Music and television go together like ice cream and hot fudge, so it’s no surprise that music was a huge part of the lineup as TV sets became more common in the mid-’40s. Most of the earliest music programming — shows like The Lawrence Welk Show or Toast of the Town (later known as The Ed Sullivan Show) — reflected the kind of live entertainment common on the local touring circuit: Vaudeville-style variety hours clearly aimed at adults, offering comedy, dance troupes, standards, and scenes from classic musicals.
As teenagers’ tastes started dominating pop culture in the mid-’50s, television execs wanted to tap into that excitement and gear some of their music programming to a younger audience. The result, teen music shows, sounded and felt more like radio than television — in fact, many started out as radio shows — focusing on current and popular music; if a song fell off the charts last week, it might be too old to feature today.
Featuring current music went a long way in getting teens interested in TV music programs. But an even bigger shift was in how the music was presented. Traditional shows placed the performers onstage and the masses in the audience, mostly unseen. But the dance parties, opinion segments, and game show-style contests on this new breed of music show allowed the fans themselves to be part of the action. Many would feature regular-looking kids — just like the viewers and their friends — onstage dancing to the entertainment or giving their opinions about popular songs. This format made listening to music on TV feel similar to how teens would listen to it with their friends… that is, fun. And the impact on how that changed music television, and music itself, was enormous.
Ask a guy on the street to name a classic music show and he’ll probably mention the iconic American Bandstand, the Philadelphia-based music program that ran nationally from 1957 to 1989, hosted by the equally iconic Dick Clark. And for good reason: American Bandstand featured the latest music, had a happy dance party vibe, and let teenagers voice opinions on the music through the “Rate-a-Record” segment. Even though Clark and the record companies decided which songs would be featured (and there was much controversy around the pay-for-play deals that influenced some of what was aired), a good rating on Bandstand could make or break a new single.
American Bandstand was only one of many shows that rose up with the first wave of teenage music. A number of others, including Judge for Yourself and Juke Box Jury, made music into a game show. Judge for Yourself pitted a group of celebrity judges against a panel of audience members, and prizes were awarded when the amateur panel’s responses matched the celebrities; Juke Box Jury featured a similar panel of celebrities rating recent releases as “hit” or “miss.” While neither lasted long in the national market, they paved the way for an explosion of similar shows that popped up everywhere as the ’50s gave way to the ’60s.
In fact, the first long-running music television show in the UK was a version of Juke Box Jury (known as the one-word Jukebox Jury). Though it looks pretty buttoned-up compared to the exuberant dance party over at Bandstand, Jukebox Jury, with its up-to-the-minute playlist and rotating lineup of the day’s most popular artists as guest judges (including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones), became a huge hit. One of the celebrity panelists was always young, giving a “teenager’s view” on every record. A frequent panelist was the young actress Jane Asher, who eventually became Paul McCartney’s long-term girlfriend; it’s said that years before they themselves appeared on Jukebox Jury, the Beatles were enthralled by Asher and wouldn’t miss an episode if they knew she’d be on the panel.
The second wave
The British Invasion led to a second wave of music shows, with dozens popping up in both the US and the UK. Ready Steady Go!, Top of the Pops, Shindig!, and Hullabloo were some of the many that premiered between 1963 and 1964, all a mix of performances, dancing, panelists, and interviews targeted at teens. Traditional variety shows still existed, of course, but started catering to a more niche audience or, like The Ed Sullivan Show, kept themselves in the mainstream by featuring pop music alongside their standard fare (though even with the clout he had from the Beatles and other high-profile guests through the years, Sullivan’s show was canceled in 1971).
Many of these newer shows came out of a local market (like Philly’s Bandstand had in the mid-’50s) and brought its city’s unique vibe with it. Cleveland’s Upbeat, originally known as The Big Five Show, featured a local host — Don Webster, also a Cleveland weatherman — and a Cleveland-based house band. In addition to hosting nationally-known acts like Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, and the Who, Upbeat exposed the country to the region’s local talent; some of whom, like the O’Jays and the Outsiders, became national hit-makers in their own right.
Chicago was another city ripe with dance music shows. Kiddie-A-Go-Go (think Bandstand with puppet shows!) catered to the preschool to pre-teen music crowd; and Red, Hot, and Blue was geared toward African-American teens and featured R&B, blues, and jazz. These inspired the creation of another local show, Soul Train, which quickly became a huge hit and was nationally syndicated from 1971–2006. Like Judge for Yourself, Soul Train also had a game-show element: a word scramble puzzle that two of the dancers would solve while everyone else danced. Yet this game had a broader purpose: the unscrambled word would often reveal famous “names you should know” in African-American music, sports, or history. Given Soul Train‘s wide popularity across races and regions, it’s likely that this little game taught a lot of people a few names they never heard before.
Most of these classic shows aren’t on the air anymore, but their impact is still felt on TV, on the radio, and online. Broadcasting music on visual media created a need for bands to be seen as well as heard; as artists became more creative with how they presented their music, the music video was born. They opened up television as an outlet for popular music, far surpassing the variety show’s popularity and legitimizing a genre that was originally just seen as a teen fad. And the participatory aspect of music television is now pretty much a given. From MTV’s Total Request Live (1998–2008), to American Idol, to So You Think You Can Dance (originally a sub-section of an American Bandstand reboot), it’s hard to imagine watching a music show without being a part of it in some way.