Hugh Hefner, the magazine titan who founded Playboy magazine with a small loan from his mother and died Wednesday at 91, exerted a substantial influence in the pop music world decades before most present-day pop stars were born.
It began in 1959, when Hefner “pivoted to video” in the original sense by hosting a short-lived television variety show called Playboy’s Penthouse. The show’s celebrity guest performers included a veritably who’s-who of major jazz and R&B icons of the era, including Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr.
Then, begging in the late 1960s, Hefner hosted a similar show called Playboy After Dark, a television show meant to depict late-night revelry in the founder’s living room, and became a noted champion of black music by inviting artists like James Brown and Marvin Gaye to perform. If anyone has access to a time machine, the line-up of early ’70s stars who appeared on the show is pretty staggering: Deep Purple, Fleetwood Mac, Joe Cocker, Ike & Tina Turner, Grand Funk Railroad, B.B. King and too many others to name.
Personally, I’m quite partial to this clip of Harry Nilsson on the show, singing the wonderful 1968 cut “Good Old Desk”:
And here’s a young, pre-Bare Trees Fleetwood Mac playing on the show:
With these shows, Hefner helped bring a significant range of creative music and entertainment acts to the masses, including comedy stars like Lenny Bruce, who was essentially blacklisted from television for his edgy material. Though his legacy and treatment of women are quite fairly subject to criticism, Hefner was also noted for championing black culture and civil rights causes.
By the 1990s, Hefner’s influence in music was being reflected back to him in the form of song lyrics. Hefner, as well as his legendary parties at the Playboy Mansion, was frequently name-checked in hip hop songs, from 50 Cent’s “Hustler’s Ambition”…