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Origins of music videos date back many decades prior to the launch of MTV

MTV launched its music video channel in 1981, but the history of music videos dates back many decades.
MTV launched its music video channel in 1981, but the history of music videos dates back many decades.

A music video or song video is a short film combining song and imagery, produced for artistic or promotional reasons, and in modern times, they are generally utilized as a marketing device to promote the sale of music recordings.

The origins of music videos date back into the 1920s, but they came into prominence in the 1980s, when MTV based its format around the medium. Prior to MTV, these videos were described by various terms including "promotional video", "song video", "illustrated song", "promo film" or "song clip."

Music videos employ a wide range of film-making techniques, including animation, documentaries and live action filming. Some interpret images and scenes from the song's lyrics, but others are simply a filmed version of the song's live performance, and in the eye of the beholder, such videos may be considered anywhere from beautiful to trashy.

The tradition of singing performance in cinema dates back to 1927, when Al Jolson sang "Oh Mama" in the first motion picture with sound, "The Jazz Singer." From that point, filmed singing gained momentum, with the classic formula behind such performances being popular vocalists placed in a setting that is suggested by the lyrics.

According to some music historians, singer-songwriter J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson was the first to coin the phrase "music video" during a 1959 interview with a British magazine. And to view a video of Big Bopper singing his huge 1958 hit "Chantilly Lace", click here.

Needless to say, some of the early music videos were primitive and low-quality, in compared with those produced with the passage of time, but following are samples of such videos over the years, and to view any of them, simply click on the title.

  • "ST. LOUIS BLUES" (Bessie Smith, 1929): An early example of a music video is this performance from a two-reel short film that featured a dramatized performance of the hit song.
  • "THE YOGI WHO LOST HIS WILL POWER" (Orrin Tucker, 1941): This video contains special effects that were far ahead of its time, and it features the bandleader himself on vocals and a prominent performance by comedian Jerry Colonna.
  • SOUNDIES (1940-46) were an early version of the music video. They were three-minute films produced in New York, Chicago, and Hollywood between 1940 and 1946, and they often included short dance sequences. The films were displayed on the Panoram, a coin-operated film jukebox or music machine, in nightclubs, restaurants, factory lounges, and amusement centers.
  • "SPRING SONG CARTOON" (1949): Animation artist Max Fleischer introduced a series of sing-along cartoons that invited audiences to sing along to popular tunes by "following the bouncing ball." Such cartoons later became commonplace on children's TV programs. In the early 1930s, some such cartoons featured popular musicians performing their hit songs on-camera in live-action segments.
  • "THE GYPSY" (The Ink Spots, 1950): This famous quartet, formed in Indianapolis, gained traction in the mid-1930s, and this video -- re-enacting their huge No. 1 pop and R&B hit from early 1946 -- features the lead singing of Bill Kenny.
  • "SHE SAY" (The Diamonds, 1959): This Toronto group, headed by lead singer Dave Somerville, is most-famous for their 1957 rendition of "Little Darlin'." In this video of a 1959 hit, Somerville was joined by Mike Douglas, Evan Fisher and John Felten.
  • "CALENDAR GIRL" (Neil Sedaka, 1960): By modern standards, something could be called a music video if the single played in the background. Though dated, this one is presented in an elaborate and theatrical manner, but it wasn't a "performance video" in that the singer wears several different suits during the film.
  • "MY DAD" (Paul Petersen, 1962): There were some singing segments on early "family" TV shows, and it's on "Ozzie and Harriet" that young Ricky Nelson got exposure. This sentimental teen pop song was performed on The Donna Reed Show with Petersen singing the tune to his on-screen father, actor Carl Betz. Released as a single, it reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
  • "A HARD DAY'S NIGHT" (The Beatles, 1964): A defining moment in development of modern promotional videos came in connection with The Beatles' first major film "A Hard Day's Night" in 1964. The elements of this video establish the key facets of later videos.
  • "WHERE DO YOU GO TO GO AWAY" (Gale Garnett, 1965): This precursor of modern music videos was performed by a New Zealand-born songstress who relocated to the U.S. at age 9 in 1951. She is most famous for her 1964 rendition of "We'll Sing In The Sunshine."
  • "HAPPY JACK" (The Who, 1966): This London rock group was featured in several promotional clips, beginning with a 1965 clip for "I Can't Explain", and this plot clip, issued the following year, portrays the band acting like a gang of thieves.
  • "DEAD END STREET" (The Kinks, 1966): The Kinks were one of the first to make "plot" promo clips for a song, and for this single, a miniature comic movie was released, but the British Broadcasting Company reportedly refused to air it, considering it to be "in poor taste."
  • "STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER" (The Beatles, 1967, promotional video, Take 7): The Beatles were one of the first music acts to make promotional clips for distribution and broadcast in other countries -- primarily the U.S. -- so they could plug their releases without having to make in-person appearances. Such clips, often directed by Peter Goldman, took the concept to a new level.
  • "TAPIOCA TUNDRA" (The Monkees, 1968): Music videos provided the direct model for the popular American TV series "The Monkees" in the late 1960s, and such film segments regularly accompanied various Monkees songs.
  • "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY" (Queen, 1976 promotional video): The British rock group Queen enlisted Bruce Gowers to make a promo video for their new single, in order to have it shown on the TV show Top Of The Pops. This is sometimes considered the first true "video-clip" in the sense that it was directed and edited for that purpose.
  • "COME DANCING" (The Kinks, 1983): An example of the major advancement in music videos is this superb production starring Ray Davies and The Kinks, a group formed 20 years earlier in London.

Video channel MTV launched its concept on Aug. 1, 1981

At 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 1, 1981, MTV -- an abbreviation for Music Television -- launched an era of 24-hour-a-day music on TV. The first actual video on the station was The Buggles' rendition of "Video Killed The Radio Star."

With the advent of the new TV outlet, by the mid-1980s, music videos expanded to playing a significant role in the marketing of popular music. It goes without saying that many prominent recording artists of the era owed much of their success to skillful production and enticing appeal of their videos.

In its early years, MTV's main target demographic were young adults, but today, MTV's programming is primarily targeted at adolescents and teenagers in addition to young adults.

MTV has spawned numerous sister channels in the U.S. and affiliated channels internationally, some of which have gone independent. MTV's influence on its audience, including issues related to censorship and social activism, has been a subject of debate for years.

In its formative years, MTV's primary target demographic was young adults, but now, its programming is generally aimed at teens and adolescents, in addition to young adults. Nearly 100 million U.S. American households -- or around five-sixths of households with television -- currently receive MTV.

To view a complete list of the videos broadcast on MTV's first day on the air, click here. And to view a video of the actual launch of the MTV channel, click here.

Additional newsworthy post-MTV-related items

* On March 5, 1983, Country Music Television (CMT) was launched, created and founded by Glenn D. Daniels and uplinked from the Video World Productions facility in Hendersonville, Tenn.

* The Canadian music channel MuchMusic was launched in 1984. In 1984, MTV also launched the MTV Video Music Awards (later to be known as the VMA's), an annual awards event that would come to underscore MTV's importance in the music industry.

* In 1985, MTV launched the channel VH1 -- which became known as "VH-1: Video Hits One" -- which featured softer music designed to appeal to an older demographic than MTV. MTV Europe was unveiled in 1987, and MTV Asia reached fruition in 1991.

[You may subscribe to Bill Herald's oldies music columns -- free of charge -- by clicking on "subscribe" near the top of the column, after which you will receive e-mail notification each time a new item is published].

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