Category Archives: TV

Soul Club

January 29, 1971: The Partridge Family is in its first season, part of ABC’s fondly remembered Friday night lineup. The family’s #1 hit, “I Think I Love You,” is still on the radio, and in another week their followup single, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” will bubble under on its way into the Hot 100 and eventually, the Top 10.

On this particular Friday night, the Partridges have a problem. They’ve been booked into a club in Detroit, but it isn’t the posh hotel ballroom they’re expecting—it’s an old firehouse in a neighborhood they clearly find questionable, even nobody comes right out and says so. They park the bus, they go inside, and after a minute or two, one of the owners of the club slides down the pole.

Go ahead, click the link before you read any further. It’ll be more fun that way.

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Joe Mannix Makes the Scene

I like to binge-watch whole TV series on my lunch hours, an episode a day, every day. Lately, I’ve been watching Mannix, the CBS detective series starring Mike Connors, which ran eight seasons between 1967 and 1975. I’m not far enough into it to talk intelligently (or otherwise) about how it mirrors the culture of its time, although Mannix has his share of interludes with sweet young things dressed ’67-appropriate, and he drives a pretty cool car. I understand, from the tremendous profile of the series that appeared at the AV Club entirely by coincidence about the time I started rewatching, that in later seasons Mannix would embrace a trippy, almost avant-garde style for some sequences, but I haven’t seen much of that yet.

What’s most interesting about the first handful of episodes is that they contain appearances by fairly famous musical acts. The fourth episode, “The Many Deaths of St. Christopher,” aired on October 7, 1967. Joe Mannix meets a girl in a club called the Bad Scene, where a young singer with a guitar is performing—Neil Diamond, appearing as himself. In one sequence, Diamond performs “The Boat That I Row” and a song called “Raisin’ Cain,” which he has never formally recorded in all the years since. After a fight breaks out in the club and Mannix is knocked to the floor, Diamond walks over and says to him, “Hey man, you mind if I finish the set by myself?” In a second, shorter sequence, Diamond sings “Solitary Man.” On October 28, 1967, in “Warning: Live Blueberries,” an even-more-surprising act appears: in yet another club, the Buffalo Springfield play “Bluebird” through a better-than-five-minute scene, and come back later with a bit of “For What It’s Worth.”

Neither appearance was a walk-on by an unknown. By October 1967, Neil Diamond had scored five top-20 hits since the previous August, including “Cherry Cherry,” “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” and “Thank the Lord for the Nighttime.” “Kentucky Woman” would chart the week after his Mannix appearance. The Buffalo Springfield had been to the Top 10 with “For What It’s Worth” in the spring of 1967; “Bluebird” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” both missed the Top 40, but their debut album had a 16-week run on the charts beginning in the spring. Neither does a lip-synch; Diamond appears to be playing live, while the Springfield sing “Bluebird” live over a recorded backing track and do “For What It’s Worth” unplugged. How well known either act was to the typical adult viewer of a detective show isn’t clear at 47 years’ distance. Nevertheless, it’s pretty cool to watch them now.

A more obscure group would appear on Mannix a year later, but they were not utterly unknown. The Peppermint Trolley Company did their spot in November 1968 on an episode called “Who Will Dig the Graves?” Their lone Hot 100 hit (which wasn’t what they sang on the show) was “Baby You Come Rollin’ Across My Mind” in the summer of 1968. You know them better as the group that wrote and performed the Brady Bunch theme.

So in his early years on the job, Joe Mannix had a hipness factor slightly higher than other TV detectives. Even without the rock stars, he comes off as much less of a stick-in-the-mud than his TV contemporary Steve McGarrett, and although Mannix was criticized for its high level of violence—I have yet to see an episode without a fistfight—its moments of darkness are few, at least as far as I’ve gotten. It cracked the top 30 in five of its eight seasons, including a rank of #7 for 1971-1972. Still, it was and will not ever be as beloved as Hawaii Five-O, get remade like Five-O, or receive a big-screen reboot, at least until Hollywood runs even further out of ideas than it appears to be right now.

