In the seventies, there was one major show that served as a launch pad for some of the biggest artists of the time. If you were a R&B or soul act in particular, you wanted to be on NBC’s The Midnight Special. This musical variety show began airing weekly installments in 1973 as a way to capitalize on the massive audience from The Tonight Show that was forced to shut off their sets once the station signed off. Rather than letting those attentive eyes go to waste, the network expanded their programming until later in the night to great success. Until its final episode in 1981, The Midnight Special shined a spotlight on some of the most talented performers of the day while being guided through each episode with a fun guest host. What made this show so special was the fact that the artists actually performed live, which was highly uncommon in an era of lip-syncing. These created authentic moments that rank as some of the most magical performances ever aired. This era in music was a goldmine of enduring hits, and Time Life has brought together over seventy of these iconic performances in the 5-disc The Soul of the Midnight Special.
Throughout this set, you are provided with performances from some of the biggest names in soul music alongside some lesser known gems. Rather than limiting what they can fit into one set by providing full episodes, Time Life has decided to go through chronologically and choose some of the best moments from the show’s run which gives you the iconic performances you crave, as well as some of the fun candid moments between the hosts and the artists. Hosts as varied as Wolfman Jack and Gladys Knight banter with artists such as Barry White, Al Green and The Spinners. In these performances, you get to hear songs that are a part of the DNA of society injected with a whole new energy. The double-whammy of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me” is enough to make a chill go down your spine. In this set you get to watch James Brown sport his signature foot work in a searing performance of “Sex Machine.” There are songs in this collection that you may know, but may be unaware of who originated the tune. One particularly memorable performance is the delicate rendition of “Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton. As the collection rolls on, you will find yourself repeatedly perking up as one hit after another comes around to lift your spirits.
This set does not just give you the hits that everyone knows from the era; this collection also serves as a way to discover hidden gems. Songs such as “The Love I Lost” from Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes or “I’ll Be Good To You” by The Brothers Johnson were not a part of my musical repertoire, but these performances definitely made me take note and want to seek out even more from the artists. There is such a wide assortment of artists featured over these five discs, and rarely did I ever find myself wanting to skip any of these acts. These performances may not be studio perfect, but the raw intensity and emotion that is conveyed from performing live to an audience makes all the difference in the world. These artists put their heart and soul into performing, and nothing could be more gratifying to experience. If you are a fan of this genre of music, you are going to want to check out this essential collection.
THE SOUL OF THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL includes (in alphabetical order):
- Al Green — Tired of Being Alone (8/3/73), How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (8/3/73), I’m Still in Love with You (11/29/74), Let’s Stay Together (11/29/74)
- Al Wilson — Show and Tell (3/1/74)
- Barry White — You’re the First, the Last, My Everything (11/15/74), Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe (12/13/74), Never, Never Gonna Give You Up (12/13/74)
- Bill Withers — Ain’t No Sunshine (3/22/74), Lean on Me (3/22/74)
- Billy Preston — Will It Go Round in Circles (1/4/74)
- Blue Magic — Sideshow (12/13/74)
- Bobby Womack — Lookin’ for a Love (12/13/74)
- Chuck Berry — Johnny B. Goode (11/2/73)
- Curtis Mayfield — Back to the World (6/8/73), Freddie’s Dead (Theme from Superfly) (9/21/73), Superfly (1/4/74)
- Earth, Wind & Fire — Devotion (4/18/75)
- George Benson — This Masquerade (7/30/76)
- Gladys Knight & the Pips — Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye) (4/6/73), I Heard It through the Grapevine (4/6/73), Midnight Train to Georgia (10/5/73), Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me (12/20/74)
- Gladys Knight/B. B. King –The Thrill Is Gone (10/5/73)
- Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes — Bad Luck (5/23/75), The Love I Lost (5/23/75), Let’s Get Together Soon (Hope That We Can Be Together Soon) (5/23/75)
- James Brown — Sex Machine (8/6/76), Get Up Offa That Thing (8/6/76), Cold Sweat/Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag (10/8/76),
- Johnnie Taylor — Who’s Making Love (11/2/73)
- Kool & the Gang — Hollywood Swinging (12/20/74), Jungle Boogie (12/20/74)
- LaBelle — Lady Marmalade (4/18/75)
- Love Unlimited Orchestra — Love’s Theme (11/15/74)
- Minne Riperton — Lovin’ You (7/18/75), Inside My Love (7/18/75)
- Ohio Players — Fire (4/4/75), Skin Tight (4/4/75)
- Ohio Players — Love Rollercoaster (12/19/75), Honey (12/19/75)
- Ray Charles — Georgia on My Mind (3/30/73), What’d I Say (3/30/73)
- Ray Charles/Aretha Franklin — Takes Two to Tango (3/30/73)
- Rufus featuring Chaka Khan — Sweet Thing (12/12/75), Once You Get Started (12/12/75)
- Sly & the Family Stone — Stand! (10/26/73), I Want to Take You Higher (10/26/73), Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), (10/26/73), Dance to the Music (10/26/73)
- Spinners — Could It Be I’m Falling in Love (2/9/73), I’ll Be Around (2/9/73), One of a Kind (Love Affair) (6/8/73), Sadie (2/14/75), Then Came You (2/14/75)
- The Brothers Johnson– I’ll Be Good to You (10/8/76)
- The Chi-Lites — Oh Girl (9/21/73)
- The Main Ingredient — Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely (10/11/74), Everybody Plays The Fool (10/11/74)
