TV Rock

The trend of pop stars hosting TV variety shows didn’t really start with Sonny and Cher, but theirs was the first to become a Top-10 Nielsen hit. The duo’s 1971 summer replacement series, which took over the time slot of The Ed Sullivan Show after it left the air, was so successful that it led to a regular series beginning in December. It lasted until Sonny and Cher’s marriage broke up in 1974, although each of them had their own solo variety show afterward, and they reunited briefly, on TV at least, a couple of years later.

The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour had been a summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers Show in 1968 on CBS and gained a regular slot in January 1969. This Is Tom Jones was imported from the UK and began running on ABC, also in 1969. But it took Sonny and Cher to clear the way for several other best-selling pop artists to host TV shows in the mid 1970s. Here are a few of the other pop-star variety shows (list lifted mostly from the book TV Rock by Mark Bego). Most were limited-run series intended to fill a time slot normally occupied by something else that was off the air for the summer.

The Jerry Reed When You’re Hot You’re Hot Hour (CBS, June-July 1972). One regular cast member was, according to The Complete Directory to Prime Time TV Shows, “John Twomey, a Chicago attorney who made music with his bare hands.” I don’t know either.

The Helen Reddy Show (NBC, June-August 1973). Summer replacement for The Flip Wilson Show, co-produced by Wilson. Featured the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, and ended each week with Reddy answering audience questions like Carol Burnett did.

The Mac Davis Show (NBC, three different periods, 1974-1976). If at first you don’t succeed, fail to succeed two more times.

Tony Orlando and Dawn (CBS, July 1974, December 1974-December 1976). Took over The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour time slot in the summer before becoming a regular series and a hit, at least for a while. George Carlin was a regular.

The Hudson Brothers Show (CBS, August 1974). Produced by Chris Bearde and Allan Blye, who produced Sonny and Cher’s show. Eventually morphed into a Saturday-morning kids show.

The Gladys Knight and the Pips Show (NBC, July 1975). Music, sketches, yada yada yada.

The Manhattan Transfer (CBS, August 1975). Featured production numbers spotlighting different musical eras, and managed to land Bob Marley and the Wailers for its final episode. Laraine Newman was a regular, only months before joining the original cast of Saturday Night Live.

Donny and Marie (ABC, January 1976-January 1979). The biggest TV variety hit this side of Sonny and Cher.

The Jacksons (CBS, June-July 1976, January-May 1977). After leaving Motown, the Jacksons signed with Epic, a label owned by CBS, so the TV crossover was inevitable. It featured five of the six Jackson brothers (Jermaine, who was married to Berry Gordy’s daughter, stayed with Motown) and three of the sisters, including Janet and LaToya. Michael Jackson is said to have hated the whole idea.

The Captain and Tennille (ABC, September 1976-March 1977). Executive-produced by Dick Clark, this show premiered at the Captain and Tennille’s peak moment of fame. Its belly-flop down the ratings ladder mirrored the duo’s fall from the record charts. Featured one of the most awesomely bad television moments of all time, previously showcased here.

The Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. Show (CBS, June-July 1977). That unwieldy name didn’t help this show succeed, although it featured Jay Leno and Tim Reid (later of WKRP in Cincinnati) in its cast. There’s almost certainly a joke to be made based on the title of the duo’s most famous song, “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show),” but I can’t get the bat off my shoulder.

The Starland Vocal Band Show (CBS, July-September 1977). One of the oddest summer variety series of all time, featuring a musical group with no recognizable stars but a high-powered lineup of comedy regulars, including the ex-Firesign Theater team of Proctor and Bergman, a young David Letterman, and political satirist Mark Russell. The show featured a great deal of political humor, and according to Bego, was aimed at a college-aged audience. According to the website TV Party, it was the last summer replacement variety show to air until the Smothers Brothers’ brief return in the summer of 1988.

Pink Lady and Jeff (NBC, March-April 1980). One of the more notorious failures in TV history, featuring a Japanese duo who had scored a minor disco hit called “Kiss in the Dark.” Comedian Jeff Altman, who had been a cast member on The Starland Vocal Band Show, was on board to provide, well, English.

The last pop star to attempt a network variety show was Dolly Parton, whose splashy variety hour started out a smash in 1987 but pancaked within a few weeks of its premiere. The fragmenting of the audience, thanks to a wide universe of choices, made variety shows and their all-things-to-all-people ethos a tough sell. Every now and then, somebody tries one again. Usually, they bomb.

Like I Love You

Maybe I’d be a cooler person if the first record I ever loved had been “Let it Be” or “Proud Mary.” But history won’t be denied, and for the first six months of my life as a fan of pop music, “Candida” and “Knock Three Times” by Tony Orlando and Dawn were it. Yeah, I was 10 years old, and now I’m not, but first loves are never entirely forgotten, and today we’re gonna spend some more time with mine.

Candida was Dawn’s first album, released in 1970, and it owes a great deal to the Brill Building sound of the early 60s. In fact, the second track on the album is a cover of “Up on the Roof,” the Carole King/Gerry Goffin song that the Drifters had made into a classic a few years before. The album also contains two James Taylor covers, “Rainy Day Man” and “Carolina in My Mind,” but the bulk of the songs come from a pool of seven New York writers working in various combinations: Irwin Levine, L. Russell Brown, Philip Margo, Mitch Margo, Hank Medress, Jay Siegel, and Toni Wine. (Levine and Wine wrote “Candida”; Levine and Brown became Dawn’s principal hit-writers with “Knock Three Times.”)