I was interested to note in research for this post that Mike Connors is still alive, 89 years old this summer, and married to the same woman since 1949. Impressive.

Off White on “Soul Train”

(Don Cornelius, pictured here in 2010, created Soul Train as a vehicle not just for black music but for black youth and black pride. But he didn’t hesitate to make white artists part of the show.)

It’s one of the great music trivia questions: Who was the first white artist to appear on Soul Train? The most popular answers, Elton John, Gino Vannelli, and David Bowie, are all wrong.

In The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style, Nelson George settles it definitively. “The first white American acts on Soul Train were instrumentalists, not singers, which probably explains why they aren’t well remembered.” The groundbreaking performer was one of the top session cats in the business, Dennis Coffey, who performed his solo hit “Scorpio” in January 1972. Tower of Power was next, fronted by black vocalist Lenny Williams but featuring a number of white musicians, appearing in November 1973.

Vannelli appeared in February 1975, singing the spectacularly underrated “People Gotta Move.” George says that the circumstances of Vannelli’s booking (over three years before his breakout hit, “I Just Wanna Stop”) are bit unclear. Vannelli opened some shows for Stevie Wonder in 1974, and he claims Soul Train’s producers invited him on after that. Don Cornelius told an interviewer that Vannelli’s handlers asked for the booking. Eventually, Vannelli says he asked Cornelius why he’d had him on, because “I’m obviously not a black artist.” Cornelius responded, “Well, I consider you off-white.”

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The Man in Black on TV

(Johnny Cash hated the idea of doing a circus-themed episode of his TV show, even fearing ABC would demand he sing “I Walk the Line” while holding a chimp. He ended up holding the chimp, but didn’t have to sing to it.)

We have praised The Johnny Cash Show, which ran on ABC from 1969 to 1971, as a show more serious about pop and rock music than variety shows of an earlier day. But according to Cash biographer Robert Hilburn, the show viewers saw was not the show Cash envisioned.

Cash thought he was making a country music show. ABC told the press it would include stars from all fields. Production company Screen Gems suggested the show would be “85 percent music and some comedy.” Cash insisted that Screen Gems hire a guy named Stan Jacobson, who ended up neither a producer nor a talent booker but merely a writer. As a result, he and Cash had little input into the first-season guest list. They got Bob Dylan, whom Cash wanted, as well as Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Linda Ronstadt, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, but Screen Gems and ABC insisted on stars who would cross-promote other shows they owned, leading to appearances by the Cowsills and the Monkees, a random selection of Hollywood stars including Dan Blocker and Eddie Albert, and comedians including the rubber-faced Charlie Callas.

The Johnny Cash Show premiered in June 1969, at the same time the eventual #1 album Johnny Cash at San Quentin was released. It was not especially popular in big cities but was a smash in smaller ones and in rural areas. There was little question the show would be renewed for 1970. Cash insisted that the second season would have “more of my own people,” and it did. Stan Jacobson was promoted to co-producer, and the guest lists improved in the next two seasons: Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn, Ray Charles, Charley Pride, Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong, Neil Young, the Staple Singers, James Taylor.

About the time the show launched, evangelist Billy Graham became Cash’s spiritual adviser, and Cash began appearing at Graham’s televised crusades. During the second season, the recurring “Ride This Train” travelogue segment frequently featured gospel songs. During an early third-season episode, Cash read a lengthy statement about his religious faith. “Lately I think we’ve made the devil pretty mad because on our show we’ve been mentioning God’s name . . . . and [Satan] may be coming after me again, but I’ll be ready for him. In the meantime, while he’s coming, I’d like to get in more licks for Number One.” Jacobson believed it was the turning point in the show’s demise—that viewers were turned off by the show’s increasing religiosity—although Hilburn points out that variety shows were falling out of favor then. And 1971 was also a time in which networks continued to get rid of rural-themed (and rural-popular) shows to chase after more affluent urban viewers.

