Before there was MTV with Tarzan Dan

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MTV is pushing 40?!? Tarzan Dan from YTV’s Hit List drops by Studio 3B to talk about those in music television who came before him, he and Alan swap tops on how to interview a rock star, and we find out how he reacted to landing in the pages of Canadian music history.

MTV airing The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” to launch the network was not the first music video ever broadcast. Nor was it the first music video ever made. 

It was far from the first time music appeared on TV, that’s for sure. 

But the two pop culture staples have often worked hand-in-hand for entertainment and cross-promotional purposes, a practice that dates back to at least the 1950s. 

How old are music videos?

What qualifies as the first music video is up for some debate.

For example, waaaaaaay back in 1894, a pair of sheet music publishers, Edward Marks and Joe Stern, hired an electrician named George Thomas, along with some musicians, to promote the sale of their new song, “The Little Lost Child.” Using a very early form of movies, a series of images set to live performed music was displayed and came to be known as the “illustrated song.” Does that make it the first video? 

Jump ahead to the late 1920s, as the “talkies” started to take the world by storm, and Vitaphone started producing shorts with bands, singers and dancers. Max Fleischer, an animator, produced a series of short cartoons called “Screen Songs,” which were kind of like a precursor to karaoke, in that the audience was encouraged to sing along. By the 1930s, we have the legendary incorporation of opera music into Looney Tunes cartoons — Elmer Fudd as a viking, anyone? —  followed soon thereafter by Walt Disney’s Fantasia, one of the most visually and artistically stunning creations of all time (think about how painstakingly it was produced and how incredibly imaginative it was at the time before arguing this point). 

By the 1940s, we’re into the era of short films set to music, such as those from musician Louis Jordan, including a feature-length film called “Lookout Sister.” That’s been added to the LIbrary of Congress to be preserved for its historical significance. 

Tony Bennett claims he created the first music video with 1956’s “Stranger in Paradise.” His label at the time filmed the crooner walking through London’s Hyde Park and added that song behind it. The video was sent to TV networks in the U.S. and UK and it played several times on American Bandstand. 

 

About that Bandstand

Two shows are inextricably tied to music and teenage culture in the United States: American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show. 

The so-called perpetual teenager, Dick Clark was the affable host who helped provide apple-cheeked youngsters a place to dance, wholesomely, to some of the country’s top pop bands. The show started on Philadelphia public TV in October 1952 and ran well into the 1980s, featuring a respectable variety of genres: doo-wop, teeny boppers, psychedielic rock, disco and hip-hop over the course of its 30 years. Clark took over for the show’s original host (after he was arrested for driving while intoxicated) and helped kickoff the career of Paul Anka, the first performer to make his debut on a nationally televised show. 

A few months into Clark’s tenure, the show moved to Monday nights from 3:30 p.m. and expanded to a full hour, but the ratings tanked and they moved it back to the afternoon time slot, until it was eventually so popular and so important, it was moved to Saturdays.  

From then on, anyone who was anyone played Bandstand: Sonny and Cher, Gladys Knight, Ike and Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder (just 12 at the time!), Aretha Franklin, The 5th Dimension, The Doors, Michael Jackson as a solo artist and as part of the Jackson 5, Little Richard, Paul Revere, Annette Funicello, even Talking Heads and Prince.

All good things must end, of course, and after refusing to cut back from a hour-long show to 30 minutes, Dick Clark left, the show moved from ABC to the USANetwork and, six months later, on October 7, 1989, the curtain fell for the last time. 

Equally important was The Ed Sullivan Show, famously the host of the Beatles debut in the U.S. It went on the air earlier than Bandstand, starting in 1948 when TV was still relatively new, and folded sooner, in 1971,but by that point the influence was obvious and unmistakable. 

In many ways, Sullivan was the polar opposite of Clark: Awkward, not all that telegenic, often tripping over his words when introducing his guests, which were not limited to just musicians but also comedians and casts from Broadway plays. But in many ways, his awkwardness was part of his charm. 

Sullivan has the distinction of twice breaking TV records, drawing in millions of viewers when Elvis Presley performed in 1955, swiveling those controversial hips — think of the children! — and again in 1964 when he introduced North America to the Beatles during their first trip to New York. That remains one of the most-watched episodes of television in history, nearly 60 years later. It’s the night that the British Invasion really hit audiences hard on this side of the pond. 

He also had more controversy than Clark: He booted the Rolling Stones from coming back after their first performance went a little off the rails. He had to explain to the audience why Bob Dylan didn’t appear after Dylan was prohibited from singing “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues,” about the hunt for Communists in the U.S. at the time. And then there’s the incident with The Doors, who were famously asked to change the lyrics to “Light My Fire,” removing the line “girl we couldn’t get much higher” because, y’know, drugs are bad, kids. Jim Morrison sang it anyway, looking directly into the camera to avoid any kind of confusion about his intent. They were not invited back. 

There were others, of course, including Dick Cavett’s long-running shows in which he interviewed some of the biggest stars of the 1960s and 1970s, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, John Lennon with Yoko Ono. Cavett would also interview politicians and Hollywood types and musical performances were few, but he deserves mention here for the conversations he hosted. 

