought the airtime, found a sponsor (Chevrolet) and on August 19, 1972, premiered the 90-minute program, on which the acts played live, as a special. The pilot episode of The Midnight Special, hosted by John Denver, drew enough viewers for NBC to pick it up. The series ran 450 episodes from February 2, 1973, until May 1, 1981.

That jam-packed pilot episode featured Argent, War, The Everly Brothers, The Isley Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, Helen Reddy, David Clayton-Thomas, Cass Elliot and Harry Chapin.

Many subsequent episodes featured former border radio DJ Wolfman Jack as its announcer. Born Robert Weston Smith on January 21, 1938, the “Wolfman” had come to national prominence in George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti.

During its run some of the classic rock acts that appeared included AC/DC, Aerosmith, the Beach Boys, Blondie, David Bowie, Cheap Trick, Jim Croce, the Doobie Brothers, Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton, Genesis, Billy Joel, Elton John and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band.

Here’s Journey…

Others included Kiss, Van Morrison, Randy Newman, New York Dolls, REO Speedwagon, T. Rex, Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan, Rod Stewart, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Thin Lizzy and Tina Turner.

ABC soon followed suit and debuted In Concert on Friday late night. In September 1973 the syndicated Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert bowed with the Rolling Stones as guests. Throughout the decade it was where many of us first heard and saw what would become our favorite bands.

Watch the Commodores perform “Brick House”

Watch singer Mickey Thomas sing lead vocals on Elvin Bishop’s 1976 hit, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”

Here’s Fleetwood Mac…

Watch Argent perform their #5 smash “Hold Your Head Up”

Two weeks after “The Joker” topped the Hot 100 in 1974, the Steve Miller Band performed the smash on The Midnight Special.

And here’s Wild Cherry with the bare-chest and silver jacket look playing “Play That Funky Music”…

Watch Blondie perform “Heart of Glass.” Hey, Debbie, what’s with that outfit?

From the Guess Who’s performance on March 29, 1974, let’s clap for the Wolfman!

The Wolfman died on July 1, 1995. The Midnight Special collections are available to order here.

Related: Read Part 2 of our series – Rock Edition, and Part 3 – Solo Artists edition

Best Classic Bands Staff

13 Comments so far

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  1. headoffog72
    #1 headoffog72 19 August, 2016, 18:38

    Any band of the 70’s was on it. Sweet,Starz,Black Oak Arkansas,Foghat ( they got a “Killer” new release “Under the Influence” Its Smokin’ hot !! Knock it Off sounds like Bon Scott AC/DC era song, Hot Mama like a Stone Blue era song,a burnin’ Heard it Through the Grapevine !! )

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  2. mpasqua
    #2 mpasqua 20 November, 2017, 14:08

    While there were many noteworthy acts on the Midnight Special, I always thought ABC “In Concert” had the cooler bands performing. Everything from the Allman Brothers to Poco. A shame that you can’t get those performances on dvd or blu ray

    Reply this comment
    • Jack
      Jack 23 January, 2018, 01:45

      I agree with you. I used to watch both shows, but it was “In Concert” that definitely had the bands that had an “edge” to them. I remember they did a multi-show series on “The California Jam”, when I 13yrs old. It was a monumental exposure to live R&R in the span of 4-5 weeks. That was where I was first introduced to Rare Earth, The Eagles, Black Oak Arkansas, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and a band that I would go on to be a gigantic fan of to this day, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

      Midnight Special was a little more “pop”, however, I do thank them for an introduction to David Bowie, Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers, and especially, Fleetwood Mac. Both shows did provide good musical entertainment to an age group that had very, very, few options for exposure to R&R.

      It’s too bad there are not shows like that on now. Austin City Limits is pretty good, but it’s not “In Concert”.

      Reply this comment
      • Ed Sullivan
        Ed Sullivan 16 October, 2018, 16:09

        You are correct. The first “In Concert” with Alice Cooper was monumental! I might still have a tape recording I made of it.

        Reply this comment
      • Moogly
        Moogly 14 December, 2019, 13:13

        I really hope all these shows have existing tapes. They can all be released on DVD eventually.

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  3. DUKE
    #3 DUKE 2 July, 2019, 00:34


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  4. Jaz
    #4 Jaz 2 July, 2019, 13:02

    So many times, l have to wonder whether the Moody Blues performed on these programs and then, I found out, yes they were.
    They never lowered their standards, or changed their vision to fit what was the flavour of the month and I respect them for that.

    It’s also what gave them staying power, because they drew a faithful audience that felt the same.

    I love going to the Concerts. I look at the audience filling the venue and I feel like I’ve come home.

    The people who come to their shows are three generations now each as excited as the other.

    I’ve seen 1st time Concert goers at the shows and l know exactly what they’re feeling, because I felt it too the 1st time.
    It’s hard to put into words all of the emotions that they fill you with, but you’ll find out when you start relating their songs to your life.

    They are so much more than one song, “Nights in White Satin”, so make “Question” your anthem and you’ll have a GREAT RIDE!


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  5. SteveM
    #5 SteveM 23 January, 2020, 16:06

    Great acts.TERRIBLE hosts

    Reply this comment
  6. Joe Coffee
    #6 Joe Coffee 5 July, 2020, 20:50

    Occasionally, some respected acts who never had a hit would materialize. I recall seeing Paul Butterfield’s Better Days and Weather Report (possibly on the same show), as well as Ry Cooder performing ‘Diddy Wah Ditty’ solo. The Little Feat-hosted episode is floating around the internets, but I’d like to like to see the aforementioned surface as well.

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  7. TyStick
    #7 TyStick 3 February, 2023, 09:18

    The “Midnight Special” was a great time for me. I remember trying to stay awake to be with my older brothers while they watched their favorite bands. They had some classics like the Stones, Linda Ronstadt, Bay City Rollers (who were my favorite band as a 11 year old), Foghat etc. A great time for music and to this day, I love the 60 & 70s rock.

    Reply this comment
  8. Big John Milner
    #8 Big John Milner 20 August, 2023, 03:57

    Correction: Wolfman Jack did NOT host the first episode of The Midnight Special, John Denver did (and also performed, including a duet of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” with Cass Elliot!). As the article points out, “American Graffiti” was released one year after The Midnight Special’s debut.

    Also, the first show and those after it were not aired live. It was pre-recorded. You can tell when you watch the video that was just posted to You Tube a few days ago.

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  9. Safari Bob Grilli
    #9 Safari Bob Grilli 20 August, 2023, 10:03

    Live! Live! Live! These guys could play, wanted to play and did play – LIVE!
    The musicianship and presentation of their songs shows that these bands came from a lost era when you rehearsed your ass off, played a thousand gigs, and were lucky enough AND good enough to get a chance to show it. I watch in on Youtube.

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