Long before MTV, if you wanted to see your favorite artist perform their latest hits, you had limited choices: see them on American Bandstand, Soul Train, The Tonight Show, or on variety shows. Many of these programs, however, featured artists lip-synching their newest singles. During the 1970s, The Midnight Special, along with Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, stood out for having completely live music in front of a studio audience. NBC’s The Midnight Special, which aired from 1973-1981, kept music fans up late with current and classic artists from the rock and soul fields. Time Life has compiled some of the best performances from soul artists, and Burt Sugarman’s The Soul of The Midnight Special: Volume 1 (1973-1976) is jam-packed with the biggest stars of the era.
The 1970s marked a particularly fertile time for soul, as Philly soul, funk, and disco all flourished over the decade. In this five-CD set, they are all present, along with the incredible showmanship and choreography of groups such as the Spinners, the O’Jays, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. The 1973 discs features the O’Jays performing Philly Soul classics such as “Backstabbers” and “Love Train,” but also the incomparable Ray Charles singing a transcendent rendition of his signature song “Georgia on My Mind.” His duet with Aretha Franklin, “Two to Tango,” showcases two legends at the height of their powers and alone is worth the price of admission.
Other highlights include Al Green bringing some church into the studio with gospel-tinged renditions of “Tired of Being Alone” and his cover of the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” Sly and the Family Stone tear the room up with a mini-concert, treating the audience to thundering live versions of “Stand!” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” and “Dance to the Music.” Another treat is seeing a delighted Chuck Berry letting the young audience sing the chorus to “Johnny B. Goode,” clearly pleased that they knew the lyrics.
The year 1974 brings even more soul stars, with Billy Preston turning in an energetic performance of “Will It Go ‘Round in Circles” and Curtis Mayfield playing his iconic “Superfly.” Seeing the recently departed Bill Withers perform flawless renditions of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me” seems particularly poignant, as he was at his peak in popularity at the time. The great Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra enchant the audience with a string of his songs, demonstrating what a hit-making machine he was during the decade. They may not have had many hits, but the group Blue Magic (“Sideshow”) illustrate that they had one of the most elaborately choreographed routines at the time. Seeing the audience break out dancing to Kool and the Gang’s fun hits “Hollywood Swinging” (complete with a killer flugelhorn solo) and “Jungle Boogie” will make you want to dig out your platform shoes.
During the following year, The Midnight Special ventured to the University of Chicago to host a special edition of the show. The Ohio Players put on an energetic concert, getting the audience bouncing to funk hits such as “Fire” and “Skin Tight.” Soul Train‘s Don Cornelius guest hosted a special disco episode featuring dancers from his show, with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (headed by the great soul crooner Teddy Pendergrass) performing the Philly Soul nuggets “Bad Luck” and “The Love I Lost.” The Midnight Special set also functions as a time capsule; when the Ohio Players made a return appearance later in the year, “locker” dancers jump onstage during the instrumental break on “Love Rollercoaster.” Seeing the precursor to breakdancing—and the ’70s fashion—provides a snapshot of the decade.
The final year of the set, 1976, includes a funky set from the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, who shakes the room with “Sex Machine/Get on the Good Foot,” “Get Up Offa That Thing,” and “Cold Sweat/Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” The Staple Singers perform their final major hit, “Let’s Do It Again,” and treat the crowd to “Respect Yourself.” Other artists include George Benson singing his classic “This Masquerade” and the Miracles bringing their disco comeback single “Love Machine.” The Manhattans win over the studio audience with an emotional rendition of “Kiss and Say Goodbye.” Each disc includes extra interviews with various artists, although none specifically address the The Midnight Special. While the footage is over 45 years old, Time Life’s digital restoration renders a clear picture.
Burt Sugarman’s The Soul of the Midnight Special: Volume 1 (1973-1976) is a delightful nostalgic trip for both soul music fans and those who miss the days of late-night music shows. Music videos may have ultimately doomed shows like the The Midnight Special and Rock Concert, but DVDs such as this one allow fans to relive soul’s golden era. Pick up this invaluable collection and be instantly transported back in time.