With declining ratings, ABC insisted on a format change to what it called “theme nights,” some of which Cash hated. In the spring of 1971, ABC announced the show would not be back in the fall. Cash would later criticize “all the dehumanizing things that television does to you.” But he appears to have been caught in the same undertow that has claimed a lot of talented people in TV—what happens when a strong artistic vision clashes with a more powerful partner’s need for ratings and money.

The TV experience may have felt dehumanizing to Cash, but it resulted in three of the most humane songs he ever recorded. “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” written by Kris Kristofferson, first appeared in February 1970 on “Ride This Train.” Cash sang it live on the April 8 show. (It didn’t come without controversy that night: Cash had to argue with a network rep to preserve the line “I’m wishin’ Lord that I was stoned,” which the network wanted changed to “I was home.”) “What Is Truth” is what Hilburn calls “a less confrontational take on Dylan’s defense of youth in ‘The Times They Are a Changing.'” It was a powerful message in the spring of Kent State, especially amid growing exasperation with the antiwar movement and the counterculture among older and more conservative Americans—Cash’s fan base. “Man in Black,” in which Cash explains that he dresses in black in solidarity with the downtrodden (despite having worn black onstage for most of his career), was taped before an audience of college students at Vanderbilt University late in 1970.

As Hilburn observes, the songs “largely established Cash as a symbol of American honor, compassion, and struggle,” neither blindly reactionary nor too much for Mrs. and Mrs. Middle America at the precise moment when such things seemed impossible. They’re the lasting legacy of The Johnny Cash Show.

Cher and Sonny and Elton and David and Sonny Again

(Pictured: Possibly the most unflattering picture of Cher ever published, going it alone on the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour stage, as she eventually would on her own stage.)

If you lived in the the three-channel TV universe between 1971 and 1974, you saw The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. It was a top-10 hit throughout its run. But 40 years ago this winter, Sonny filed for divorce, and two days later the couple taped what was to have been the season finale but turned out to be the series finale. It aired on May 29, 1974.

Such bankable acts were not destined to be off TV for very long. CBS signed Cher for her own variety show, which was to premiere midseason, early in 1975. ABC, meanwhile, signed Sonny for a show (The Sonny Comedy Revue) that would beat Cher to air, going on in September 1974. Sonny had the advantage of keeping the writers, the bits, and many of the cast members (“We’ll be missing one,” he remarked) from the original Sonny and Cher show. Cher, meanwhile, had the advantage of being Cher. ABC put The Sonny Comedy Revue in the highly viewed 7:00 Central time slot on Sunday nights. CBS announced that Cher would run Sunday nights at 6:30 when it went on the air later that season. But the anticipated head-to-head duke-out never happened. The Sonny Comedy Revue attracted neither kind reviews nor a big audience. It aired for the last time on December 29, 1974.

Cher didn’t premiere until February 12, 1975, but when it did, it came in with a bang: guest stars on the premiere were Elton John, Bette Midler, and Flip Wilson. Although the premiere made a splash, the show was not an especially big hit, placing #23 for the season (despite being the first TV show on which a woman was permitted to display her navel, allegedly). CBS retooled the show for its second season, but the ratings were even lower. It aired for the last time on January 4, 1976—but not necessarily because of the ratings, as we shall see.

On the first show, Elton performed “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” recently the #1 song in America, and sang “Bennie and the Jets,” a #1 single one year earlier, with Cher. (You can see several clips from the premiere here.) After the premiere, the guest list settled into typical mid-70s TV territory with guests including Cloris Leachman, Liberace, Nancy Walker, Tim Conway, and McLean Stevenson. The Osmonds, the Jacksons, the Pointer Sisters, Labelle, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Ike & Tina Turner, Art Garfunkel, and Gregg Allman (about the time Cher married him) were first-season musical guests.

