Foremost among his countless contributions to popular culture and the music business, Dick Clark took rock ‘n’ roll out of bedroom radios and placed it on televisions in living rooms and dens across America. Nearly five decades later, after creating and hosting game shows, the American Music Awards, New Year’s Eve celebrations and producing TV shows and films, “American Bandstand” remains the jewel in Clark’s crown.
Clark was 82 years old when he died Wednesday (April 18) of a heart attack in at Saint John’s Health Center in Los Angeles. A fixture on television since he took over as host of the local “Bandstand” show in Philadelphia in 1956, Clark was a less visible presence after suffering a stroke in 2004, but he soldiered through numerous appearances as he was handing over the baton to a new generation.
Remembering Dick Clark
With boyish looks that made him seem only a few years older than the teens who filled the studios at WFIL for “Bandstand,” Clark was instrumental in providing exposure to budding rock stars whose access to TV airwaves was highly limited. Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly were among the young, budding artists who appeared on the show when it went national as “American Bandstand” on Aug. 5, 1957 on ABC.
Clark, who was almost 28 at that time, understood that teenagers were trend-conscious and that the shows needed to reflect changes in clothing, hairstyles and dances as well as radio’s top 40. The dancers, all of them Philadelphia high schoolers, were a more consistent presence than any musical stars; “American Bandstand” took a democratic approach to pop music, relying on the strength of songs rather than superstar talent.
Success from an appearance was immediate. Paul Anka sang “Diana” on the Aug. 7, 1957 show and the single sprang into the top 10 in mid-August where it remained through early November. Countless other songs saw similar rises up the charts.
“We brought him Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, Dee Dee Sharp, the Orlons doing ‘The Bristol Stomp,’ ” says Cameo Records artist, arranger and producer Dave Appell, now 90, who became friends with Clark during his radio days.
The Philadelphia connection was crucial as labels based in Philadelphia and New Jersey were able to get their acts on air, specifically Duane Eddy (on Jamie), Fabian and Frankie Avalon (on Chancellor), and Freddy Cannon, who made a record 110 appearances on “Bandstand” (on Swan). Appell and his band the Applejacks recorded an instrumental, “The Mexican Hat Rock,” that became a hit first on “Bandstand” and then charted, reaching No. 16 in 1958.
“He was a workhorse – he never stopped,” says Appell, who led the orchestra on Clark’s package tours. “He was always generous, always gave good advice. We had a thing in Philadelphia, once a month, where all the people in the music business got together – the distributors, musicians. He was always there.”
“American Bandstand,” Philadelphia International founders Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff said in a statement, “promoted Philadelphia music around the nation. Dick Clark was one of our inspirations for creating the ‘Sound of Philadelphia’ music brand.”
Bringing in such a variety of acts made Clark was one of the first stars of television. With fame came wealth, and he invested in the businesses of the people he associated with – management companies, music publishers, record distributors, etc. When Congress started its payola hearings, ABC had Clark divest himself from any business that could look suspicious. He denied that he took direct payment to play records, but did acknowledge some of the transactions were questionable; the divestitures reportedly cost him millions.
Those events of 1959 and 1960 were the only marks against Clark’s squeaky-clean image, and ABC wasted little time to capitalize on his stardom. Buoyed by “American Bandstand’s” daily afternoon popularity, ABC attempted to plug Clark and pop music into other times. They tried a 30-minute show at 7:30 p.m. on Mondays and a Saturday night hour-long show out of New York City, but neither gained much traction. “American Bandstand” was cut to 60 minutes in 1961 and then to a half-hour a year later. The show went back a to full hour, but only once a week, on Saturdays, beginning in September 1963. It moved to Los Angeles in early 1964 and went off the air in 1989, making it one of the longest-running shows in television history.
“American Bandstand,” prior to the disco era, never reflected Clark’s taste in music. Instead, he held up a mirror to music he believed had the potential to catch on. Decades later its clips from the second half of the 1960s, taken out of context, seem quite bizarre: The booking of “the Pink Floyd” to perform a track from their first album “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”; doing a phone interview with Captain Beefheart to promote “Diddy Wah Diddy”; and “rate-a-record” segments that would find teenagers turning their noses up at the Jimi Hendrix Experience and even the Beatles, whose “She Loves You” scored a 73.
Popular taste was easier to represent in the 1970s and ’80s, when he was still an early adapter and a risk taker. Clark presented the Jackson 5 with their first gold record, right before they performed “I Want You Back”; Madonna sang “Holiday” on “Bandstand” in its first month of release. The show also presented Devo and John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. in an era when the show was more likely to be booking disco acts.
In 1972, Clark introduced “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” and in the next year went into game shows with the “$10,000 Pyramid” and created, as an alternative to the Grammys, the American Music Awards with Michael Jackson and Donny Osmond as the hosts. Through his company Dick Clark Productions, he produced scores of TV shows and films including the Golden Globes, the Academy of Country Music Awards and “TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes.”
He sold the company in 2001 (for $137 million) soon after suing the Recording Academy and its then president C. Michael Greene, charging that he had a blacklist of stars to prevent them from appearing on the Grammys and the AMAs.
Business aside, Clark’s image, though, will almost always be of the man giving a young band a break with a performance. The Beach Boys, currently rehearsing for their upcoming tour, may well be speaking for many acts in the statement they gave Billboard: “The music world has lost a valuable mentor and great guy.”