Dick Clark: An indelible impact on American pop music
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“There will only be a finite amount of time that they’ll let me stand in front of a camera and behind a microphone, so I better start building something upon which I can fall back,” legendary TV producer and host Dick Clark told The Times back in 2001.
As the music and TV industry mourns the passing of ‘America’s oldest living teenager,’ who died Wednesday of a heart attack at age 82, we remember the indelible mark Clark left on pop music.
And despite what he might have thought back in 2001, the world wanted him to stay in front of that camera, a trusted voice introducing the latest chart forces with a permanently genial smile.
Long before Carson Daly helped shape the Top 40 musical tastes of Gen-Y teens on MTV’s ‘Total Request Live,’ or before Ryan Seacrest began a yearly quest to find America’s next big pop star, there was Clark – front and center on “American Bandstand,” a show he hosted and produced for more than three decades.
It was on “American Bandstand,” the coolest weekly American sock hop to ever air, where Clark exposed audiences to a nifty little thing called rock ‘n’ roll. When Clark took over the daily afternoon show (its original host was arrested on drunk-driving charges) in 1956, rock ‘n’ roll was just beginning to breathe on the pop charts and Clark’s “Bandstand” gave musicians a chance to showcase their latest tracks to a studio full of wholesome teenagers who bopped and grooved along to the sounds. The format wasn’t necessarily revolutionary, but it’s one that worked -- and that’s still duplicated to this day. “American Bandstand” was a force because of Clark’s ability to remain on the cusp of what was next -- a talent that eventually made him a multi-hyphenate mogul. This was a show that fawned over teen idols such as Frankie Avalon, David Cassidy and the Jackson 5 but wasn’t afraid to give performance time to the Doors and Creedence Clearwater Revival. He covered it all, from Little Richard to Run D.M.C. to Marvin Gaye to the Go-Go’s.
The question, really, is: Who wasn’t on ‘Bandstand’? The show was essential for young pop acts. A scan of YouTube clips alone reveals early career performances from progenitors Jerry Lee Lewis and Stevie Wonder to the Beastie Boys, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince... (oh, we could go on and on).
Crooner Paul Anka remembers the impact Clark’s “American Bandstand” had early on in his career.
“I was there with him from the inception. Not many people realize the impact of being on that show with someone who is a friend, and leading a show that featured pop music from the infancy,” Anka said. “There I was, a 16-year-old with a No. 1 record [1957’s ‘Diana’] because of ‘Bandstand.’ You can’t even compare the impact of the show to something like ‘American Idol.’ The show was viewed from a demographic that you felt the next day. He really set the bar high, down to Ryan Seacrest today. He was an innovator... an incredible pioneer. He was a brother. He’s going to be missed.”
Clark never had the chance to book the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, but he never missed a beat and his influence continued long after the show went off the air in 1989. His presence prepped America to hop aboard Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train,” inspired the Brits to showcase “Top of the Pops” and inspired MTV to launch a million on-air personalities who (other than Daly) never managed to stick around on TV for too long.
Younger generations might remember counting down till midnight every New Year’s Eve as the ball dropped over Times Square in New York, wishing they could be there in person for his perennial ‘Dick Clark New Year’s Rockin’ Eve’ specials, yet another platform for Clark to provide a night of multi-genre hitmakers that went on for hours. Or for the American Music Awards, which never quite gained the prestige of the Grammys but kept true to Clark’s passion for tapping into what was hot on the charts with dozens of performances every year.
“He was a mentor. In the early days, when I moved out here from Chicago, I took space in his building,” Grammys Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich recalled. “My first working relationship with him was at the Emmys in 1980. Dick and Ed McMahon hosted that year because of a writers strike and he was just so great about it. We had a very friendly rivalry. He was competitive always, but it was friendly. There was years that the AMAs beat the Grammys and years the Grammys beat the AMAs.
“He was just brilliant, he knew what was right in music. When I was a kid, I would watch ‘American Bandstand’ and pretend I was Dick Clark. I’d have a stereo and I’d talk into my hand. He was one of the first guys who recognized the power of television to broaden the reach of pop musuc. Whether it was the AMAs, ‘Bandstand’ or ‘New Years’ Rockin’ Eve,’ he had the ability to expand his reach. He knew what popular taste was and how to cater to it.”
Clark has been bestowed with too many honors to try to summarize, including the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. He also won five Emmy Awards, including a lifetime achievement award, and a Peabody Award.
“The passing of Dick Clark removes one of the largest foundation stones of the entire pop music industry for the latter half of the 20th century. Starting with ‘Bandstand,’ his shows absolutely made most of the hits from the beginning,” Kal Rudman, publisher of music trade magazine Friday Morning Quarterback, wrote in a statement. “Others in radio might aspire to the title, but they had to follow what Dick Clark played -- especially, and obviously, dance music. I mourn his death. He took me under his wing and became my guide in reaching the tastemakers of the record and radio industries.”
Though Clark’s health had taken a dip following a stroke in 2004, he never gave up on his love of the microphone. Even though Seacrest had taken over Clark’s New Year’s Eve special, you could count on him making an appearance. Even if he had to trade in the loud bustle of the New York streets for the comfort of the studio for his commentary, he was determined to watch that ball drop until the end.
‘I’ve always said if I can stay healthy, I want to work until I die,’ Clark told The Times in 2001, a few years before he had a stroke. ‘It’s rare when you find something you want to do that you dreamed of doing since the time you were a child. I knew I wanted to get into radio when I was 13, and to be able to do it all your life, be paid to do it, enjoy it and never get up saying, ‘Oh God, I have to go to work today’ -- wow, what a bonus. On the other hand, I admire people who can just hang it up and play golf. I’d go out of my mind.’
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Top Photo: In this Feb. 3, 1959, file photo, Dick Clark selects a record in his station library in Philadelphia. Credit: Associated Press
Bottom Photo: In this April 20, 2002, file photo, Clark is at the mike during the taping of ‘American Bandstand’s’ 50th anniversary special in Pasadena, Calif. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press