Next to Elton, Cher’s most interesting musical guest appeared in November of 1975. In the fall of that year, David Bowie was doing a great deal of American TV. In early November, he did The Dick Cavett Show and also appeared on Soul Train, nervously answering questions from the kids in the audience after, it is said, having a few drinks to calm himself. (This was also a time in which he admits to having consumed vast amounts of cocaine; he has said that he doesn’t remember recording “Golden Years,” one of the songs he sang on Soul Train.) Sometime in December, he and his band taped the daytime talk show Dinah! with Dinah Shore, where they burned down the house (and the housewives watching) with “Stay” from Bowie’s then-new album Station to Station. And in between, he appeared on one of the final episodes of Cher. The two singers did a version of Bowie’s “Young Americans” sandwiched around a medley of familiar pop and rock songs, a Vegas-type thing that actually works. (There was more of the showbiz trouper in Bowie than anybody in 1975 expected.) He also performed his recent hit “Fame,” doing a live vocal over the record’s backing track, accompanied by what were then state-of-the-art trippy TV graphics.

By this point in Cher’s run, she may have been willing to bring on performers beyond the TV variety show norm—David Essex, never a big name in America, would appear on a December show—because she was done. After only a handful of episodes into the second season, Cher decided to end her own show and go back on TV with Sonny in 1976.

Trippy, Frenetic, and Lost

As we’ve noted here before, the turn of the 1970s was a golden age for rock on TV, as stars like the Smothers Brothers, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, and Tom Jones welcomed big names to their eponymous variety shows. They accepted rock performers on their own terms as artists, unlike the variety shows of just a few years before (Ed Sullivan, Hollywood Palace, and the like), which brought on rock bands for the eyeballs they would attract, without much of a feel for the artistry on display. Many of the performances on the Smothers, Cash, and Jones shows (and Sullivan too) have been preserved on DVD. Others have either been lost or exist in contractual limbo, with rights in dispute or permissions difficult to obtain. Some were briefly available but not anymore.

In September 1969, ABC launched a series called The Music Scene, squeezed into an oddball 45-minute time period on Monday nights, partly opposite Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC and Gunsmoke on CBS. It featured performances taped especially for the show as well as antediluvian music videos—and its genesis was a bit strange. In the summer of 1969, ABC produced promos for the show with members of the comedy troupe the Committee (who were slated to host) clowning around with the Rolling Stones, although by the time the show premiered in the fall, the Committee members were nowhere in sight, and the Stones would never actually appear. They might have, had the show been on the air longer—advertisers embraced neither the show’s young audience nor its weird timeslot, and it was dumped in January 1970. Two volumes of highlights were released on DVD around 2000, but both are out of print. Several years ago, the indispensable Dangerous Minds compiled the Stones promos and a number of clips from the show, and there are other clips at YouTube.

Even more obscure is Something Else, which ran during the 1970-1971 TV season. It was syndicated to local stations, sponsored by the American Dairy Association, and hosted by comedian and impressionist John Byner, whose face you will recognize. Something Else was taped at various locations around the country (including one show shot somewhere in Wisconsin), and it featured a wide variety of rock, pop, and country acts, from Creedence Clearwater Revival and Taj Mahal to the Grass Roots and the Classics IV to Roy Clark and Conway Twitty. The acts usually lip-synced their songs, although performances were often staged and shot inventively. (Several of the clips, including Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” were memorable enough to have been featured at an animation festival in Los Angeles last month.) The show also included comedy bits and dance numbers. A handful of clips from Something Else are at YouTube: one featuring the show’s opening and Crabby Appleton’s “Go Back” is here; the Ides of March doing “Vehicle” is here; Richie Havens’ terrific version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is here.

Something Else comes off in these clips as trippy and frenetic, in the style of The Monkees, or Laugh-In after a handful of amphetamines. It has the feel of something that would have worked nicely on a Saturday, either in the afternoon following the morning cartoons, leading into primetime, or after the late local news. There were 34 episodes produced, although it appears Byner turned over hosting duties to frequent guest John Hartford for the last few shows. (Hartford appears in the Havens clip above.) A company called Research Video apparently holds the rights to the surviving video, but they’re willing to license it only to documentary producers and not to collectors or fans. So for nearly all of us, Something Else is going to stay buried, and probably for the duration.

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