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Music For Morning's Masses


For many rock 'n' rollers, 8:30 p.m. is early for a performance. 8:30 a.m. is downright unfathomable.

Yet there was Jon Bon Jovi one recent day, sunglasses obscuring any evidence of how strange the hour really was, smiling and singing for an audience on its way to work or sightseeing in Manhattan.

Morning television, of all things, is becoming an important venue for musicians--particularly artists whose real hitmaking days are behind them.

A sporadic offering during the past few years, Friday morning concerts are now a regular part of "Today's" summer schedule. The weekly feature will continue until Elton John's performance scheduled for Sept. 26, and summer highlights will be shown on Labor Day.

"Good Morning America" also has gotten into the act, bringing James Brown, Billy Ray Cyrus and Gloria Gaynor to its morning concert series in Central Park.

The concerts are a natural for the new, feel-good era at top-ranked "Today." They're staged outside the show's window-to-the-world studio in Rockefeller Plaza, and since the music plays on "Today's" last half-hour before the weekend, the smiles on passersby seem just that little bit wider.

"It's been a real success for us," says Jeffrey Zucker, "Today's" executive producer. "It's just taken off. A lot of people have tried to imitate it now, like 'Good Morning America' and 'Fox After Breakfast.' I don't think any of that happened by accident."

(Sniffs "Good Morning America's" Robert Pini: "That's not true at all. They make it sound like they invented the outside.")

Even "Today's" weekend edition is among the imitators, although it tends to get stuck with one hit-wonder disco artists.

Musicians participating in the Friday "Today" concerts perform three or four songs, although generally only two get on the air immediately. Little Richard got carried away and kept playing until 9:30 a.m. with the cameras off.

It wasn't the hour, but the venue that was particularly strange for Barry Manilow. Trucks rolled by behind him on 49th Street and, when he looked up, people watched him from the windows of skyscrapers.

It reminded him of performing in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

"It's a very exciting experience," Manilow says. "The people are very exuberant and excited. As soon as I hit the stage, I could feel that."

In the days that followed Manilow's appearance, he could tell by the reaction on the streets that a lot of people saw him. His latest single did better on the charts than he expected the next week, and he suspects "Today" might have had something to do with it.

James Taylor's management also credited "Today" with helping the singer's album get off to a good sales start, Zucker says.

"Today's" venture into the music business does have its limits, though. There are no plans to put out an album of musical highlights from the show, like the discs in the works by David Letterman and Conan O'Brien.

When he appeared, Manilow performed the chestnut "Copacabana." It's in keeping with another "Today" tradition: Most of the songs, and the singers themselves, have a little wear on them.

Featured performers this summer included the Spinners, the Bee Gees, Chicago, the 5th Dimension and Glen Campbell. The Monkees sang "Last Train to Clarksville."

"Today's" audience is heavy on baby boomers, and the show tries to cater to them when booking the acts, co-host Matt Lauer says.

"If you do groups that are basically catering to 18 or 19 year olds, then you've got a bunch of people standing out there and when you do the crowd shots, they don't know the words to the songs, they aren't clapping along," Lauer says. "It's kind of important to give them something they can identify with."

"Today" airs weekdays at 7 a.m. on NBC.

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