When the Doors went on “American Bandstand” in the late 1960s, Dick Clark wanted Jim Morrison, the leather-clad “Lizard King,” to wear a tie.
There was nothing casual about Dick Clark. Someone had to be the facilitator — the adult — in rock’s rambunctious early years. And Clark knew how to give the people just what they wanted.
As he saw it, “the people” meant “the kids” — the most potent, impulse-driven buying segment of the American economy. Clark was one of the first, one of the shrewdest and certainly one of the most enduring entrepreneurs to recognize the tastemaking power of the American teenager.
In the late ’60s, what the kids wanted was the Doors. At other times during Clark’s reign, what they wanted was Jerry Lee Lewis, the Jackson Five, the Talking Heads and Prince. All of those acts made their network television debuts on Clark’s “American Bandstand,” one of the most influential shows in TV history. Without Clark, rock ‘n’ roll in its infancy would have struggled mightily to escape the common perception that it was just a passing fancy. Without Clark, the Jim Morrisons of the world might have stayed on the fringe of popular culture, rather than becoming it — whether or not they were willing to wear a tie.
Despite his standard introduction as the world’s “oldest living teenager,” Clark never claimed to have an inside track on the young. Just 26 when he took over the Philadelphia program “Bandstand” from Bob Horn, a local DJ toppled by scandal, Clark was already at least a generation removed from his audience, aesthetically speaking. His favored music, he acknowledged, tended toward the big bands. A fellow Philly DJ once joked that in the beginning Clark “didn’t know Chuck Berry from a huckleberry.”
Stocking the rock 'n' roll shelves
But he was a born salesman — his high school class had, after all, voted him “Most Likely to Sell the Brooklyn Bridge” — and he was astute enough to understand that rock ‘n’ roll was here to stay. Rock was a market set to flourish. Clark set about stocking the shelves.
He brought “Bandstand” to the national stage, adding “American” to the name. Every weekday afternoon, schoolchildren rushed home to watch a youthful studio audience dance to the most fortunate pop acts of the moment. Without Clark, it would never had occurred to us to want our MTV.
From the outset he introduced the country to a parade of future Hall of Famers, including Johnny Cash, Eddie Cochran, Sam Cooke, the Drifters, Buddy Holly and Jackie Wilson. Clark was especially supportive of the locals. A South Philly High alum named Ernest Evans, yearning to follow in the footsteps of schoolmates Frankie Avalon and Fabian, jumped at the chance to record “The Twist,” a Hank Ballard rhythm-and-blues number that had spawned an underground dance craze. Evans, better known as Chubby Checker, soon became a “Bandstand” fixture.
Clark engineered the success of “The Twist,” passing over Ballard’s ribald version in favor of Checker’s cuddly persona. The move was characteristic; Clark was often accused of homogenizing the music. Undoubtedly he favored white acts like Danny and the Juniors over the black vocal groups they emulated, at least in the early years of the show.
Yet he was also instrumental in integrating the pop audience. Segregationists had been outraged when the black singer Frankie Lymon danced with a white girl on “Alan Freed’s Big Beat.” The show was immediately canceled. But Clark, inheriting a program that was virtually all-white, gradually began to feature black acts onstage and black faces on the dance floor. If much of the consternation over rock ‘n’ roll was race-related, Clark helped diffuse it. His motive may well have been economic, but the end result was exemplary.
“I was roundly criticized for being in and around rock ‘n’ roll music at its inception,” Clark told an interviewer. “It was the devil’s music, it would make your teeth fall out and your hair turn blue, whatever the hell. You get through that.”
Hard to love the middleman
The fact that he packaged the music for consumption tainted his reputation. It’s hard to love a middleman, whether he sells records, movies or vacuum cleaners. Much to his credit, however, Clark never forced his own personal opinions on his audience. His talent, he said, was being the “fastest follower in the business.” The audience was the real authority.
“Nothing ever changes,” he once said about pop’s innate ability to alienate the previous generation of listeners. “The same thing goes on today as went on yesterday.” It’s a keen lesson for anyone who has ever criticized the heavy thump of hip hop. Many of Clark’s contemporaries made the same complaint about rock ‘n’ roll: “That’s not music.” And their parents said it about Clark’s beloved big-band swing.
He admitted his failures. “God, I’ve had too many to count,” he said, “but you don’t spend too much time dwelling on those, or you become a discouraged individual.”
He made mistakes; indulging the enthusiasms of the kids wasn’t one of them. Clark narrowly survived the payola scandal of the late 1950s, divesting himself of the music publishing and other conflicts of interest that had already made him a millionaire. In film, he produced a long string of shameless clunkers, such as “Psych-Out,” a lurid tale of San Francisco hippiedom starring a young Jack Nicholson, and 1975’s made-for-TV nightmare “The Werewolf of Woodstock.”
He produced the Golden Globes and founded the American Music Awards, contributing mightily to the glut of glitz. He made the idiot box the focal point of our most social holiday with his annual “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” broadcast. And he went slapstick with “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes.”
It wasn’t all art, but the legacy of Dick Clark begins with the gift of rock ‘n’ roll. As the famous catchphrase said, “It’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.” Dick Clark had a pretty good beat.
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