It began as a TV special aimed at encouraging young people to vote in the 1972 election—the first time 18 year olds could cast a vote for president. But it evolved into a showcase for million-selling songs performed live and announced by another cultural icon, deejay Wolfman Jack, who sometimes hosted and sometimes worked with guest hosts. And yes, it aired late nights from 1972 to 1981, starting at 1 a.m. and eventually settling into a 12:30 a.m. start.

What made “The Midnight Special” special wasn’t just that it used the Leadbelly and Johnny Rivers’ song as inspiration for a late-night show. “The Midnight Special” was the only venue that featured all types of musi, including hard rockers, who couldn’t get gigs on “The Ed Sullivan Show” or “American Bandstand” or “Soul Train.” Unlike those other TV shows, it was also the only TV venue where musicians performed live. No lip synching! It was working without a net, and this incomplete collection of memorable shows reinforces that some performers nailed it and others started out a little shaky before finding their groove.

But what a groove. The stage costumes scream ‘70s, and the music had the kind of energy that comes from not faking it, as well as the challenge of working with a small studio audience instead of a concert crowd.

The series was the brainchild of Burt Sugarman, who convinced NBC that they could build on the success of Johnny Carson and “The Tonight Show” by following immediately afterwards with something worth staying up for. And as Sugarman writes in liner notes, there were times when they beat “The Tonight Show” in ratings.

“Naysayers insisted that the musicians wouldn’t show up and we’d have trouble dealing with outsized artist egos,” Sugarman says. “We countered by providing our guests with a state-of-the-art studio and audio facility at NBC Burbank in the studio next door to where Johnny Carson taped ‘The Tonight Show’” and “musicians had the freedom to do their thing, whether playing a hit or introducing new material to a huge national audience. We operated three stages, so there was minimal downtime between acts. This created a one-of-a-kind concert experience for our studio crowds and viewers watching at home.”

And yeah, what a pleasure it is for music-lovers to cut to the chase:  no long opening monologues, stand-up comedy, skits, or filler to pad the show—just minimal talk and mostly music, one performance after the other.

This collection jumps around, rather than taking a chronological approach. The series pilot is followed by a 1978 episode, then 1973, 1976, etc., but that’s in keeping with the show’s eclectic nature and the fact that the performances included hard rock, soul, R&B, folk-rock, country-rock, disco, and pop, all on the same stages. Jumping around keeps it edgy and surprising, and that’s what this late-night series was all about.

I can’t think of another DVD out there that gives music fans so many hits performed LIVE by the original artists, but with studio sound.

On this six-disc set you 94 complete, live performances:

  • AC/DC (“Sin City”)
  • Aerosmith (“Train Kept a Rollin’,” “Dream On”)
  • Alice Cooper (“Inmates (We’re All Crazy),” “Eighteen/Only Women/Billion Dollar Babies”)
  • America (“Sister Golden Hair”)
  • Argent (“Hold Your Head Up”)
  • Joan Baez (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”)
  • Bee Gees (“Lonely Days,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” “Jive Talkin’,” “To Love Somebody” with Helen Reddy, “Nights on Broadway”)
  • Blondie (“Heart of Glass,” “One Way or Another”)
  • Bread (“Make It with You”)
  • Captain & Tenille with Neil Sedaka (“Love Will Keep Us Together”)
  • Harry Chapin (“Taxi”)
  • Chic (“Good Times”)
  • Jim Croce (“I Got a Name,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”)
  • Mac Davis (“Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me”)
  • John Denver (“Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” sung with Mama Cass Elliot)
  • The Doobie Brothers (“Jesus Is Just Alright,” “Listen to the Music”)
  • Earth, Wind & Fire (“Devotion”)
  • Edgar Winter Group (“Frankenstein”)
  • Electric Light Orchestra (“Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic,” “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”)
  • Fleetwood Mac (“Over My Head”)
  • Peter Frampton (“Show Me the Way”)
  • Aretha Franklin & Ray Charles (“Takes Two to Tango”)
  • Marvin Gaye (“Let’s Get It On,” “What’s Going On”)
  • Crystal Gayle (“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”)
  • Gladys Knight & the Pips (“Midnight Train to Georgia”)
  • Andrew Gold (“Lonely Boy”)
  • Golden Earring (“Radar Love”)
  • Dobie Gray (“Drift Away”)
  • Sammy Hagar (“You Make Me Crazy”)
  • Hall & Oates (“She’s Gone/Sara Smile/Rich Girl”)
  • The Hollies (“Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)”)
  • Rupert Holmes (“Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”)
  • Janis Ian (“At Seventeen”)
  • KC and the Sunshine Band (“That’s the Way (I Like It)”)
  • Eddie Kendricks (“Keep on Truckin’”)
  • The Kinks (“You Really Got Me”)
  • Gladys Knight & B.B. King (“The Thrill Is Gone”)
  • LaBelle (“Lady Marmalade”)
  • Gordon Lightfoot (“If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown”)
  • Loggins & Messina (“Your Mama Don’t Dance”)
  • Chuck Mangione (“Feels So Good”)
  • Curtis Mayfield (“Superfly”)
  • The Miracles (“Love Machine”)
  • Eddie Money (“Baby Hold On”)
  • Olivia Newton-John (“If You Love Me (Let Me Know)”)
  • Ted Nugent (“Cat Scratch Fever”)
  • The O’Jays (“For the Love of Money”)
  • Orleans (“Dance with Me”)
  • Robert Palmer (“Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)”)
  • Billy Paul (“Mr. and Mrs. Jones”)
  • Peaches & Herb (“Shake Your Groove Thing,” “Reunited”)
  • Billy Preston (“Will It Go Round in Circles,” “Nothing from Nothing”)
  • Eddie Rabbitt (“Rocky Mountain Music”)
  • Redbone (“Come and Get Your Love”)
  • Helen Reddy (“Angie Baby,” “Delta Dawn,” “I Am Woman”)
  • Charlie Rich (“Behind Closed Doors”)
  • Minnie Riperton (“Lovin’ You”)
  • Linda Ronstadt (“Long Long Time,” “When Will I Be Loved”)
  • Rufus featuring Chaka Khan (“Tell Me Something Good”)
  • Todd Rundgren (“Hello It’s Me”)
  • Neil Sedaka (“Bad Blood,” “Breaking up Is Hard to Do”)
  • Sly & the Family Stone (“Everybody Is a Star”)
  • Stories (“Brother Louie”)
  • The Stylistics (“You Make Me Feel Brand New”)
  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (“American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart”)
  • Bonnie Tyler (“It’s a Heartache”)
  • Frankie Valli (“Can’t Take My Eyes off You”)
  • Village People (“Y.M.C.A.”)
  • War (“Cisco Kid”)
  • Barry White (“Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up”)
  • Gary Wright (“Dream Weaver,” “Love Is Alive”)

