"Rock on Late-Night Seventies TV"
by Ben Fong-Torres
LOS ANGELES -- So, by now, you know all about the new TV season. And
how, along with Kojak, there are new characters named Kolchak and Kodiak.
(The possibilities, of course, are endless: A police photographer --
"Kodak"! A cop with a heart condition -- "Kardiak"! An Eskimo hunter --
"Kayak"! A state park ranger -- "Knapsack"!) And you know how, as All
in the Family spawned Good Times, so Mary Tyler Moore has given
birth to Rhoda. And Cher has left us in custody of Sonny. In short,
changes that don't amount to much.
And what about rock on TV? It's... much the same. As the late-night
concert format begins its third year, all three shows -- In Concert,
The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert -- are
thriving. And keeping out of each other's way. And beginning to look and
sound more like each other than ever before.
While the rock shows are out of prime time and do not figure in the
networks' seasonal shakes and rattles, there is news from all three.
We start with Midnight Special, where the first of the post-1970 rock
& roll shows began, in August 1972, when RCA Records' then president,
Rocco Laginestra, suggested a TV show to NBC: a late-night pop/rock show
to urge young people to register to vote. The program was called
Midnight Special, starred John Denver, and included War, the Isley
Brothers, the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, Harry Chapin, David
Clayton-Thomas, Helen Reddy and Cass Elliot. Six weeks later, Midnight
Special began to air every Friday night following the Tonight show,
competing, as planned, with test patterns and old movies. Initially
Midnight Special offered anywhere from six to 12 acts doing one-song
shots (compared to In Concert's three or four acts doing several-song
sets) in settings reminiscent of Hullabaloo. First show guests,
including Carol Burnett, George Burns, Joan Rivers, Doc Severinsen and
Bill Cosby, were out of place -- like hangovers from the "Tonight"
couch. Now, Midnight Special has abandoned the scattergun approach
and, musically, is squarely rock -- with regular shots of country, blues
"I'm responding to mail," said Burt Sugarman, 35-year-old executive
producer, "and to feel. We'd been more middle-of-the-road till February,
March. But we can't stay hard rock as much as we want to, 'cause there
aren't the acts."
While the late night shows have failed to book Dylan, the individual
former Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and
Young (excepting Still, who was on Rock Concert with Manassas), they
have succeeded in presenting dozens of major names, among them the
Stones, the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, Cat Stevens, David
Bowie, the Faces, Sly and the Family Stone, Leon Russell, Alice Cooper
and the Kinks.
But the shows seem to suffer from the sameness that results from
artists' limited availability, so that in a one- or two-week period,
after an album and before a tour, an artist may be open to TV. And while
he's at it, why not all the shows? Audiences are then treated to
blatant show-hopping by such figures as Sly, Leon, Dr. John and Loggins
& Messina. Others play easy-to-get: Black Oak Arkansas, the instantly
excessive band, Seals & Crofts, Electric Light Orchestra, and, on just
Midnight Special, the Bee Gees three times in ten weeks. Counting
repeats, Curtis Mayfield has been on Midnight ten times in 73 shows;
Gladys Knight and the Pips, nine; Billy Preston, eight; and the Bee Gees
and Bobby Womack, five each.
Now, just renewed in advance by NBC for the quarter ending next April,
Midnight Special says it's settled down. Sugarman told about plans for
a show devoted to Al Green, including interviews at his home in Memphis.
"There'll be a film of Joe Cocker and a song from Orphan, but the rest
is Al." In the talking stages, meantime, are a special on Johnny and
Edgar Winter, a show on Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, a tribute to Cass
Elliot and the second of two documentary-concert shows on Marvin Gaye.
And on September 13th, Sugarman presented, along with the O'Jays, James
Brown and Elvin Bishop, a clip of three songs from "Ladies and
Gentlemen: the Rolling Stones." A year ago, Don Kirshner had landed a
tape of the Stones -- done by the group -- to kick off his Rock
Concert; Sugarman was reported to have rejected the tape because he did
not want groups producing their own appearances on Midnight Special.
But now, Sugarman said, "I've changed my mind." He added: "I really
didn't like that tape. We happened to like this film, and we think the
film is hot now. It's like the one-man shows. I didn't think we'd do
Finally, Midnight Special may be going stereo by next February,
Sugarman said. NBC, he said, is helping set up FM radio stations to
simulcast the show, in the steps of In Concert.
"Dick Clark is superb, he's the best," Bob Shanks, ABC-TV vice president
of late-night programming, is saying. Using TV logic, Clark would be out
of a job. And he is. His production company is no longer doing Wide
World In Concert. (This leaves the poor guy virtually out on the
streets, with only American Bandstand, Saturdays on ABC, several pop
specials each year including the American Music Awards and his New
Year's Eve shows, both for ABC, and his job as host of CBS's daily game
show, $10,000 Pyramid.)
According to Shanks, a prime supporter of In Concert through its
changes, Clark had been contracted last October to produce 16 shows.
Mixed in with Clark's efforts were several done by ABC, including the
company-financed California Jam in Ontario, California, April 16th.
The huge outdoor concert was taped and turned into four In Concerts,
directed by Jorn Winther, a Danish man who dates back to Shindig, the
circa '65 prime-time TV rock show.
Now, "because of a good experience with Winter and the California Jam,"
said Shanks, Winther has been hired to produce the next eight In
(Dick Clark was on vacation and unavailable for comment. Last fall,
however, while trying to get ABC to hire his production firm, Clark told
Rolling Stone: "There are only two reasons for keeping a show in-house:
ancillary rights and greed." Shanks agreed that there were "some"
financial considerations in the network's decision to take over the
show. "Ancillary things," he said.)
