Remembering ‘The Midnight Special’: Rock Edition

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Music fans of a certain age recall the 1970s-era late night TV series, The Midnight Special, with a good deal of reverence, and well they should! The series ran on NBC for 450 episodes from February 2, 1973, until May 1, 1981.

As noted in our original story about the program, the series began when TV producer Burt Sugarman pitched the network 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. When the network didn’t bite, Sugarman 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. Its solid ratings led NBC to greenlight the series.

No surprise: with Wolfman Jack as the host, that jam-packed pilot episode featured Argent, War, the Everly Brothers, the Isley Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, Helen Reddy, John Denver, David Clayton-Thomas, Cass Elliot and Harry Chapin.

Long before MTV, The Midnight Special was where many music fans first heard and saw what would become their favorite recording artists.

The series may not have had a wardrobe manager. Watch Rod Stewart in a unique stage get-up perform “You Wear it Well” in 1975. Hey look, it’s Ronnie Wood…

Watch host Helen Reddy introduce a performance from Peter Frampton, who was riding high with Frampton Comes Alive.

When the Dutch rock band Focus had a smash in 1973 with a song that was largely an instrumental save for some yodeling, audiences could now see them perform it. Watch guest host Gladys Knight introduce “Hocus Pocus.”

Watch Lowell George of Little Feat introduce guest singers Emmylou Harris, 27-year-old Bonnie Raitt and Jesse Winchester in 1977 for a rousing performance of “Dixie Chicken.”

Months after the Doobie Brothers‘ first hit, “Listen to the Music,” had peaked on the Hot 100, they appeared on The Midnight Special to perform it on March 16, 1973. The single, written and sung by Tom Johnston, had reached #11 and they had just released their next album, The Captain and Me.

Some acts apparently treated an appearance on the series like they were guests of honor at a celebrity roast. That probably explains why Burton Cummings of the Guess Who felt obliged to get dressed in a white suit while his bandmates were a bit less formal.

Remember the group Stories featuring vocalist Ian Lloyd? They had a #1 hit, “Brother Louie” in 1973. Tell ’em Jose…

“Roll Over Beethoven” was the first of dozens of U.S. chart hits by the Electric Light Orchestra. They made their first appearance on The Midnight Special on June 29, 1973, to perform the Chuck Berry cover. At 25, Jeff Lynne was already wearing his trademark sunglasses in public.

Watch one TV legend interview another

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26 Comments so far

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  1. Bluzrider
    #1 Bluzrider 14 September, 2017, 06:56

    The best band that played the Midnight Special that no one ever heard of outside of Detroit, check these two tunes out from The Rockets.

    Reply this comment
    • Billy K.
      Billy K. 21 August, 2019, 15:37

      I must have missed it when the Rockets were on Midnight Special. But they did open for a number of big-name bands in the 70s, and actually did a good job. They were NOT an opening act that was there just paid to be boo’ed before the opening act. (The Fools, for example, were one of those bands that got thrown in that position of being the “fall guys”).

      And some bit of “identity crisis”, so to speak, in the New York and San Francisco markets. Before Mr. Mahoney became Eddie $$$$, his early act was Eddie Spaghetti and the Rockets. (In fact, a reference to the “Rockets” on the liner notes of one of his albums).

      The Rockets were more of a Midwest phenomenon…….and some assumed it was the “local” artist doing a “stealth” appearance…..and it was at the time when there were big name performers going under assumed names……The Unknown Band(Jefferson Starship), Dr. Jones and the Interns(Aerosmith). and of course Soft White Underbelly(the Blue Oyster Cult).

      No $$$, but after the shock wore off, they still managed to win over a few fans.

      Reply this comment
  2. Mike
    #2 Mike 23 December, 2017, 14:55

    Sorry, but ABC In Concert was so much better than Midnight Special Everybody from the Allman Brothers to Poco to Jackson Browne got a shot on TV. Plus, DKRC had better artists (including Michael Stanley, Eagles and others)

    Reply this comment
    • Jack
      Jack 14 April, 2018, 07:38

      Agree with you on this point Mike. “In Concert” had a little bit of an “edge” to it. DKIC is where I learned about ELP, Eagles, Rare Earth, Deep Purple, and others. In particular, the shows highlighting the “California Jam” had a big influence on me. Great show, wish we had one like it now. Actually, I wish we had bands like those I mentioned.

      Reply this comment
      • Billy K.
        Billy K. 21 August, 2019, 15:40

        And a bit of irony, here, having “Kirschner” and “edgy” in the same sentence…….

        He was the guy who was involved with the success of Neil Sedaka, the Monkees and the Archies…not exactly artists that “stoners” would appreciate. Yet, he somehow pulled it off……

        Reply this comment
      • Drumguy
        Drumguy 5 February, 2023, 21:03

        Still remember ( and have a copy of) in concert show with Grand Funk and Freddie King…but I do give midnight special credit for having performances done live.

        Reply this comment
    • Jules
      Jules 20 August, 2019, 16:49

      I don’t recall this show! Can it be seen online anywhere?

      Reply this comment
  3. Doodles
    #3 Doodles 14 April, 2018, 09:49

    I liked them both! It’s a shame neither one can be found on cable now.

    Reply this comment
    • craigers37
      craigers37 16 April, 2018, 21:38

      Go to You Tube and type either Don Kirshner or Midnight Special and you can find old shows or a bunch of video’s. DHIC has one with 171 video’s and TMS has several hundred! Hours of musical enjoyment!

