Oh yeah, the motherlode of 1970s soul and R&B, performed live by dozens of the era’s top artists on Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special. Spread over ten discs, The Soul of the Midnight Special doesn’t offer complete episodes of the late-night TV show (with an exception, more on that later). This is a compilation of 130 performances by the likes of Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Sly and the Family Stone, Ohio Players, Kool & the Gang, Chaka Khan, The Staple Singers, The Commodores—need I go on? If you aren’t already sold, maybe this genre of music isn’t for you. If it is, the only trouble you’ll have is deciding which disc to watch first.
For those who love old-school R&B, Philly Soul, classic disco, and straight-up funk, this box is packed with one treasure after another. A photo-laden booklet provides background on each act, as well as a full list of original air dates and episode numbers for each performance. The breadth of legendary talent on display here is jaw-dropping. And the music is live. Just about every big name in soul/R&B of the decade turns up here. Highlights? James Brown delivers his customarily sweat-drenched intensity on a medley of “Sex Machine” and “Get On the Good Foot,” as well as “Get Up Offa That Thing” and another medley of “Cold Sweat,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and others. Diana Ross simmers on “Love Hangover.” Sister Sledge cranks out pure adrenaline on their anthemic “We Are Family.”
Iconic moments abound. Gloria Gaynor turns in a searing take on her signature “I Will Survive.” There’s the joy of Billy Preston, with his huge hits “Nothing from Nothing” and “Will It Go Round In Circles.” Unexpected delights crop up regularly, such as the playful duet between Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin on “Takes Two to Tango.” Quieter moments punctuate the hot and heavy danceable material. Gorgeous harmonies decorate The Spinners’ “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love.” Al Green does “Let’s Stay Together.” Minnie Riperton offers the delicate “Lovin’ You.”
If all this sounds like a hyperbolic “but wait, there’s more!” sales pitch, well… guilty as charged, I suppose. A bit of hype is entirely justified here. Fans of the organic, funky, rubbery bass-buoyed, horn-charged grooves that drive these indelible hits of the ’70s will find tune after tune to soak up. There’s also a generous selection of bonus retrospective interviews. George Benson, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, and more—even The Midnight Special creator Burt Sugarman himself—are all present for bonus interviews.
Earlier I mentioned that the various performances presented throughout the set are excerpted from individual Midnight Special episodes, with one exception. The final disc presents a full episode that aired September 6, 1974. It’s a Marvin Gaye concert in Atlanta that features “What’s Goin’ On,” “Trouble Man,” “Lets Get It On,” a medley of early Motown classics like “You’re a Wonderful One,” and more. In front of a massive stadium audience, Gaye commands a full band and a complement of backup singer-dancers. This episode is structured to include some interview footage with Gaye, making it sort of a documentary. As much value as there is throughout the previous nine DVDs, this one might just be the crown jewel. It shines a spotlight on Marvin Gaye at his peak level.
A brief word on the audio/visual quality of the material. It’s all vintage ’70s-era broadcast television. There’s only so much cleanup work that can be done. Anyone expecting the pristine look and sound of today’s modern high-definition concert releases might be surprised. But if you’re old enough to remember what TV used to look like, there’s a certain nostalgic charm in seeing such relative technical crudity. That said, there’s nothing at all wrong with the A/V presentation here, given the age of the 40-plus year old nature of the original tapes.
For more information about The Soul of the Midnight Special, including a full list of included performances, visit the official Time Life website.