Almost as long as there’s been television, there’s been music on television. From the music revues of the 1930s BBC to the reality-singing competitions of today, there’s been no shortage of sound to go with the picture. Fifty years ago, some profound changes in the TV landscape affected not one, not two, but three iconic music shows. The three shows, each promoting very different genres, laid new foundations for music on television ten years before the advent of MTV and helped kicked off a run of other programming that shaped the televised delivery of music. Those programs were Hee Haw, The Lawrence Welk Show, and Soul Train.
Music-centered television programming was obviously nothing new in 1971. Putting aside the lengthy history that PBS had had in bringing a variety of music (notably classical and opera) to the masses, there were local programs of all kinds around the country. Some of those local shows morphed into nationwide phenomena, like American Bandstand, which kicked off in 1952 and went national in 1956, and The Grand Ole Opry (various versions of which were seen on ABC and PBS). The 1960s were a boom time for short-lived network prime-time shows like Shindig!, Hootenanny, and Hullabaloo. And then there’s Bandwagon, the local polka-powered Minnesota program that’s been running since 1960 (though with the expected 2020 COVID-19-related interruptions).
When Federal Communications Commission rules changed in 1971, an unintended consequence turned out to be the upending of schedules at the various major broadcast networks. The Prime-Time Access Rule pulled the 7 p.m. time slot from the majors and gave it back to local stations in an effort to allow local programming to be more competitive. However, most local stations just opted to buy packages of syndicated shows. Some of the shows that lost their network homes when their time slot went away, like Lassie, jumped over to syndication. Two more displaced prime-time shows were Hee Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show.
Hee Haw launched in 1969 on CBS; inspired by Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, it was a comedy-variety series with regular performers and musicians, plus featured guests. However, Hee Haw’s focus was almost entirely country, with much of its humor and its recurring comedic characters all featuring a rural bent. It fit in perfectly with a number of CBS’s sitcoms of the time, including Green Acres and Mayberry RFD. That changed with the advent of the Prime-Time Access Rule. CBS’s response to losing an hour of prime-time was to conduct the so-called “rural purge.” Gone were Acres, Mayberry, The Beverly Hillbillies, Lassie, and Hee Haw. Like Lassie, Hee Haw moved directly to syndication in the fall of 1971.
The Lawrence Welk Show had been a TV staple for two decades when its ABC cancellation came down. Hosted by, of course, big band leader Lawrence Welk, the show launched locally in L.A. in 1951 and moved up to the network in 1955. The series was also of the musical-variety format, with a repertoire that included big band, light jazz, gospel, and pop. In addition to Welk’s big band, the show employed a large cast, called the “Musical Family.” The various performers would appear in skits, ballroom dance, and handle the vocals on songs. Some members of the family spun off into fame in their own right, like the four Lennon Sisters (who got their own show and charted pop hits in the ’60s) and country star Lynn Anderson, who took “Rose Garden” to #1 country and #3 on the Hot 100 in 1970. When the program was cancelled, Welk started his own production company and moved the show right into syndication.
The irony of Hee Haw and Welk getting cancelled at the same time is that they had been time-slot competitors in prime-time on Saturday evenings. When they hit syndication, depending on the area or station, the two shows where either competitors again or, in some cases, followed one another. Hee Haw regular and country star Roy Clark cut a novelty single about the situation in 1972; “The Lawrence Welk-Hee Haw Counter-Revolution Polka” put a good-natured riff on the rivalry and took shots at the big networks and the “rural purge.” The two shows would soon be slugging it out in some markets with a third syndicated music program, one with a decidedly different approach.
Created by Don Cornelius, Soul Train debuted as a local weekday afternoon program in Chicago in 1970. With a slate of music that included soul, R&B, and pop (and would soon grow to include disco, and later, hip-hop), the show quickly gained popularity for showcasing Black artists performing and predominantly Black youth dancing. As the show hit syndication a year later, it moved to L.A. but maintained its focus. Cornelius would host the show continuously from its debut until when he stepped back behind the scenes in 1993 (the one exception: a guest-hosting spot by Richard Pryor in 1975). Soul Train ran in different time slots in different markets; occasionally it competed directly against Hee Haw and Welk on Saturday nights, but in some cities it followed Bandstand on Saturday afternoons. One of the show’s most fondly remembered regular features was “The Line,” where dancers would dance down the space formed by a line of dancers on either side, allowing the individuals to show off their moves. Some future stars were discovered in The Line, including singer Jody Watley and actor-dancer Fred Berry (Rerun from What’s Happening!!).
