Dick Clark simplified his contribution to Rock and Roll in a few words: “I played the records, the kids danced and America watched”. It certainly wasn’t that simple.
The birth of Rock in the early ’50s shook America to its’ roots. Parents were enraged and preachers condemned the “Devil’s music” from the pulpits. In what was the golden age of variety TV shows, Rock artists were universally shunned. Without national TV exposure, the road to a hit for a Rock artist was literally that…the road… personal appearances in towns large and small and radio play in small markets, that hopefully led to major city airplay, record sales and that elusive hit. To compound that, many major stations across the country refused to play “race music” by many of the black artists who helped blaze the trail for early Rock. Clark changed that.
Dick Clark was born on November 10, 1929 in Mount Vernon, New York. At the tender age of 10, he decided he wanted a career in radio. That dream was realized in 1945 when he started in the mail room at WRUN in Rome, NY. In 1952, Clark moved Drexel Hills, PA ( a suburb of Philadelphia) where he took a job at WFIL as a disc jockey. WFIL had an ABC affiliated TV station which began broadcasting a show called “Bob Horn’s Bandstand” in 1952. Dick hosted a similar show on radio and served as a regular substitute host when Horn went on vacation. Fate stepped in when Horn was dismissed for drunk driving in 1956 and Clark became the show’s permanent host.
ABC saw the potential of this young audience (and buoyed by the success of Ricky Nelson’s records…showcased on the ABC series “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet”) picked up the show for national distribution. “American Bandstand” debuted on August 5, 1957. The show immediately took off due to Clark’s natural rapport with the live TV audience and dancers. His wholesome and the non threatening image introduced many parents to Rock and Roll. In 1958, the show was added to the prime time Saturday night lineup. By the end of the year viewership exceeded 20 million!
It’s impossible to over-estimate the roll that Clark and Bandstand had on Rock and Roll and youth culture. In fact, singer Paul Anka (one of the first guest artist in 1957) credited him with creating a youth culture. From the very beginning Clark’s performers were shocking to general audiences. In that first three months guests ranged from Pop: Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Patti Page…to early rockers: Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley & The Comets, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers…to up and coming black artists: Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke…among many others.
Over the show’s lifetime (37 seasons) it featured over 10,000 recorded and live performances, many by artists who were unable to appear anywhere else on TV. As mentioned earlier, TV shows during much of this period were “anti rock”.
During a 1990 interview with Clark by Henry Schipper of Rolling Stone Magazine, it was noted that over two thirds of the artists inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame had their TV debuts on American Bandstand. Some of those notable artists include: Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Prince, Fats Domino, James Brown…and many more.
While Bandstand was blazing new trails from the beginning, there was one glaring blemish. While Clark may have been the first to feature black and white artists on the same stage from the first day of the show, WFIL refused to allow the city’s black teenagers into the studio audience for fear of alienating viewers and advertisers. Once the show went national in Los Angeles, Clark decided integration was the most responsible move. He said, “Look, it was painfully obvious that Rock and Roll… and by extension Bandstand…owed its’ very existence to black people, their culture and their music. It would have been ridiculous, embarrassing not to integrate the show”.
Dick Clark never played an instrument, cut a hit record or wrote a hit song, but he did a lot more than just “play the records”. His show put a face on this new music…and whether it was Pop or Country, Rock or R&B…that face was all one color.