1965 may have been a year when then-young baby boomers were at war with authority figures over the Vietnam War, but a bold piece of TV programming — funded by the federal government, no less — attempted to bring the nation together around 90 minutes of incredible music that is getting a thrilling replay on PBS on March 6, nearly 56 years later.
Watch it: It’s What’s Happening, Baby!, airing March 6 on PBS (check local listings for times).
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Murray the K (left) with The Ronettes.
It’s What’s Happening, Baby!
With a title that could only be created by a bureaucrat’s view of youthspeak, It’s What’s Happening, Baby! was a soulful, rocking, all-star musical review commissioned by Sargent Shriver as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiatives. The goal was to encourage young people to value education and seek summer employment. To deliver the message, Shriver hired celebrity DJ Murray the K (Murray Kaufman) as host. Kaufman, renowned for spinning discs by Black artists ignored by mainstream stations, lobbied to add hot Motown acts to the show’s marquee.
Kaufman succeeded, spawning a lineup that was wildly diverse — from the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Johnny Rivers to Ray Charles, the Four Tops and the Righteous Brothers.
CBS donated airtime and production costs, and artists were paid union scale. Some performances were filmed live on June 16, 1965, at Brooklyn’s Fox Theatre, while others were recorded in Manhattan, Detroit and Los Angeles.
The marquee outside of Brooklyn’s Fox Theatre showing the music artists performing at the Murray the K Big Easter Show.
A special that more than holds up, nearly six decades later
It’s surprising to revisit these performances, many of which feel ahead of their time. Some quirky musical narratives foreshadow the video style associated with MTV (which wouldn’t launch for another 16 years). Martha and the Vandellas sing “Nowhere to Run” on an assembly line at a Ford plant in Detroit, where they climb into a Mustang and drive away.
Fred Gwynne, in the role of Herman Munster, sends dancing teens into dead faints on a beach where Cannibal & the Headhunters are performing “Land of 1000 Dances.” And 17-year-old Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits is thwarted by annoyed moms as he attempts to woo pretty teens while singing “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” a Billboard chart topper.
Noone, now 73, remembers the band being on a crushing schedule when the ask came in. “We were stuck for time,” he says. “We came to the hotel, we walked out on Lexington Avenue and we made the video. It was a long time before rock ‘n’ roll videos were made, but that’s what we did. We weren’t really actors, but we went through the motions. It took a couple of hours. Fans were there, and they had police holding them back. We went back to the hotel and then went to do a concert the same day.
“It was a cute little song, so you could do it on the street without causing too much commotion,” Noone adds.
An additional outcome: While the Hermits were filming their spot, their agent was booking them on a bus tour with Little Anthony and the Imperials, a New York City-based rhythm-and-blues group that was also part of the special. “A lot of people on that TV show ended up on the tour,” Noone says. “The music business was much smaller then.”
Peter Noone (top right) and the rest of his Herman’s Hermits bandmates join together for a group photo with Murray the K.
Evidence of America’s powerful musical moment in 1965
“I was so excited when I heard they found the show after all these years,” Noone says. “When people remember the period, they only think of the Beatles, like the music business began with them. The Beatles were probably inspired by all the people on that show.
“Most of the [performers] were soul singers,” Noone says. “What people sometimes forget is that it wasn’t safe for those people to perform in parts of America. We had no idea. We were from England, and we didn’t know anything about anything. We were just English tourists, just naive overeducated Roman Catholic schoolboys.”
Incredible music, but not exactly a generation-gap closer
With 20 million viewers, It’s What’s Happening, Baby! was a huge ratings success but did little to bridge the generation gap. Many members of Congress who watched the government-sponsored program were outraged and condemned the show as depraved. Colorado Sen. Gordon Allott complained to CBS president Frank Stanton that “every American who saw that show must be sick. I am about to throw up.” And Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen threatened to launch an investigation.
Exactly one month later, on July 28, 1965, President Johnson ordered a steep increase in U.S. troops sent to South Vietnam and a doubling of the number of men drafted each month. It was the summer of civil rights marches, antiwar protests and the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Bob Dylan went electric and shared the airwaves with Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” The special faded — quickly — into the agitated landscape of American life.
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Revisiting the musical moment in 2021
Although off the air for more than half a century, It’s What’s Happening, Baby! offers a rich musical time capsule and a reminder that even in days of deep division, harmony is something to strive for.
This time around, the special — with footage restored by PBS My Music creator TJ Lubinsky — will feature PBS pledge breaks with the artists, including the last interview by Supremes singer Mary Wilson, who spoke in late January about her memories of the show. (Wilson died on Feb. 8.)
Encore presentations run all month (check local TV listings).
The All-Star Lineup
Talk about great stars and great hits! Follow along (or maybe stream some samples in advance) before the show with this impeccable set list, in chronological order.
Martha and the Vandellas: “Nowhere to Run”
Dionne Warwick: “Walk On By”
Herman’s Hermits: “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”
Marvin Gaye: “Pride and Joy”
Cannibal & the Headhunters: “Land of 1000 Dances”
Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles: “You’ll Never Walk Alone”
Little Anthony and the Imperials: “I’m Alright”
The Ronettes: “Be My Baby”
Chuck Jackson: “I Don’t Want to Cry”
Mary Wells: “My Guy”
Johnny Rivers: “The Seventh Son”
The Temptations: The Way You Do the Things You Do
Gary Lewis & the Playboys: Count Me In
The Drifters: “Up on the Roof”
The Supremes: “Stop! In the Name of Love”
The Righteous Brothers: “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ”
The Four Tops: “I Can’t Help Myself”
The Miracles: “Ooo Baby Baby”
Ray Charles: “What’d I Say”