Dick Clark, R.I.P.

Categories: Obituaries

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

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R.I.P. You'll be missed Mr. Clark. 


Clark, like all the recording industry then and now, was many things both brilliant and dark.

But two comments: 1) My Aunt was tuning around the dial in 1956 or very early 57 at about 4 PM-she by accident had turned the volume way up. We had a TV with a BIG amp section and big speakers-

and suddenly! into our house came a strange voice singing "let me hear some of that rock and roll music!!!" and suddenly there was this program of kids dancing on TV!!!!! The rest was history

2) One Saturday at about 6 PM my cousin calls me, there was REAL panic in his voice....    "DID YOU SEE IT?...DID YOU SEE IT?!!!!!"...this was the height of a major tension period     with the Russians...OMG!!!  My mind went into ultra race mode...The Russians!      The Cubans!!! The Missles are on the way!!!!! Hey...what part of the basement is the most        radiation proof....NO NO NO!!! my cousin yells ITS JERRY LEE LEWIS on TV and there's     a RIOT!!   I RUN to our TV (My father was an EE so we had a really state of the art TV     hooked to a top of the line HI Fi system) The set took 30 LONG seconds to warm up..     AND THERE! from the little theater in Manhattan was the Dick Clark show issue #1     and there was Jerry Lee POUNDING it out!!!!!! WOW!!!! (this was shortly before Clark lined      up Beechment Spearment Gum as the main sponsor (remember the IFIC Buttons?)and     this was just before  Clark and Judd Phillips met in the Taft Hotel Bar and set up the "deal"      that if kids sent in 20 (or something like that #) Beechment Spearment wrappers and 99      cents they would receive a "free" copy of Whole Lotta shakin" "autographed" by Jerry Lee...     yeah, I was there for it all...The real America....

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