Dick Clark was cool—as in unflappable, not hip. That was key in an American 1950s where, for much of the nation, the latter condition was basically synonymous with “longhaired Commie fag degenerate.” But Dick Clark—that nice boy? No way was he any of those things, not in 1950s America, not for six decades as a TV presence as fixed and permanent as late-night infomericals, still to this day, thanks to GSN.
Clark’s a game-show titan second only to Merv Griffin, but that’s TV. Clark’s role in musical history is both more and less ambiguous. Make no mistake—American Bandstand, which Clark hosted from 1956 to 1989, did as much to legitimize rock & roll for Ma & Pa America as anybody before the arrival of the Beatles’ “Aeolian cadences.” Though the show existed for four years on local TV in Philadelphia before Clark became host, it was under him that it went into national syndication, and under him that it became one of the most copied programming formats ever devised—the direct model for everything from local record hops real (e.g. this Idaho TV show, Seventeen, featuring a line dance to the Diamonds’ “The Stroll”) and imagined (The Corny Collins Show, from John Waters’ classic 1988 film Hairspray). And, of course, it was the basis of Don Cornelius’s Soul Train, which promptly began beating Bandstand‘s ratings in major cities around the U.S.
On the other hand, Clark also helped foist a series of crappy Philadelphia teen idols (Fabian, Frankie Avalon) on the public while managing to escape the hounding of his Cleveland-bred opposite number, Alan Freed, who received a suspended sentence for payola. The charge against Freed had merit—he was credited, falsely, as a co-author of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” among others. Clark, who had shares in a distributor that sold records he played on his TV show, escaped legal penalties by divesting his interests. Freed was a schlub; the toothy Clark—27 years old when he began hosting Bandstand—was, and would remain for quite some time, “America’s Oldest Teenager.” Never let anyone tell you that looks don’t matter.
Good looks are good business, and Clark was a businessman above all (cf. his series of Bandstand-themed diners.) Little fazed him. When his longtime network ABC lost the broadcasting rights to the Grammy Awards, Clark stepped in and began the American Music Awards. (Frank Sinatra had spearheaded the Grammys as a music-biz ceremony; why shouldn’t Clark have done the same for the TV biz?) When Prince appeared on Bandstand in 1980 (excerpt above), responding to most of Clark’s questions with his hands or shoulders, Clark remained sanguine. Even a provocateur on John Lydon’s level couldn’t get a rise out of him. When Public Image Ltd. appeared on Bandstand (?!) the same year, playing “Poptones” (???!!!), Lydon spent the first song inviting half the audience onstage and “forgetting” to lip-sync. Clark’s responded by inviting the rest up for the song “Careering”: see 4:50 below.
The notorious PiL performance
Clark was an easy target for smart-alecks, thanks to the seemingly unkillable $10,000 / $25,000 / $50,000 / $100,000 Pyramids and dozens of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve specials—co-hosted by Clark’s great inheritor, Ryan Seacrest, since 2005, and likely all his now. (That is, if it continues at all, now that its creator-producer has passed on.) But if he seemed to care more about rock as an investment than as art, he nevertheless helped bring it to the world, even if the terms he brought it forth with were largely his, and Ma & Pa America’s. Long before MTV, Clark was music television. There aren’t many people who’d care to make that claim, much less glory in it. Clark wasn’t cool, not as we define it today. But he made the world a cooler place, whether we like it or not.
The full American Bandstand 30-Year Special, from 1982, is embedded on the next page, in eleven parts. Around the same time, Clark was MCing for a rock-oldies tour with Fabian, Frankie Avalon, etc., and the party happened to be dining in the same barbecue joint (Rudolph’s, on Franklin and Lyndale Avenues in Minneapolis) as my extended family the night of the show—it was my grandmother’s birthday. My youngest aunt, about nine years old at the time, was dispatched to Clark’s table in secret to request a birthday greeting for her mom. A few minutes later, Clark’s entire party walked up to the table and sang “Happy Birthday” to her at the top of their lungs. Everyone has her memories of Dick Clark. That one is mine.
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