In 1959, Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner expanded his empire with a hip black-and-white TV series filmed in Chicago called Playboy’s Penthouse. A jazz- and booze-fueled series meant to replicate one of Hef’s cocktail parties, the show was filmed in Chicago and syndicated across the country. A decade later, with psychedelic rock & roll at the forefront, Hefner moved the party to Los Angeles and started a new series, provocatively titled Playboy After Dark. With his 18-year-old girlfriend, future Hee Haw star (and brief country hitmaker) Barbi Benton on his arm, the 42-year-old presided over the glittering soiree that included musical guests such as Joe Cocker, Sonny & Cher, Ike and Tina Turner and the Grateful Dead, in addition to actors, comedians and other celebrities mingling throughout each of the 52 episodes.
During the show’s second season, future country, pop and Broadway superstar Linda Ronstadt made a pair of memorable appearances on the series. Her first, which was taped in late 1969 and aired in April the following year, included a barefoot performance that featured one of the future Eagles who would comprise her band at the time, Bernie Leadon. In an episode taped that same month and aired later in the spring, Ronstadt put a relentlessly groovy spin on a country music classic that had been hit for Hank Williams 20 years earlier. Where Williams’ version, a Number One hit, conveyed the loneliness and heartbreak that haunted the singer throughout his lifetime, Ronstadt’s take turned it into a swaggering anthem, complete with go-go dance moves straight out of Valley of the Dolls.
Ronstadt does manage to inject a hint of the yodeling blues that were a Williams trademark, and even though she’s surrounded by dozens of smiling, hip-shakin’ dancers obviously having a good time, her insanely forceful voice, which, it could be argued, was at the peak of its considerable powers during this time period, still manage to convey the desperation of being “nobody’s sugar mama now.”
The weird party vibe and goofy dance moves may belong buried in a time capsule, but Ronstadt, who turned 70 on July 15th, remains a timeless musical treasure.