ABC is moving In Concert out of the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood and
is looking for a new location (Midnight Special is shot in an NBC
studio and Rock Concert in the Long Beach Auditorium). Meantime,
booking of the show is in the hands of Linda Livingston, who joined ABC-
TV for California Jam -- as assistant to the network's head of special
projects. She is 30, used to sing and dance with a group in nightclubs
and road-managed Martha Reeves last year.
"I would like to see a new concept," she said. "Like me being a promoter
doing a concert." One of her first shows, aired September 13th, lined up
Bad Company, Rufus, PFM -- the Italian group -- and comic Gabe Kaplan as
host. A good mix, but not so different from Clark's, Kirshner's or
Sugarman's kind of show. Among bands she is now talking to: Souther,
Hillman & Furay, Golden Earring and Rick Wakeman.
"I'd also like to see more documentaries," said Livingston. Her
inspiration is the Elton John special, presented May 17th, under the
banner Wide World of Entertainment but outside the In Concert slot.
One of her current projects is a show on the making of a record (which
recalls Ralph J. Gleason's NET show of ten years ago, The Anatomy of a
Hit), featuring two of the most screamed-at British musicians in the
history of rock & roll.
If all this seems to break with the original idea of In Concert, as
conceived and executed by Clark and Kirshner, Livingston soothes: "It's
just once in a while -- just for a taste; for a change."
Another possible change: a regular host, musician Don E. Branker, who
with DJ Don Imus roamed the field at the California Jam with his mike,
trying to conjure up Woodstock. This, too, is less than novel, since
Clark used several hots, and Wolfman Jack remains a fixture at Midnight
In his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Don Kirshner is showing us a
similar idea. On his video-cassette monitor is a tape of himself, stiff
and wooden, seemingly reading what he says are ad-libbed remarks about
the guests he is introducing.
But Kirshner, 40-year-old music publisher and Monkee-creator-turned-
rock-TV-producer, clearly knows his stuff. His background in pop and
rock has been told many times and usually by himself: Kirshner is given
to rote braggadocio about his pop discoveries, about who he started in
the business, about his pioneer status in TV rock. He is a behind-the-
scenes figure who desperately needs the credit he is due. "Sometimes
you get remembered," he says, "and sometimes you don't."
And that, really, is why, after he was phased out of In Concert by
ABC, he tagged his new show with his name, and also why he is on camera,
doing his taped bits away from the audiences and the actual
"I'm not Dick Clark or Wolfman Jack," he says. "I do what I believe I
feel. It may be unprofessional, but real." The idea is to let people in
on some inside stories. Now, on tape, he is talking about Dr. John --
that he's from New Orleans. "But more important," he says, "he was once
an Ivory Soap baby." Kirshner will get better.
Rock Concert begins it's second year this month in healthy shape --
secure for a full 52-week run and sold out of advertising time.
Syndicated and therefore not as uniformly distributed (and promoted) as
network shows, Rock Concert has the lowest audience figures of all
three shows. (Sugarman of Midnight Special claims a 30% share of the
audience compared to In Concert, but ABC bucks Johnny Carson, while
Midnight, at 1 AM, gets a larger share of a smaller audience. At ABC,
Shanks spins out a wealth of figures showing In Concert beating
Midnight Special, four million homes to three and walloping Rock
Concert, four million to two.) In Concert is doing so well, said
Shanks, that "there is talk about increasing the number of shows.
Probably to weekly." Kirshner admits to having a smaller audience. But,
he says, "Ours is a more select audience," and that fact sells the
Each show secure in its own way, the talk gets around to rock & roll on
prime time. But none among the late-night principals seems to be pushing
too hard. Said Sugarman, who's done prime-time TV (including the 1971
and 1972 Grammy Awards shows), "I don't believe rock is ready for prime
time. Fourteen million viewers are needed to keep a show. And young
people are not available in those numbers. They're out at concerts,
films. Paul McCartney's special drew five million viewers. That sounds
good. A million-seller is gold. But five million viewers is a
Another example: Dick Clark, with his 20th anniversary "American
Bandstand" show of recollector's items in the late-night slot, drew one
of the highest ratings of all Wide World specials; Dick Clark, with a
five-show, prime-time mid-season series, Dick Clark Presents the Rock
and Roll Years, ended up at the bottom of the ratings.
There will be, however, one pop series in prime time: Soundstage, a
15-week series of one-hour shows airing on 142 Public Broadcasting
Service (PBS) stations. Produced by WTTW in Chicago, Soundstage begins
November 12th in the 10 PM (EST) slot, opposite Marcus Welby, M.D.,
Barnaby Jones and Police Story. Most shows will feature one artist
or group -- the Pointer Sisters, Maria Muldaur, Randy Newman, Jose
Feliciano and Harry Chapin. Once exception, and the possible series
opener, is The Blues Summit, a tribute to Muddy Waters and featuring
Muddy and Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon, Johnny Winter,
Michael Bloomfield, Nick Gravenites, Dr. John and Buddy Miles.
Which all sounds good, but not particularly rocky. Eliot Wald, associate
producer at WTTW, says Soundstage will not be a showcase for white
noise. "That the thing about the other rock shows," he said. "You can't
really get the heavy metal, the way it's supposed to really sound and
feel, out of TV." But Soundstage is not totally resistant to
craziness. Said Wald: "We're talking to the Kinks, to have them do their
entire Preservation Act on the show."
- Rolling Stone, 10/10/74.
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