After midnight, the (Jewish) stars come out

Click photo to download. Caption: The Bee Gees perform on the "Midnight Special" television program in 1973. Credit: NBC Television - eBay via Wikimedia Commons.

By Matt Robinson/JNS.org 

From Tevye the dairyman to Maroon 5’s Adam Levine to “Let It Go” singer Idina Menzel, Jews have always been at the forefront of the music scene. Burt Sugarman and Mark Goodman are no different. As one of the pre-eminent television and film producers in history, Sugarman’s rolodex of connections would make any A-lister blush. Goodman, one of the first on-air personalities for the MTV network, had his finger on the pulse of pop music for years.

The two industry icons spoke to JNS.org about the recent release of a collector’s edition DVD set of Sugarman’s pioneering television program “Midnight Special” by StarVista Entertainment/Time Life. From August 1972 to May 1981, the program offered a live look at virtually all of the top performing artists of the day, from Sugaman’s beloved country music to comedy. Among the hundreds of Grammy-winning and chart-topping guests were Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Randy Newman, John “Bowzer” Bauman and Sha Na Na, and the KISS duo of Stanley Eisen and Chaim Witz (aka Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons). “Midnight Special” also featured legendary comic talents as George Burns, Bill Crystal, Andy Kaufman, Robert Klein, and Joan Rivers.

Having started out his career in television, Sugarman knew network executives and had opportunities to pitch them shows. He often had their ears because of his successful work with programs such as “Celebrity Sweepstakes” and “The Newlywed Game.” Even so, getting “Midnight Special” to sell was an uphill battle.

“I had trouble getting any of the networks,” Sugarman says, noting how his goal was to land at NBC in the spot after Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”

“Johnny was a next-door neighbor of mine,” says Sugarman. “We played tennis all the time together. I knew that that rating, when he went off, would be terrific to lead in to something.”

Yet the network was not interested in the audience demographic that they assumed would go for a late-night music show. Unwilling to give up, Sugarman took a risk and offered to finance the first show himself.

“That’s pretty hard [for a network] to turn down,” he says.

Click photo to download. Caption: Burt Sugarman. Credit: Provided photo.

The next challenge was finding artists who were willing to come on the new show.

“Some of the mainline artists,” Sugarman explains, refusing to give names, “were panicked… to walk out in front and see a red light on three or four cameras and start to sing or talk or something.”

Since “Midnight Special” did not use lip syncing (unlike other popular shows at the time), the artists had to be at their best and had no second chance to make their impressions on the eager audience.

“All that made it very interesting,” Sugarman says. “But we got through it and loved every second of it.”

Asked what links the musically, culturally, and racially diverse talents on “Midnight Special,” Goodman suggests that “the basic thing that they all have in common is that they were musical pioneers and they were artists.”

“They were trying to do things that were going to make people spark to music and were current with the times, and in many cases, even forward-looking,” Goodman tells JNS.org.

The MTV network launched in August 1981, just a few months after “Midnight Special” went off the air. Goodman says he doesn’t believe MTV could have existed “without ‘Midnight Special’ as a precursor.”

Recalling the experience of watching “Midnight Special,” Goodman says, “Some of the performances are so incredible… because they’re live.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Chuck Berry perform on the "Midnight Special" television program in 1973. Credit: NBC Television - eBay via Wikimedia Commons.

Once the show took off, the artists began to line up to perform. Some came on repeatedly, taking full advantage of the publicity offered by this new platform. Sugarman says one performer even “wanted to present me with a gold album for being responsible, they said, for selling all the records.”

Despite having a “who’s who” of music legends on “Midnight Special,” Sugarman always regrets the one that got away—Elvis Presley.

“I knew [Elvis] quite well and played football on weekends with him, and spent a lot of time with him, so that made it even harder not to have him on the show,” Sugarman says.

Asked what first sparked his interest in music, Goodman recalls growing up in Philadelphia, listening to his parents’ jazz heroes and the soulful sounds of the bands in the City of Brotherly Love.

“As a young teenager, while all my friends were listening to pop music, I was listening to Smokey Robinson and… The Sound of Philadelphia,” he says.
But when Goodman heard Eric Clapton’s early supergroup Cream, everything changed.

“Between that and a couple of other things that were going on with my generation at the time, I got into rock and roll, and the rest, as they say, is rock history,” he says.

Though he is no longer at MTV, Goodman continues to be a player in the industry as a host on Sirius XM radio.

“I like being in the position that I’m in, because… I get to turn people onto [music],” he says.

While “Midnight Special” has not been in regular broadcast for decades, it continues to gain fans through videos and online editions year after year. That is why Sugarman decided to put out this new edition, which comes in a variety of formats that range from a single-disc “best of” to an 11-disc “collector’s edition.” While old fans can reminisce and new fans can see what they missed, Sugarman continues to toy with the idea of bringing “Midnight Special” back to the airwaves.

“I am talking to someone now that’s been talking to me for about a year and a half about it,” Sugarman says, declining to reveal the name. “He would be a great host, a wonderful artist, but we’ll have to see if it goes further. I rather doubt it, but we’ll see.”

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Posted on November 19, 2014 and filed under Arts, Features, U.S..