Tom Snyder was one of the best broadcasters of his generation. He could do it all, from anchoring local newscasts and one-minute network updates to hosting national magazine shows and one-on-one interviews.
He rose to fame doing the latter on the “Tomorrow” show, which aired on NBC after Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show from 1973 to 1982. There, Snyder would ask guests (mostly from showbiz, but not all) probing questions they weren’t asked elsewhere, leaning in to press them or get more intimate, then reeling back to let out a giant laugh, all from behind the blue haze of his ever-present cigarette smoke. He was parodied mercilessly by Dan Aykroyd on “Saturday Night Live,” which only helped increase his late-night popularity.
As a budding young broadcaster, I learned a lot by watching and listening to Snyder. He was a total pro at the formatics of whatever he hosted, and I admired the way he conducted his interviews more as long-form conversations, drawing more insightful responses from whoever was in his guest chair. Not having a studio audience helped, too, as did his ability to keep guests on for several segments instead of the traditional eight-minutes-and-we’re-done on other shows. It was a formula successfully copied when Bob Costas did “Later” on NBC in the 1990s (that’s a series I wish someone would re-package and re-release a la the Dick Cavett collections, as they also contained some fantastic discussions).
When NBC cancelled “Tomorrow” to make way for “Late Night with David Letterman,” Snyder returned to local news at ABC’s owned-and-operated TV stations, first in New York and then in Los Angeles. A few years later, he went back to his radio roots and started doing a daily three-hour show, then returned to TV for a short-lived show on CNBC that ended its run in 1995 when Snyder was hired by Letterman to host a new companion late-night show at CBS, “The Late Late Show” (which was also simulcast on radio stations across the country).
It was during that run that Snyder had legendary rock and roll pioneer Little Richard as a guest.
Richard was exactly what any host wants — upbeat and energetic, open about his life, and willing to answer any question put to him. Snyder asked him what it was like growing up black and gay in Macon, Georgia, and Richard didn’t hold back in his response. Since the show aired live on both radio and TV, Snyder took calls, one of which got Richard talking about how much he influenced the Beatles and brought them along as an opening act when he headlined the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. As Richard explained, he had to tell John Lennon and Paul McCartney, both of whom idolized him, that they couldn’t do their covers of his songs “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” just before he came out to sing them. Richard also shared with Snyder his thoughts on Elvis Presley, Prince, and others.
As you watch this, note that Richard was so media-savvy that, despite sitting just a few feet away from Snyder, he directed many of his answers straight into the camera lens. He wasn’t ignoring Snyder, with whom he obviously had a good rapport. Instead, he was making the kind of connection with viewers that he’d always made on stage with his fans.
With the deaths of Little Richard last weekend and Tom Snyder in 2007, it’s delightful to look back at this perfect amalgam of a great broadcaster and a great entertainer, from a 1997 broadcast of “The Late Late Show,” as recorded on VHS from CBS’s Philadelphia affiliate…