People are going to have their favorites, but a highlight for those who’ve danced to “Y.M.C.A.” at countless weddings will be seeing the Village People perform before those letters became a part of the dance, or to see Blondie knock it out of the park, or a very young Robert Palmer prove that he was somebody long before “Addicted to Love.” There’s plenty here to marvel at, and it’s the next best thing to seeing a group in person.

Total runtime is 505 minutes, and though “The Midnight Special” isn’t rated, there’s nothing here that children can’t see. In fact, it’s kind of a fun musical journey backwards in time that the whole family might enjoy.

The picture quality is excellent, because the soundstage and sound system were state of the art. Even the “Frankenstein” song, with Edgar Winter’s insistence on colored lighting for greenish effect, plays well, without too much bleed along the edges.  Amazon says the ratio is 1.85:1, but that’s just wrong.  “The Midnight Special” is presented in 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and the colors and lighting and level of detail are all amazingly good, considering it’s standard definition and the source materials are 40 years old.

Some fans might wish for a 5.1 mix, but any concert you’ve ever attended has concert-style sound with left and right main speakers, and that’s what you get here:  A Dolby Digital 2.0 that does a surprisingly good job of bringing the music to life, thanks to a relatively clean transfer.

Time Life and StarVista Entertainment haven’t come up with a slew of bonus features, but what’s here is enjoyable to watch—interviews, mostly. Sugarman’s comments highlight a full-color program guide that lists air dates and full credits, and since the bonus features are spread across all six discs it’s nice to see them listed on the printed menu. Peter Frampton, Alice Cooper, and Loggins & Messina are interviewed. Wolfman would have been a nice interview, but of course he died way back in 1995. Composite interviews form most of the featurettes, along with clips, and we get ones on “Wolfman at Midnight,” “Star-Studded Stage Fashion,” “The History of The Midnight Special,” “No Safety Net: Live on TV,” and “I Am Woman: Helen Reddy as Host.” There might not be any earthshaking revelations, but they reinforce how important this series was to musicians, and how edgy it was.

Bottom line:
This groundbreaking TV show was the only one to feature live performances—no lip synching—and it’s a real treat to see so many iconic performers working without a net. Even if you’re not a Baby Boomer you’ve heard of these musicians, or played their songs on your iPod. But “Midnight Special” gives you a chance to see and hear them perform live, with studio-quality sound and an intimate audience. It was a pretty neat concept, and this collection gives you a decent sampling of groups that performed over the show’s nine-year run. What’s more, these are FULL performances of iconic music from the ‘70s. If you’re a big fan, you might want to get “The Midnight Special Collector’s Edition” 11-Disc DVD set, which features 130 complete live performances (see top graphic for trailer). That’s 36 more songs than this six-disc set offers, plus there are more featurettes and comedy segments from the show.