August 1st marked 32 years that MTV has been in existence. When it arrived on cable TV systems in the summer of 1981, it was a brilliantly simple idea: like radio, but with visuals. How had no one thought of this before? Those of you old enough to remember know that the channel started as an outlet for the promotional videos that record labels had started making to generate interest in their artists’ music. But music performances on TV have a long, rich history going back to the medium’s earliest days.
Television broadcasting as we know it has been around since the late 1920s, but its ascension as a cultural force began in the years after World War II. Fledgling networks CBS, NBC, and ABC needed programming to fill their on-air hours, which led to the presentation of prestigious classical, ballet, and Broadway performances.
But as rock ‘n’ roll began to dominate the pop-music charts and the minds of teenagers in the mid-1950s, TV wanted its own slice of the pop-culture youth movement. A weekday afternoon dance-party show on a local station in Philadelphia that featured popular music acts got picked up by ABC and went national in August of 1957, changing its name from Bandstand to American Bandstand. Its host, Dick Clark, went on to become one of the most familiar faces in America, and used the show’s success to build a far-reaching media business.
The performers that appeared on American Bandstand would lip-synch to the recorded versions of their songs; decades later, younger generations of TV audiences would see this practice again in the context of music videos on MTV. But what about viewers who were eager to see their favorite artists performing their songs live?
Beginning in 1948, The Ed Sullivan Show was a variety hour that aired on CBS at 8 pm Sundays. Featuring all sorts of acts and performers, the show was hugely popular with the rapidly growing TV audience through the 1950s and well into the ‘60s, and in many cases a performance on Sullivan was the first opportunity for Americans to see certain acts. Notable artists that appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show include Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, and The Doors.
At times there were controversies about the lyrics of certain songs that Sullivan didn’t want performers to sing on live TV, which seems unimaginably provincial and quaint from our vantage point here in 2013, where displays of twerking and “accidental” celebrity nipple slips have come to feel like almost normal occurrences.
By the late 1960s Sullivan sensed that his show was beginning to wane in popularity and cultural significance, and CBS canceled it in 1971 after 24 seasons and over 1000 episodes. In contrast, American Bandstand remained a fixture of ABC programming (albeit on Saturday afternoons) years into the MTV era, eventually slipping first to syndication and then to the young USA cable channel, before fading away for good in 1989.
With a format somewhat reminiscent of Bandstand‘s, Soul Train followed a similar path in the early 1970s from local Chicago show to national distribution, though in this instance it was syndicated from the beginning. The driving force behind the program was creator and executive producer Don Cornelius, who also hosted the show for more than 20 years, from its inception through 1993.
Cornelius understood that the appeal of soul, R&B, funk, and disco reached well beyond the show’s core African-American audience and he welcomed all viewers, but his main concern was that the show should portray black culture in a positive way. As hip-hop developed a harder edge in the early 1990s, he found it increasingly difficult to relate to the music and the artists who performed it, leading to his eventual decision to step aside as host. The show continued on with several different hosts (most notably among them, actor Shemar Moore of CBS’s Criminal Minds) for more than a decade, spanning a total of 35 seasons before ending in 2006.
Elsewhere in the 1970s, it was possible to see some of the biggest rock and pop acts of the time perform live without having to buy a concert ticket—if you were willing to stay up very late. Plenty of young music fans were already doing so, providing a ready audience for two such shows, The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.
Starting in early 1973, The Midnight Special aired on Friday nights following The Tonight Show on NBC. Featuring radio personality Wolfman Jack as announcer and sometimes guest host, the show ran for eight years and featured performances by Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith, Gladys Knight & The Pips, David Bowie (in his last appearance as Ziggy Stardust), Dolly Parton, Blondie, James Brown, KISS, and hundreds more.
Rock Concert arrived a few months later in September of 1973, hosted by Kirshner, who previously had worked behind the scenes as a very successful producer, songwriter, and manager of music acts. His show was syndicated and typically ran on nights when it would not compete with The Midnight Special; growing up, I recall it airing late on Saturday nights. Many popular acts appeared on both shows; Rock Concert also featured Prince, The Police, Pat Benatar, Electric Light Orchestra, The Rolling Stones, Blue Oyster Cult, Billy Joel, Sly & The Family Stone, and many others.
Paul Shaffer, who has been leading the bands on David Letterman’s late-night shows for over 30 years, was previously a member of the original house band on Saturday Night Live, and famously spoofed Kirshner introducing Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in the 1978 episode in which they first appeared as The Blues Brothers.