From Fleetwood Mac and the Grateful Dead to James Brown and Tony Bennett, Hef's late night variety series captured legendary artists at their prime

By Jordan Runtagh
September 28, 2017 05:45 PM
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It’s difficult to find an aspect of popular culture that Hugh Hefner didn’t influence during his long, remarkable life. Spanning journalism, television, film, fashion and, of course, sexuality, his impact on music is one of the least heralded aspects of his legacy. Over the course of two seasons, Hefner used his weekly syndicated variety show, Playboy After Dark, as a platform for a broad spectrum of artists.

Psychedelic sounds from San Fransisco (courtesy of the Grateful Dead), early heavy metal (provided by Deep Purple), country-tinged balladeers (thanks to Linda Ronstadt and the Byrds) and old-school crooners (like the incomparable Tony Bennett) all mingled in the living room of Hef’s penthouse—recreated on a CBS soundstage in Los Angeles. Mostly importantly, the publishing giant used his outlet to give equal airtime to African-American artists, allowing Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, B.B. King and Motown’s Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson an all-too-rare opportunity to share their talent and message with the country.

Following Hefner’s death at age 91 on Wednesday, we’re talking a look back at some of the most electrifying performances from the short-lived Playboy After Dark.

Credit: Bettman/Getty

1. Ike & Tina Turner, “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Come Together” and “Proud Mary” (Dec. 3, 1969)

Fresh off a tour with the Rolling Stones, the Turners brought their entire revue—not to mention Tina’s trademark gold-fringed flapper dress—out to Hef’s pad. A bombastic intro theme announces their shimmy-powered arrival before Tina launches into Sly Stone’s recent hit. Over a decade into their showbiz career, the act excelled at turning up the heat on their covers, making even a ubiquitous Beatles smash their very own. Their breakneck version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” damn near sets the penthouse ablaze.

2. The Grateful Dead, “St. Stephen,” “Mountains of the Moon “and “Turn on Your Lovelight” (Jan. 18, 1969)

It’s hard to imagine a more incongruous pairing than brandy-sipping hep cat Hef and the poncho-clad Jerry “Captain Trips” Garcia, but by all accounts the men enjoyed each other’s company. Relations might have been helped along by the band’s sound man (and legendary LSD manufacturer) Owsley “Bear” Stanley, who spiked the crew’s communal coffee pot with his particularly potent brand of psychedelics. A highlight of the set is a rare acoustic version of “Mountains of the Moon,” featuring Garcia, Bob Weir and Tom Constanten.

3. James Brown, “If I Ruled the World” and “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” (Nov. 25, 1968)

After warming up with a slow-burning ballad from the Broadway show Pickwick, the Godfather of Soul sent his defiant civil rights anthem across the airwaves. Written in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination that April, the song became a crucial part of the soundtrack to a tumultuous summer, rife with riots and unrest between those who differed in race, age and culture.

4. Fleetwood Mac, “Rattlesnake Shake” (Jan. 8, 1970)

Prior to their better-known incarnation as purveyors of fine AM radio pop in the mid ’70s, Fleetwood Mac was founded as a blues band in 1967 by the seminal British guitarist Peter Green. This early TV performance, among their first in United States, was taped just months before mental health struggles prompted Green to leave the group. Their choice of song this night, “Rattlesnake Shake,” was written by Green as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to drummer Mick Fleetwood’s love of, err, self love. “I’m named in it as a guy who does the rattlesnake shake to jerk away my sadness whenever I don’t have a chick,” Fleetwood wrote in his memoir, Play On. “That was an appropriate immortalization of my younger self, to be sure.” Perhaps Playboys were involved.

5. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “Sad Song” Medley (Feb. 20, 1970)

The Motown master delivered a self-styled medley of the Miracles’ “sad songs,” including “Yesterlove,” “My Girl Has Gone,” “Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” and “Tracks of My Tears.” Offsetting the cloudy mood of the music is the night’s uber-retro Hawaiian luau theme—note the bountiful leis and hors d’oeuvre plates.

6. The Byrds, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “This Wheel’s on Fire” (Sept. 28, 1968)

The so-called American Beatles exploded in 1965 with their folk-rock cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but the end of the decade found them exploring new realms of electric country with albums like Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Ballad of Easy Rider. Though talented songwriters in their own right, Roger McGuinn and Co. opted to return to the Dylan well for their Playboy After Dark appearance, covering two of his songs.

7. Sammy Davis Jr., “I’ve Gotta Be Me” (Dec. 19, 1968)

The Rat Pack great was a regular guest on Hef’s programs, memorably appearing on his first television series, Playboy’s Penthouse, in 1960. He’d fully embraced the flower-power look by the decade’s end, donning an ultra-cool velvet vest and open-necked paisley shirt offset with gold chains on this appearance from Christmas 1968. Following his soulful version of the Steve Lawrence chestnut, he kicked off a medley of songs by the British showtune team Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.

8. Marvin Gaye, “Chained” (Sept. 28, 1968)

Sure, Gaye’s most definitely lip-syncing his latest Motown hit while getting up close and personal with Hef and his friends—but no one can sell it like he can. He followed the song with a version of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” made famous by Glen Campbell.

9. Harry Nilsson, “Good Old Desk” and “Together” (Aug. 30, 1968)

In addition to doing two tracks off his album Aerial Ballet, Nilsson also teamed up with famed director Otto Preminger, whose recent film Skidoo featured a soundtrack from the up-and-coming singer/songwriter. Together the men performed a musical version of the movie’s closing credits—all the way down to the copyright number!

10. Linda Ronstadt, “Living Like a Fool” (Oct. 22, 1969)

The barefoot country songstress got backup help from future Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon as she sings a deep cut from 1969. She also performed Bob Dylan’s “Walkin’ Down the Line” on this episode, before returning to the studio weeks later to tape a version of “Lovesick Blues”—which the late Hank Williams’ took to the top of the charts over 20 years earlier.

11. Tony Bennett, “Blue Velvet” (Nov. 20, 1969)

Bennett found more than he bargained for when he showed up at the (faux) Playboy Penthouse. Before he could begin “Blue Velvet,” Hef served up a This Is Your Life-style surprise by bringing out Mitch Miller, the bandleader who first signed him to Columbia Records in 1950.

12. Joe Cocker & the Grease Band, “Hitchcock Railway” (Oct. 22, 1969)

The young soul shouter from Sheffield, England, had made his star-making turn at Woodstock barely two months earlier when he rocked Hef’s living room—with a little help from his friends in the Grease Band. His passionate, if spasmodic, stage moves (later mimicked to great effect by John Belushi on early seasons of Saturday Night Live) are on full display, as is his unforgettable voice.

13. B.B. King, “The Thrill Is Gone” (April 15, 1970)

Not even the awkwardly swaying go-go dancers could distract the King of Blues in full flight. Watch in wonder as liquid cool solos pour out of Lucille, his iconic Gibson.

14. Three Dog Night, “Celebrate” and “Love Me So Hard” (May 2, 1969)

Named for an indigenous Australian expression (roughly meaning “a very cold night”), the vocal trio would score an astonishing 21 consecutive Top 40 hits between 1969 and 1975. One of them was “Celebrate,” which lent a festive air to the taping which included James Brown in the audience. The pre-song banter between the band and the hardest working man in showbiz is just as entertaining as the music.

15. Deep Purple, “Hush” (Oct. 23, 1968)

The proto metal gods put their own spin on this track originally recorded by Billy Joe Royal in 1967. It’s an impressive feat considering, as they tell Hef in between impromptu guitar lessons, the group had only been together for less than a year.