The ongoing popularity in syndication of all three shows (as well as Bandstand) pointed to a couple of growing phenomena in popular music at the time. One was a fragmenting of taste that foreshadowed the more modern concept of narrowcasting. The 1950s and 1960s had demonstrated the growing divide between what parents and their children listened to (or even considered music). Not only did the various shows offer validation to a number of distinct tastes, they meant that you didn’t have to sit through what you didn’t want to see to see what you did. And while a number of artists that appeared on Soul Train and American Bandstand would readily be considered rock artists, rock would soon lay claim to three very similar shows, one of which would also run in syndication.
NBC got there first by a couple of months when it ran the first installment of The Midnight Special in August of 1972. Settling into its regular slot in February of 1973, the show would run on Friday nights after The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. ABC launched In Concert with two late-night specials in the fall of 1972; the first special included Bo Diddley, Curtis Mayfield, and Alice Cooper, while the second featured Chuck Berry and The Allman Brothers Band. The producer of those first two episodes was Don Kirshner (make a note). In Concert got rolled into a rotating late-night block, ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment, and would run through 1975. The Midnight Special would have a solid place on NBC until 1981. After a long and contentious series of negotiations to extend Carson’s contract, the network ended up ceding control of what would follow his show to Carson; that created the opening that put Late Night with David Letterman on the air in February of 1982.
Over in syndicationland, Don Kirshner had split after the first two In Concert installments and launched his own syndicated late-night show, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. While both Rock Concert and The Midnight Special heavily featured rock bands that wouldn’t have necessarily been seen on other shows, and even went deep into metal and progressive rock subgenres with appearances by acts like Black Sabbath, UFO, and Rush, they weren’t afraid to also feature R&B, disco, funk, or pop acts. Like The Midnight Special, Rock Concert also came to end in 1981, which is perhaps somewhat fitting, because that August is when MTV took the air.
As for the 1971 Three, each show had a healthy and distinguished run. The Lawrence Welk Show ran until 1982 when Welk retired at the age of 79; the “Musical Family” got back together for one more Christmas special in 1985. Hee Haw lasted until 1993, and then experienced a brief revival on TNN (The Nashville Network) from 1996 to 1997; old episodes are run on the Circle digital network. Soul Train chugged on until 2006; the brand continues today with the Soul Train Music Awards, which have run annually since 1987. A book about the history of the show, Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation, was published in 2013; it was written by Questlove of The Roots and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
None of the 1971 Three ended at the exact same time, nor for the exact same reason, but there’s a truth that their cultural function had been supplanted by other programming. MTV, VH1, BET programming, and other venues picked up the batons for rock, R&B, and more, while also allowing for inroads to be made by hip-hop, burgeoning alternative rock, and other genres. The music and stylings featured on Welk had simply fallen out of fashion, and country had largely turned away from the version refracted through the prism of Hee Haw, replacing that with a more modern sensibility. Soul Train probably lasted the longest because it never shied away from embracing new styles and artists.
Today, music delivery systems have changed so much that there’s not much need to go to TV to find it. Between YouTube, Spotify, TikTok, SoundCloud, and dozens of other avenues, music is readily available with even formerly obscure songs and artists easy to find; technology has made the narrowcasting predicted by niche shows the norm rather than the exception. Still, it feels a bit like something special has been from when you eagerly waited for that band you loved to appear on that show you watched; now, you can pretty much see and hear who you want at any time at the touch of a button. On the other hand, if anyone can find and hear anything, then every kind of music is available for everyone. And that, quite simply, rocks.
Featured image: intueri / Shutterstock
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now