Dick Clark and American Bandstand

Baby boomers lost another icon last month with the death of Dick Clark. Although his credits are numerous, including “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” “$100,000 Pyramid,” and “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes,” it was Clark himself who acknowledged that the foundation of his successful career was built on his longtime association with “American Bandstand.” It was through “Bandstand” that Dick Clark became one of television’s most familiar faces and an important player in the world of popular music. With Dick Clark as its host for over 30 years, “American Bandstand” became a slice of Americana.

“American Bandstand” debuted as “Bandstand” on local Philadelphia station WFIL-TV Channel 6 in September 1952. The show’s title is an obvious clue that the program predates the rock and roll era, as the term “Bandstand” suggests more of a link to Jimmy Dorsey than to Chuck Berry. It was the show’s original host, Bob Horn, who very early on changed “Bandstand’s” format from presenting short musical films to one that featured young people dancing. Airing Monday through Friday, the 90 minute show became a huge afternoon hit among Philadelphia area teenagers, many who would attempt to be one of the lucky 200 kids who would be admitted into the studio to dance on the show. With rock and roll becoming the dominate form of music in the mid-1950’s, “Bandstand” was poised to soar to new heights, but it would do so without Bob Horn…a well publicized DUI, and subsequent sex scandal resulted in his dismissal. Waiting in the wings was a 26 year old disc-jockey named Dick Clark. On July 9, 1956, Clark became the permanent host of “Bandstand”, a position he held until the show ended in 1989.

Dick Clark proved to be the perfect host for “Bandstand.” His clean cut looks and congenial personality helped make rock & roll seem less threatening to adults when presented on “Bandstand,” and most parents had little problem with their kids tuning into Clark on a regular basis. On August 5, 1957, ABC Television added the program to its afternoon schedule, giving it the now familiar name “American Bandstand.” Now having a national audience of 20 million, Dick Clark was able to lure most of rock & rolls biggest names to the show’s Philadelphia studios, as it soon became clear that exposure on “American Bandstand” could go a long way in making a record a hit, or a singer a star. The Coasters, the Drifters, Connie Francis, Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Fats Domino are just a few of the hundreds of acts that stopped by “Bandstand” to lip-sync their latest releases. Although “American Bandstand” was usually a reflection of what was already popular in teenage culture, occasionally the show would take a proactive role. In 1960, Clark noticed a very enthusiastic response an obscure Hank Ballard song was getting whenever it was played on his show, and how much the kids seemed to love doing the dance that was suggested by the record. Clark arranged to have the song, called “The Twist,” covered by a local singer named Ernest Evans, and heavily promoted it on “American Bandstand.” Both the record and the accompanying dance was a national craze, and Evans, renamed Chubby Checker, became a major star.

In the early 1960’s, “American Bandstand” began to undergo several major changes. In 1963, the show was moved from its weekday slot to Saturday afternoons, and in February of 1964, “Bandstand” left Philadelphia, and moved to ABC Television Center in Los Angeles. By now, “American Bandstand” was no longer done live, as the show would tape six weeks worth of shows over a weekend, allowing Dick Clark to pursue other business interests, including putting together live concert tours that featured many of the stars that appeared on “American Bandstand.” Through Beatlemania, psychedelic rock, Motown, disco and hip-hop, “American Bandstand” was always there to support it, lasting until October 7, 1989.

Although Dick Clark was called “America’s oldest teenager,” I never thought the nickname was accurate. Clark never tried to act, dress or speak like a high-school student, but instead seemed more like a mature older brother, genuinely interested in the opinions of the young people he often interviewed on his show during his rate-a-record installments. Clark and “American Bandstand” should also be credited for allowing the show to feature a completely interracial environment, both on the stage and on the dance floor, which was unique, especially during the pre-civil rights 1950’s. But my fondest memories of Dick Clark will always be in terms of his personality. Unlike other television hosts of the 1950’s and ‘60’s (Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Dean Martin come to mind), Clark treated rock & roll music, its artists, and its fans with respect, and for that alone we should be grateful.

Trivia: In 1965, one of the acts featured on Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” concert tour was the singing duo, Paul and Paula, best known for their hit record, “Hey Paula.” Midway through the tour, “Paul” (Ray Hildebrand) decided to leave act, leaving “Paula’ (Jill Jackson) without a singing partner. Always the trooper, Dick Clark himself stepped in, and performed as “Paul” for all of the remaining shows.