- The Manhattans — Kiss and Say Goodbye (12/3/76)
- The Miracles — Love Machine (12/3/76)
- The O’Jays — Back Stabbers (3/23/73), Love Train (3/23/73), Put Your Hands Together (913/74), Sunshine (9/13/74)
- The Staple Singers — Let’s Do It Again (1/16/76), Respect Yourself (1/16/76)
- The Stylistics — Betcha by Golly, Wow (6/1/73), Break Up to Make Up (6/1/73), I’m Stone in Love with You (6/1/73), You Make Me Feel Brand New (3/1/74)
- The Sylvers — Boogie Fever (7/30/76)
- Wilson Pickett — In the Midnight Hour (9/21/73)
The Soul of The Midnight Special comes to DVD with a pleasing 480p transfer that is quite strong for a musical variety show that is nearly fifty years old. You can tell that these performances have been restored from the original masters, as there is very little in the way of age related wear throughout. Skin tones look fairly natural, but the presentation offers up little in the way of fine detail. The image can look quite soft and the studio lighting can cause some blooming, but the fact that the source material is as stable as it is constitutes a minor miracle. Colors are a bit flat and black levels are subject to some crush and compression artifacting. Thankfully, Time Life has spread these performances over five discs, so they at least have a little room to breathe. These episodes are not beautiful, but fans of the artists will probably consider it a win that these were even released physically.
These DVDs come with a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that mostly does everything it needs to do well. Vocals are pretty clear throughout, with only occasional moments where things sound a bit fuzzy due to the quality of the source material. This is not a persistent issue, but it should be noted that these issues exist. The discs open up with a warning addressing that there are minor issues with the audio and video that they have done their best to fix through consulting the best surviving elements. The instruments mostly maintain a good fidelity with no extreme issues of clipping or blown out audio. These performances most likely sound the best that they have ever sounded outside of being a member of the audience. This presentation is about as good as the source material will allow.
- The O’Jays: A 22-minute interview in which the members discuss how The Midnight Special got them in front of a diverse audience, the opportunities the show provided to them, their favorite songs, the fashion of the show and more.
- Russell Thompkins Jr., The Stylistics: A 25-minute interview in which Thompkins discusses his talented father and his journey to music, how The Midnight Special differed from other shows, the choreography in his act, his influences and more.
- Gladys Knight: An 39-minute 1995 interview from History of Rock: Sounds of Soul in which Knight discusses the characteristics of soul music, why a lot of music these days lacks depth, her loving friendship with Stevie Wonder, what it was like touring in the 60s, why she felt “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was such a hit and more. This is such a fun interview with many interesting anecdotes.
- Bobby Womack: An 25-minute 1995 interview from History of Rock: Sounds of Soul in which Womack discusses the importance of gospel in his life, meeting Sam Cooke, the story of his first guitar, his crossover success, the British Invasion, his friendship with John Lennon and more.
- Ted Mills, Blue Magic: A 11-minute interview in which Mills discusses the importance of The Midnight Special, the emotions behind performing live, Wolfman Jack, his work with Blue Magic and more.
- Patti LaBelle: An eight-minute 1995 interview from History of Rock: Sounds of Soul in which LaBelle discusses the power of soul music, how The Supremes are underappreciated, her love of Ray Charles, how soul goes beyond race and more.
- Maurice White; Earth, Wind & Fire: A ten-minute 1995 interview from History of Rock: Sounds of Soul in which White discusses the impact of Memphis on his music, what makes Chicago such a special city, his influences, how Ramsey Lewis was a role model, the evolution of his music and more.
- Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff: A 33-minute 1995 interview from History of Rock: Sounds of Soul in which Gamble and Huff discusses the essence of soul music, the influence of gospel, how soul music impacted the industry, the impact of Ray Charles as a crossover artist, transcendent Aretha Franklin performances, their songwriting process, their favorite songs they have written and more.
- Gerald Alston, The Manhattans: A 21-minute interview with lead singer Alston in which he discusses trying to impress Wolfman Jack, progressive doo-wop, tapping into the perfect emotion, sharing their songs with the world and more.
- George Benson: A 9-minute interview in which Benson discusses his childhood, the knockout nature of Etta James, the recording that changed his life and more.
- James Brown: A 5-minute 1995 interview from History of Rock: Sounds of Soul in which Brown discusses his early life, his gratitude for his fans, racism and more.
The Soul of The Midnight Special is such a special collection that brings together artists such as Barry White, Gladys Knight, Al Green, The Spinners, Ray Charles and so many more into one essential package. These are the types of songs that are good for the soul and will get you up and moving. The Midnight Special was such an important platform for many artists, and it is wonderful that we have a way to revisit such amazing moments of television. Time Life has provided a 5-Disc DVD collection sporting over 70 performances with a solid A/V presentation and some fascinating supplemental interviews. I recommend this set without hesitation to fans of this genre. Highly Recommended
The Soul of The Midnight Special is currently available to purchase on DVD.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the DVD
Disclaimer: Time Life has supplied a copy of this set free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.