It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. When Charles Dickens wrote those dichotomous words to open “A Tale of Two Cities,” he could just as easily have been talking about the state of popular music in 1977. The late ’70s are remembered as some of the most stylistically contradictory years in music history, with stars, trends and technologies all coming and going in dizzying disarray.
Still, for all its muddle, 1977 stood as proof positive that rock ‘n’ roll―no matter how restless―had definitely come to stay. Television had brought it into the living rooms of America, and no network TV show had done it as consistently as Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” an anchor of the pop music scene since 1957.
The show’s Philadelphia origins, though, predate its national ABC-TV debut by five years, making 1977 the Bandstand’s 25th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Dick Clark hosted a prime-time special that aired on February 4, 1977.
According to longtime “Bandstand” director Barry Glazer, Clark hatched an idea for an exhilarating finale that would set a television precedent: an all-star segment designed to bring together a crazy quilt of assorted performers on a single stage. Clark’s popular “Caravan of Stars” concert tours had previously presented at least the possibility for such collaborations in venues across America, perhaps sparking the host and impresario’s all-star-band concept. But to manage such a feat for a televised production was another matter entirely.
“It was Dick Clark who said, ‘Let’s put this whole thing together and get the best in the business,'” recalls Glazer. “And we were sitting in the office just listening to Dick, [thinking] ‘how are we going to get this thing off the ground?’ So our talent coordinators kind of reached out to people―I mean, they were all over the country―to try to get them to come to Hollywood and perform.”
Signing on for the groundbreaking TV segment was a cross-section of musicians that defied categorization, ranging from grizzled blues-rocker Gregg Allman and sartorially splendid “Tonight Show” bandleader Doc Severinsen to Memphis soul linchpins Booker T. & the MGs, jazz/pop horn player Chuck Mangione and Nashville’s sole representative, Charlie Daniels.
The country star was then still a minor presence on the rock charts and known in the industry as a skilled instrumentalist who’d recorded with such notables as Bob Dylan and former Beatle Ringo Starr. His inclusion is testament to the respect he’d won as an extraordinary musician and genre-bending recording artist even two years before the release of his breakthrough hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
The song singled out for the show’s closing segment was a particularly inspired choice: rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry’s anthemic 1956 hit and now-classic “Roll Over Beethoven,” to be fronted by Berry himself, with vocals shared by The Pointer Sisters. An ultimately prophetic declaration of the then-ascendant rock genre’s game-changing potency, “Beethoven” was an ideal song for the anniversary of “American Bandstand.” With its standard 12-bar-blues structure and wide familiarity, it was also perfectly suited to a loose jam for which there would be precious little rehearsal time.
Of the two hours or so that Glazer estimates were spent setting up and shooting the segment, much of that time was devoted to coordinating the rapid series of camera shots moving from one performer to another. “I was so nervous about making sure that each individual had their time [on camera]―and getting the right shots, and of course, all those people on stage, to try to manipulate cameras in there,” remembers Glazer. “But the guys that I hired to do this went underneath and tried to get behind the speakers and everything.”
In addition to camera coordination, notes Glazer, the audio engineer on duty had to open variously placed microphones in correct sequence for the series of short instrumental breaks―19 in all, stretched throughout the 6-minute group performance. “I remember our audio mixer,” Glazer adds. “His hands were so busy . . . we had to do it two or three times [to get all the microphone cues executed correctly].”
Aiding in the process was hit songwriter and actor/TV personality Paul Williams. who conducted the performance from an elevated white podium, serving primarily to announce each band member as they began their respective solo features, most of them divvying up a 12-bar verse between them.
“I’d prepared,” says Glazer, “and listened to the song and divided it up into who gets what, and who comes first, and so on. So my assistant director was counting the bars for me and I would jump around, and I had about six cameras trying to get the band members and everybody on there.”
History (via YouTube) shows that the massive jam had some rough edges, musically speaking. Attesting to the on-the-fly conditions of the jam, some sour notes slipped out, as even skilled pros found the setup to be tricky.
With his head down and his face obscured by the only cowboy hat seen on the stage, Charlie Daniels seemed to be having difficulty hearing himself well enough to play his fretless instrument in perfect tune during the show’s keeper take; nonetheless, he bore down on his fiddle tenaciously. (The fiddler would erase any potential doubts of his pitch-perfect virtuosity in an even more prominent spot on the subsequent 30th anniversary show’s all-star band feature in late 1981.)
Glazer confirms that there were indeed audio limitations, especially in those days of TV production, and that audio monitors were likely not evenly distributed among the 19 band members backing Berry and the Pointers, all of whom performed with a team spirit that overcame any passing flaws.
What amazes the director all these years later is that, even under challenging and time-sensitive conditions, there were no conflicts or problems among the diverse group of seasoned pros. “[There wasn’t] anybody who said no, I want more, or I want less. But everybody was just so pleased to be there, and congratulating each other.”
From a production standpoint, the first televised all-star band performance was a total win. “I was thrilled at the end,” says Glazer. “In the technical booth, we all congratulated each other―we pulled it off, you know, with so many people on stage.”
Perhaps most impressively, “American Bandstand”―which had always been more of a pop-culture mirror than a cutting-edge instigator―had brought together an unprecedented mix of musicians on prime-time TV and created an innovative moment in musical history after 25 years. Even Beethoven might have approved . . . unless, of course, he’s still rolling over.