Dick Clark: Presenter of the influential TV teen pop show 'American Bandstand'

 

For 30 years Dick Clark presented the teenage television show American Bandstand, which was particularly influential in the late 1950s and early '60s. Although it was not screened in the UK, American Bandstand had over 20 million viewers and Clark, with this and numerous other productions, became a broadcasting legend. American Bandstand was the model for The Corny Collins Show in the stage and film musical Hairspray.

Dick Clark was born in the Bronx in 1929, the second son of Richard and Julia Clark; his elder brother was killed in the war. His uncle owned a radio station, which was managed by his father and Clark worked in its mailroom when he was 15. He broadcast on campus radio at Syracuse University and became a TV newscaster and weatherman in 1951.

In 1956 Clark was working in Philadelphia for WFIL, which had a daily show, Bandstand, featuring teenagers dancing to the new rock'n'roll music. When the presenter, Bob Horn, was fired after a drink-driving conviction, Clark took over. Bandstand lacked excitement as artists would mime to their releases but it was all there was, and the programme was networked nationally as American Bandstand from August 1957. "American Bandstand was a very important show for breaking records, including mine," the teen idol Brian Hyland said. "The kids would get home from school at four o'clock and turn it on."

American Bandstand made national stars of local performers such as Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Freddy Cannon and Fabian. Clark presented Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Paul Anka and Duane Eddy on a regular basis, and Eddy recorded the title song for a film that Clark produced, Because They're Young (1960). Eddy was to comment, "I naively thought that Dick was just looking after my career. I didn't realise that he owned part of it."

The British TV producer Jack Good was keen to discover what was happening in America and he told me, "We all thought that the show must be great – you know, Chuck Berry refers to it in "Sweet Little Sixteen". I went to the States in 1959 and I have to tell you that American Bandstand was the most boring show I have ever seen. Terrible, terrible, terrible, and I hated Dick Clark because he looked so slick and so smooth and he was selling commercials aimed at spotty adolescents. I don't think he contributed anything to rock'n'roll, but he understood a cash register." Good returned to the UK and produced the ground-breaking Oh Boy!, which featured live music.

The cash-register comment is undeniably true: Clark founded Dick Clark Productions and was involved in artist management, record production and music publishing. He came under scrutiny with the payola scandal of 1959-60 – disc jockeys and presenters playing and recommending records for cash. Unlike Alan Freed, whose career was over, Clark was found innocent but was criticised for his conflicting interests and was forced to sell them. It was however, touch and go: Clark regularly featured "16 Candles" by the Crests, which he published, but said he never played the record until it was popular and hence demanded by viewers.

Clark became rich from promoting concert tours, which played arenas. "In the early '60s, I was travelling with The Dick Clark Caravan of Stars, Lou Christie recalled, "and we would do two shows a day for 72 days and we would only sleep in a hotel every other night. The rest of the time we would sleep on the bus. We drove all over America and it was gruelling, although I would never regret it because it developed my career and I travelled with the Supremes, the Drifters, the Coasters, the Crystals, the Ronettes, Del Shannon, Paul Anka, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell – almost anyone who had a hit record."

Looking like a youthful and clean-cut elder brother, Clark emphasised that rock'n'roll did not pose a dangerous threat. That was thrown into doubt after a teenager was stabbed at one of his concerts in Pennsylvania.

In his own way Clark helped to bring racial integration into the networks by featuring black artists. In March 1959 the black R&B act Hank Ballard and the Midnighters released "The Twist" and he was invited to perform – or mime to – the record on American Bandstand. Ballard wanted to include the Midnighters and demanded additional payment, but Clark couldn't see the sense of this. He passed the song to the up-and-coming Chubby Checker, who copied Ballard's vocal and invented the dance, although there are conflicting stories about this. As well as the twist, American Bandstand promoted the pony, the locomotion and the watusi. The dancers chewed gum as one of the show's sponsors was Beech Nut, and on one tour, he hired firework displays which spelt out B-E-E-C-H-N-U-T-G-U-M as the audiences were leaving.

In 1962 Bobby Vee was hoping for a major success with his new single, "Please Don't Ask About Barbara". "That was unfortunate, bad timing," says Vee, "I didn't get any airplay on American Bandstand because Dick Clark was divorcing his wife, Barbara."

Clark only had Elvis Presley and the Beatles on the programme via telephone links, Presley in 1959 and the Beatles in 1964. When he asked a young Michael Jackson why his sisters Janet and LaToya weren't with him, Jackson replied, "Because they're too shy."

From 1964, the show was produced from the ABC studios in Hollywood and took advantage of the surf craze. It became weekly rather than daily and was broadcast until 1989, with guests including Madonna and Prince. By the time it finished Clark had introduced over 65,000 records. Clark also presided over the music shows Where The Action Is and It's Happening. In 1959, he started the World Of Talent series, which excluded rock'n'roll, and he presented several light entertainment series including $10,000 Pyramid, The Krypton Factor, TV Bloopers and his New Year's Eve parties. There were few elements of light entertainment he did not touch.

Clark produced the TV movie Elvis (1979), which featured Kurt Russell and was directed by John Carpenter. In the same year he also produced Birth Of The Beatles, directed by Richard Marquand and featuring Stephen MacKenna as John Lennon and Nigel Havers as George Martin.

Clark appeared regularly at his theatre in Branson, Missouri, and in 2004, he presented tributes to American Bandstand twice nightly at Lake Tahoe. His American Bandstand diners were criticised in the documentary Bowling For Columbine (2002) for overworking staff, and Clark, door-stepped by Michael Moore, refused to comment.

Spencer Leigh

Richard Wagstaff Clark, television presenter: born Mount Vernon, New York 30 November 1929; married three times (two sons, one daughter); died Santa Monica, California 18 April 2012.

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