Concert Television in the 70s – The Midnight Special & Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert

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Growing up in the 70s, there were 2 television shows that enabled you to experience a rock concert without going to the show –The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. I spent many nights watching these shows on my little black & white TV in my room – assuming I could stay up that late. And what was especially cool was that Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert was simulcast on FM radio. So, I could fire up my combo 8-track stereo tuner, plug in my headphones, crank up the volume, and experience these shows in full stereo. Here is a little history of the shows.

The Midnight Special aired on Friday nights after The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. On the east coast where I lived, that meant that it started at 1 am (Saturday morning) and ended at 2:30. When Carson cut his show to one hour, The Midnight Special moved up by a half an hour. It was broadcast on NBC. It was taped in advance and then aired, with the artists performing live (no lip sync). The show ran from 1972 to 1981.

The show featured multiple artists in each episode, performing several of their songs that were popular at the time. It also occasionally included performances by comedians – Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Carol Burnett, Andy Kaufman and others performed on the show. The pilot episode included a theme to encourage young people to vote – the general election was coming up in 3 months, and in 1971, the 26th Amendment passed which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. John Denver was the host of the debut episode, and the guest performers included Mama Cass Elliot, The Everly Brothers, The Isley Brothers, Harry Chapin, Linda Ronstadt, Helen Reddy and Aster Argent. The second episode had Reddy as the hostess, and she handled hostess duties for 16 episodes.

The main host during the run was Wolfman Jack. In the 70s, Wolfman Jack was the face of radio DJs, and his presence on the show gave it credibility and also made it entertaining. Wolfman hosted 62 episodes over the run of the show. There were many other hosts, including Donna Summer (10 episodes), Tina Turner (8 episodes), KC & The Sunshine Band (8 episodes), Low Rawls (6 episodes) and Olivia Newton-John (6 episodes).

Artists clamored to be booked on the show, since it increased exposure to their music. Hundreds of musical acts performed – in 1973 alone, there were 174 performers. One of the legendary shows by was David Bowie – here’s the clip of Ziggy himself on the show, performing Space Oddity.

Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert had its genesis in late 1972, as ABC saw the success of The Midnight Special and they wanted their own version of it. Kirshner was a talent manager and music producer who was selected to produce the show, then called In Concert. It aired on Friday’s at 11:30 pm, preempting The Dick Cavett Show. The debut show featured Alice Cooper, Bo Diddley, Curtis Mayfield and Seals & Crofts. Famously, the episode was pulled from the air in Cincinnati midway through its airing – the station manager was so disgusted with Alice Cooper’s segment that he called the station’s master control room and ordered it to be taken off the air.

Kirshner only participated in 2 episodes of In Concert. He then launched his own syndicated show, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, which aired for the first time on September 27, 1973. It featured The Rolling Stones, a live performance taped in London. The show was a big success, running from 1973 to 1981. The format was similar to The Midnight Special, except that Kirshner introduced each of the acts himself, dressed in a leisure suit and using his nasally monotone voice that became an integral part of the show, and became legendary when SNL started to lampoon it. Over the years, over 400 acts performed on the show, which tended to lean more toward progressive rock compared to The Midnight Special, though plenty of soft rock and R&B acts also appeared on the show. I distinctly remember watching an episode, dark room, headphones on, with Emerson, Lake & Palmer performing Karn Evil 9, complete with elevated and rotating piano. I immediately purchased an ELP album, and my graduation to progressive rock music began.

Probably the most notable episode was not a live performance for the show – rather, they aired a clip of Black Dog by Led Zeppelin from the 1976 film The Song Remains the Same. Reportedly, it is the only American television performance by the band.

Kirshner died in 2011, and the following year, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

So much great music to choose from. Here is Abba performing Waterloo on an episode in 1975.




2 thoughts on “Concert Television in the 70s – The Midnight Special & Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert”

  1. I use to watch a show called “In Concert” in Australia back in the 70’s which was a complete live performance by a band. One show I remember was J. Geils band which nobody heard of until this show. It still remains with me, the memory of all the live concerts I saw on this show. It has been the best music show I had the pleasure of watching.

    1. Yes i am from Australia. I will always remember seeing that In Concert performance by the J. Geils Band. From memory it aired around October/November of 1973. And they were fantastic. It still stays with me too.

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