Let’s also tip our caps to Lawrence Welk. The adults in the room needed their entertainment too, with ballroom dancing and all those bubbles.

 

Let’s Get Dancing

The immediate precursor to MTV and its ilk were dance shows. We’re definitely not talking about Welk here. Also not talking about Dancing with the Stars. 

Shows like Solid Gold and Soul Train blew open the doors for people who were bored with the dancing on Bandstand — though early-career Madonna had fun with her club-kid look and moves. 

Soul Train started in Chicago in 1965 when a UHF station broadcast two dance programs aimed at younger viewers: Kiddie-a-Go-Go and Red Hot and Blues. Both programs had predominantly Black audiences and in-house performers dancing to records. Don Cornelius, the host most dearly associated with Soul Train, was hired by the station in 1967 as a news and sports reporter,but he also hosted a series of local talent concerts that he called the Soul Train. By 1970, WICU saw what he was doing and offered him the chance to bring the concerts to TV. They secured a sponsorship with Sears & Roebuck and, on August 17, 1970, a legend was born. The show aired live on weekday afternoons, first in black and white, with Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites and the Emotions as the first guests. At first only viewed in Chicago, by the end of the first season, Soul Train was on in 18 market and was the only commercial program produced by Black talent for Black audiences. It was moved to Los Angeles and went into syndication, becoming one of the longest-running TV shows in history, with 1,117 episodes over 35 seasons. 

Cornelius would host the local Chicago-based version of Soul Train in addition to the national LA-based show, eventually focusing more on the national while still overseeing production in Chicago. The only episode Cornelius didn’t host was the finale of the 1974-75 season; hosting duties that day went to Richard Pryor. 

For Black audiences, this was the representation they needed, wanted and deserved. It was fine to see the Jackson 5 and other artists on Bandstand, but most of the artists there were white. Soul Train featured Black artists almost exclusively — among the few exceptions were the Beastie Boys and David Bowie.  Eventually, as hip hop and rap became more popular, Cornelius spoke openly and often about not understanding the music, in addition to not liking the more sexually aggressive dancing from some groups and their fans. He eventually stepped down as host in the early 1990s, but the show lost momentum and faltered, finally ending for good in 2006. 

When Cornelius died in 2012, fans and devotees of his work arranged flash mobs in cities across the U.S., wearing their finest ‘70s clothes and dancing in his memory. 

Solid Gold was, in many ways, an imitation of what Bandstand and Soul Train already did really well. One of the key differences was that the dancers on Solid Gold were professional, performing choreographed routines instead of representing the dance moves of the moment. It did bring on some popular performers of the time, but also felt more like a mix between a music show and a workout tape at a time when those were beginning to gain traction, thanks to Jane Fonda and Denise Austin. The show lasted a little less than eight years, running from September 1980 until July 1988. 

Dionne Warwick hosted the first season and picked up duties again from 1985-86, with other comedians and radio personalities taking up the helm. The show also had a big countdown episode each January, hosted by Warwick and Glen Campbell the first year. And unlike other shows, the music on each week’s episode was determined by Radio & Records, an industry trade newspaper. 

 

Cue the Video

To bring things back to the beginning, MTV launched in August 1981. Solid Gold, American Bandstand, late-night TV talk shows and other programs were still on the air, showcasing musical guests, but videos were at the heart and soul of MTV in its early days. What a time it was. 

MTV, based in New York City, might have the first to run videos almost all the time, but credit where it’s due: Canada had two dedicated shows, both on CBC: Video Hits, a daily afternoon show, and Good Rockin’ Tonite, which aired on Friday nights. Video Hits was 30 minutes, Good Rockin’ Tonight ran for an hour, but they both offered almost the only opportunity to see videos by Canadian artists (in addition to international stars) without needing a cable subscription. 

Full disclosure: I have vivid memories of watching Video Hits with my mom in the early 1980s. She had me when she was almost 20 and was still a big music fan, so we’d sit down in front of the TV at my grandparents’ house, making sure the antenna was juuuuust right so we could get a clear signal from across the lake. I have to credit Video Hits for sparking a love of Canadian music in particular that very much continues to this day. 

Both Good Rockin’ Tonite and Video Hits were cancelled in the early 1990s, airing their final episodes one day apart and bowing out of the way for the juggernaut that was MuchMusic. 

Smartly, there was a show aimed directly at kids — The Hit List, hosted by “Tarzan” Dan Freeman, on YTV. It lasted 14 seasons, starting in 1991, and had an all-star guest list, ranging from Weird Al Yankovic, boy band show stoppers Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, Hanson, as well as singers of interest to parents, like the Smashing Pumpkins, Simple Plan and Alanis Morissette. “Tarzan” Dan hosted the show for six seasons and, during the show’s peak, it released two compilation CDs, in 1994 and 1996.

Now, if you want to watch videos, just flip over to YouTube or TikTok or an artist’s personal page and you’ll get your fill, day or night, anywhere there’s a wifi connection. The only place you can’t find videos is on TV. 

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