Siegel and Wine, along with two other singers, back Tony Orlando on the first album, although none of the performers gets credited by name except for “thanks to Tony Orlando.” Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson wouldn’t join until 1971. They aren’t on the next three Dawn singles, either, which continue to work from the template established by the first two singles. The first record I ever ran out to buy after hearing only once was “I Play and Sing,” which came out while “Knock Three Times” was still in recurrents. “Summer Sand” sounded pretty good on the radio, but it didn’t match the chart success of anything that had come before, and “What Are You Doing Sunday” almost missed the Top 40 entirely (even though, or maybe because, it was a near-remake of “Knock Three Times”). By the end of 1971, Dawn was not nearly so hot as they’d been at the start of the year. They spent 1972 on the road, but the singles released that year failed to make any impact at all.

But then came 1973. Somebody could get a Ph.D. explaining the itch in the American psyche scratched by “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree” that spring. The Levine/Brown song became one of the monster hits of the age, doing a month at Number One. There was even a video:

After “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” Dawn’s inspiration was no longer New York urban pop—it was vaudeville. “Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose” and “Who’s in the Strawberry Patch With Sally” seemed ineffably dumb at the time and are positively unlistenable now. But their success paved the way for a four-week summer TV show in July 1974, and a regular prime-time slot on CBS for three seasons beginning that fall. (George Carlin was a regular cast member.) The group would score two sizable hits in this period: “Steppin’ Out (Gonna Boogie Tonight),” which was the last Levine-Brown collaboration to make the Top 10, and a perfectly fine version of  “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You),” a cover of Jerry Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart,” which spent three weeks at Number One. But TV success didn’t help Dawn’s radio profile, and they never returned to the Top 10 after May 1975. And just weeks after the last episode of their TV show, in December 1976, they went out of business entirely.

I think nearly 700 words on Tony Orlando and Dawn are probably enough, so here are a few tunes. An oddly staged, yet somehow oddly awesome video performance of “Knock Three Times,” featuring Orlando without the porn-star ‘stache, is here. A medley of “Candida,” “Knock Three Times,” and “What Are You Doing Sunday” from about the same time is here.

“He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)”/Tony Orlando and Dawn (buy it here)

Dawn to Dusk

At the turn of the 1970s, few record labels were hotter than Bell. Founded in 1952, Bell had become a power player in pop music when it was acquired by Columbia Pictures in 1969. It became the home of the Partridge Family, the Fifth Dimension, Tony Orlando and Dawn, the Stampeders, Terry Jacks, Vicki Lawrence, Davy Jones, and Barry Manilow (whose first big hits appeared on Bell shortly before its assets were folded into a new label, Arista). It was also the American label on which British sensations Gary Glitter and the Sweet first appeared.

Bell’s peak year was probably 1971, when you couldn’t listen to AM radio for 10 minutes without hearing the Partridges, Dawn, or the Fifth Dimension. And even in 1971, when music marketing was not nearly as sophisticated as it is today, marketers knew about synergy. Since one of Bell’s biggest acts was called Dawn, it followed that the label should create and market another act called Dusk.

Like Dawn had been initially, Dusk was a studio creation. Most of the same people involved with Dawn also worked on Dusk’s records, including producers Hank Medress and Dave Appell, and songwriters Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown. Dusk never came anywhere close to Dawn’s success, although the group made the Hot 100 twice in 1971. “Angel Baby,” with its marimba line, motorcycle sound effects, and girl-group feel, would have sounded a bit dated in early ’71, even as it recycled “Knock Three Times.” It made Number 57 nationally, but was Number One in Canton, Ohio, and Top 10 in New Orleans. “I Hear Those Church Bells Ringing” is another throwback, derived from the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love.” It made Number 53 in Billboard, but got far more exposure than “Angel Baby,” if ARSA is any indication. It made Number One at WYNE in Kimberly, Wisconsin, in August, and it got significant airplay in Honolulu and Chicago as well—despite having an extremely high cheese factor. Dusk released one other single, “Treat Me Like a Good Piece of Candy,” which charted in Cash Box but not on the Hot 100. After that, they disbanded.

There’s a very good reason why Dusk sounded so much like an early-60s girl group. Like Dawn, Dusk featured a veteran of the music biz out front on lead vocals: Peggy Santiglia, who had sung lead on “My Boyfriend’s Back,” the 1963 hit by the Angels. She had been singing on sessions in New York City for years, and was a friend of original Dawn singer Toni Wine and Hank Medress. Her involvement in Bell’s attempt to whip up a female counterpart to Dawn was a natural.

At least one website claims that after “Knock Three Times” became a smash and Bell needed to make Dawn a real group for touring purposes, Santiglia and former Angel Barbara Allbut were offered the chance to be Tony Orlando’s backup singers. The story goes that since they were planning to reform the Angels, they turned down the offer. Santiglia herself doesn’t say that in a couple of online interviews, so I don’t think I buy it. The gig went to Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson instead. The precise timeline of their involvement with Dawn is an interesting story on its own, but it’s a story for another time.

“Angel Baby”/Dusk
“I Hear Those Church Bells Ringing”/Dusk (both out of print)