      Reply this comment
  4. Bob
    #4 Bob 19 April, 2018, 23:56

    By the late 1970’s, this show had gone Top 40 and disco to some degree. At that point, SNL became the show to watch for the latest popular rock bands.

    Reply this comment
  5. Doodles
    #5 Doodles 21 April, 2018, 15:58

    I loved the show, personally! I never missed it. It was on The Midnight Special that I saw Journey for the second time, (the first time was on Soundstage on PBS!) and the first time I saw Aerosmith. I was sorry to hear about Wolfman Jack’s passing awhile back. In any case, they don’t have shows like that anymore. Sad. I did buy the DVD of the show when Journey were the hosts! I still watch it from time to time! Now, I have to get all of my music stuff on-line now, or listen to my old albums! (I still have vinyl! I also have CD’s as well, so I’m not a dinosaur!

    Reply this comment
    • Bronx Lady
      Bronx Lady 26 February, 2022, 20:13

      Was hoping you’d recall who was the rocker who was loaded and fell off the front of stage?

      Reply this comment
  6. Ratbone
    #6 Ratbone 2 July, 2018, 17:03

    Wolfman Jack DJ’d a dance at my High School. I want to say, about 1974. I’ll never forget it.

    Reply this comment
    #7 HULLABALOO 20 August, 2019, 00:23

    We all know that Dick Clark brought Rock ‘n’ Roll to TV but a show called Hullaballoo started the introduction of rock bands on a network station in the late 60’s. Midnight Special brought it to the next level….

    Reply this comment
  8. Billy K.
    #8 Billy K. 21 August, 2019, 15:21

    It was odd that CBS didn’t counter ABC and NBC with a concert program of their own.

    Reply this comment
  9. steve b
    #9 steve b 9 January, 2020, 19:31

    we forward to seeing rock bands every week because we only had 5 or 6 channels back then .It was a way to finish a night of partyiing

    Reply this comment
    • Lorelei
      Lorelei 20 August, 2021, 02:04

      And no videos back then, and not very many reruns, so you really wanted to make sure and see it because you never knew who might be on it.

      Reply this comment
  10. Dan
    #10 Dan 3 February, 2021, 09:48

    Are there any DVD’s available from the Midnight Special shows on TV.

    Reply this comment
  11. SraLyn
    #11 SraLyn 19 August, 2021, 14:29

    I’d love to find footage of Roger Daltrey promoting Ride A Rock Horse, hosted by the late Helen Reddy.

    Reply this comment
  12. Lorelei
    #12 Lorelei 20 August, 2021, 02:12

    Long, long ago I got to meet Wolfman Jack and Wolfwoman! They were very nice 🙂

    Reply this comment
  13. Da Mick
    #13 Da Mick 20 August, 2021, 06:00

    Like “In Concert” “Midnight Special” may have started out with live performances, but it seems like I remember that, over the years, they began to sprinkle in many performers lip-synching to recorded music. You’ll run into these segments now and then on YouTube, Be that as it may, all these music shows were wonderful, and really had a huge impact on making music a hugely important part of the popular culture during the classic era of rock and pop. The stars aligned when we had great bands, great songs, and the media got on board to feature it all. As has been noted here the early prime time shows in Shindig and Hullabaloo really were the precursors to these late night concert shows (not to mention The Ed Sullivan Show), and Britain’s “Top OF The Pops” and “Ready Steady Go” were the precursors for them. I’m in total agreement with Doodles here, who laments that we don’t get any of these shows on a cable station. Though I heard on one of Little Steven’s broadcasts that all the “Shindig!” show’s original master tapes were taped over And it would be incredible to get those early British shows on a cable station, if they still exist somewhere.

    Reply this comment
  14. Da Mick
    #14 Da Mick 21 August, 2021, 08:49

    Ever wonder why Ronnie Wood seems like such a better guitarist with Rod and the Faces than he ever has with the Stones? MIck Taylor shined in that second guitar player role, so It’s not that Keith is edging him out, I submit a theory that many of the guitar parts on the Stones earlier recordings were played by studio musicians, which would explain why neither Keith nor Ronnie has ever seemingly been able to execute many of the iconic parts of their recordings live. They just don’t have that level of chops, and have pretty much always been a rag-tag, sloppy live band, especially before Chuck Leavell became their music director. Once Leavell became involved, they performed songs from their catalogue, in more simplified ways, that they’d never even attempted live before. Go back and listen into older Stones recordings, and tell me if you think those guys could actually play many of those parts. They’re basically rudimentary players and don’t even attempt most of the parts that make many of their recordings great. But Ronnie Wood used to play some pretty good structural guitar parts in his Rod/Faces days. Other than his slide work, he was never much of a “lead” guitar player, which is pretty much exactly what Keith is.

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  15. v2787
    #15 v2787 24 May, 2023, 15:23

    Want to see the best live clip ever from Midnight Special? Check out the Sanford Townsend Band (introduced by Helen Reddy, no less!) doing “Smoke From A Distant Fire.” Unbelievably tight, great musicianship, and stellar lead vocal from John Townsend. What a fantastic, soulful, and totally swinging song!

    Reply this comment
  16. Jules
    #16 Jules 25 May, 2023, 06:23

    Grew up on this fantastic program. Back when we would wait all week until it was on and there were no videos on TV. Memories….

    Reply this comment

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