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Remembering Dick Clark

We were saddened to hear that Dick Clark died yesterday at the age of 82. A television presenter and American icon, Dick Clark is fondly remembered for his years hosting American Bandstand and New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in Times Square. We’ve excerpted the preface of American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Empire by John Jackson to showcase some of the impact he had on American music.

“I don’t make culture, I sell it. ”

American pop culture, which exploded after the conclusion of World War II, was fueled by a cornucopia of consumer goods that included television-a window that provided visual context where none had existed. Nationwide programming, whereby a single broadcast could be beamed into every American city and town, began when the East and West Coasts became linked by coaxiable cable in November 1951. It was this event that transformed television from a largely urban, eclectic phenomenon into an effective entertainment delivery system aimed at the widest possible audience, and it was from that moment on that television became the unstoppable financial and cultural force that i tis today.

The advent of rock ‘n’ roll, a music drawn from the minority genres of blues, rhythm and blues, hillbilly, and country and western, was an integral part of America’s pop-culture boom, which happened to coincide with the development of network television. The music was originally the stepchild of radio — which took to playing records as a cost-saving measure after network television siphoned off radio’s most lucrative sponsors. But it was network television, and specifically the teenage dance show American Bandstand that, by beaming bowdlerized rock ‘n’ roll into America’s living rooms, ultimately legitimized — some would say destroyed — what was viewed by most adults as vulgar, low-class music.

One man was responsible for making American Bandstand happen. On the surface, the bland, seemingly mild-mannered, white middle-American Dick Clark may seem like an unlikely selection for that role, but a closer look indicates that a man of Clark’s make-up and character was needed to pull off the feat he did.

One of network television’s first indigenous personalities, Clark has logged more hours in front of the cameras than Johnny Carson. He is one of the medium’s foremost celebrities (the first to have shows appear simultaneously on all three networks) and one of Hollywood’s most successful independent producers. Yet Clark remains of interest primarily because of his association with the landmark network television show American Bandstand.

Given today’s multicultural, one hundred-plus TV channel culture it is almost impossible to appreciate the impact American Bandstand had on popular music, the business of music, and on American society itsel£ Beginning in August 1957, Clark’s afternoon show-an endless offering of popular recording stars, hit songs, dance crazes, and other fads – became a rallying point around which America’s first teenage constituency was able to connect.

American Bandstand also afforded Madison Avenue and its sponsor-clients their initial marketing assault on the leading edge of the country’s teenage post-World War II baby boomer population and became the very heartbeat of a revived pop music industry in which Clark was heavily-albeit somewhat clandestinely-involved.

Ironically, during the mid-1950s, the concept of teenagers dancing to current hit songs was so anomalous that the television networks wanted no part of it. It is a credit to Clark’s tenacity and persuasive manner that he single-handedly convinced the then-struggling ABC network to give his show (which had already been a hit in the Philadelphia area for five years) a national tryout. American Bandstand proceeded to do nothing less than lead ABC into daytime television.

A good portion of the universal appeal of Clark’s show stemmed from its likeable, low-key host. But few realized that behind his unostentatious, “aw shucks” mask there lurked a cunning business impresario who could stand toe-to-toe with the best of them when negotiating a deal. And just as there was more to Clark than his “good guy” persona, there was more to American Bandstand than met the eye. The surprise success of the show thrust Clark into the national spotlight, thereby affording him the opportunity to capitalize on his unique status as the country’s only nationally televised disc jockey. Although Clark had originally entered broadcasting in pursuit of a career in television (as well as for financial gain-but not because of any interest in music), given his fortuitous circumstances, he decided to let music make money for him.

At the time, the record business was an unbridled industry in which it was possible for an entrepreneurial soul such as Clark to invest a few hundred dollars to make a phonograph record and come up with a million-seller. Virtually anyone could walk into a radio station with a freshly pressed record under his arm and fifty dollars folded neatly into the record sleeve and convince a disc jockey to play the song that very evening. Although Clark was never accused of partaking in that controversial practice, he did involve himself in every facet of the pop music business, utilizing his national TV podium to promote records that he owned, or in which he had a financial stake. Utilizing his choir-boy looks and a squeaky-clean image, Clark shrewdly melded the fledgling ABC television network and rock ‘n’ roll, making the music (and himself) safe for household consumption.

As the nation’s top disc jockey, Clark enjoyed the best of both worlds. He had to convince no one but himself to play records in which he held some financial interest. “I was an entrepreneur,” he explained. “I used every single opportunity I could to make money. I managed artists, I pressed records, I did tours, I owned labels, I did everything I could think to turn a dollar …. ”

Surprisingly, most of the recording artists who appeared on American Bandstand, and whose records Clark had an interest in, do not regret that the show’s host profited from their efforts while they received nominal (if any) record-sales royalties and often had to kick back their Bandstand performance fees in order to appear on the show. Even though many of the singers were not aware of the wheeling and dealing that went on behind their backs at the time, most say that, had they known, they still would have approved of it, because they considered an appearance on Clark’s show to be a coup.

Many of those performers feel fortunate just to have experienced a brief moment in the limelight. Some do believe they were cheated or used, but almost all agree that the backroom business deals that went down did not interest them in the least. All they wanted to do was perform, make records, and, if fortunate enough, make a living from doing so. Clark, on the other hand, wanted to make big money.

Initially, American Bandstand was an amalgamation of those disparate yet compatible desires, but the broadcasting payola scandal that erupted in 1959 — in which various disc jockeys were accused of taking bribes to play certain records on the air — upset the applecart and put the promising career of America’s chief rock ‘n’ roll progenitor squarely on the line.

To Clark’s credit, he not only survived the scandal, he emerged from it bigger than ever. But the violent social upheaval of the 1960s proceeded to knock Bandstand from its pop pedestal, and the show’s popularity, as well as its impact within the pop music business, began to wane. Bandstand regained some of its popularity during the 1970s, but by then the show’s reputation as a musical and social authority was eclipsed by its storied legacy.

For millions of fans today, American Bandstand remains a fond memory. And thanks to cable television rebroadcasts of episodes of the show from the seventies and eighties, Clark’s dance show has become familiar to yet another generation. But even after nearly four decades of viewing, few really know what went on behind the cameras of the show that, for a time, shaped rock ‘n’ roll and teenage culture itself.

Dick Clark
30 November 1929 – 18 April 2012
Dick Clark and Tony Mammarella finalize the daily American Bandstand song playlist. Courtesy of Agnes Mammarella.

John A. Jackson is the author of American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Empire and the prize-winning Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll. He lives in Amity Harbor, New York.

Recent Comments

  1. […] we look back at the life and work of Dick Clark, we put together a slideshow of images from American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock […]

  2. Irvine DJ Disc Jockey

    Dick was a pioneer, the first superstar DJ. Now were stuck with Ryan Seacrest!

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