Dick Clark, rock's early 'Bandstand' leader, dies

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Dick Clark, who became host of a successful Philadelphia dance show in 1956, took it to the nation the next year as "American Bandstand." Alumni still remember those moments. GLOBE PHOTOS / ZUMAPRESS.com

Dick Clark, who took a Philadelphia dance show nationwide and brought rock-and-roll into America's living rooms every weekday afternoon for decades, shaping tastes and making careers, died of a massive heart attack Wednesday morning in Los Angeles.

"The world's oldest teenager" was 82.

Mr. Clark, who had Type 2 diabetes, died at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., where he had gone Tuesday night for an outpatient procedure, according to a statement by his publicist.

"The King of the DJs died today, and his name was Dick Clark," Twist legend Chubby Checker said in a phone interview. An appearance on American Bandstand, the show Mr. Clark rode to stardom, was something very special for an aspiring singer.

"Being on Bandstand was like getting a Nobel Prize," Checker said. "From 3 o'clock in the afternoon until 5:30, nobody was on the street. They were watching Bandstand. Can you imagine that?"

Legendary Philadelphia DJ Jerry Blavat described Mr. Clark as a culture-changer. "He became the good-looking American guy who made rock-and-roll respectable, who transformed people's attitude to the music," Blavat said. "If it weren't for Dick Clark, a whole generation of people would never have gotten the opportunity they did."

The "oldest teenager" nickname came from Mr. Clark's easy rapport with his young audience, and from a clean-cut look that remained boyish until he suffered a stroke in December 2004 that slowed him down and slurred his speech.

But it didn't end his TV career. TV audiences knew him in recent years as the old trouper, valiantly struggling against his stroke-induced impairments, who ushered in each New Year - except the one right after his stroke - from Times Square in New York on Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve.

But long before that, Mr. Clark became Philadelphia's first national TV celebrity. In 1956, he took over as host of an already successful local dance show called Bandstand and made it even more successful, steering it onto network TV the following year as American Bandstand. His style was silky smooth as he bantered with young audience members, who assessed songs for their beat and danceability.

 

'Philadelphia was music'

The show would run for 30 years on ABC, with Mr. Clark hosting the entire time. It would also run briefly in syndication and on cable channel USA, although without Mr. Clark. He moved the show to Los Angeles in 1964. Until then, Checker said, "American Bandstand was Philadelphia, and Philadelphia was music. There was no other place on the planet. Ed Sullivan had a little taste. But it was really 46th and Market Street, and that was it. And Philadelphia should be proud."

Among the young dancers on Bandstand, a regular even before Mr. Clark arrived, was Blavat, who would go on to DJ fame in Philadelphia as "The Geator with the Heater." Blavat was loyal to previous host Bob Horn, and even picketed against Mr. Clark when he first came to the show.

"But I have to say, Dick won me over," Blavat said. "He told me, 'I want people who will be as loyal to me as you were to Bob.' I was his friend from then on."

Like Blavat, singer Bobby Rydell said Mr. Clark had a gift for inspiring friendship. "Ask him for anything, and he'd be there at the drop of a hat," Rydell said. "I've been his friend since I first played on Bandstand, in the summer of 1959. A lot of the guys who came from South Philly - Frankie Avalon, James Darren, Chubby Checker, myself - he meant a lot to us all. God bless him."

Kal Rudman, publisher of the music and broadcasting tip sheet The Friday Morning Quarterback, described Mr. Clark as a savvy entrepreneur:

"He was the rainmaker, he was the market maker, he was like the sultan of the whole damn world," said Rudman. "He had ears, and he was bright. He had tremendous power, and he had his test market right in front of him, the kids. . . . If the kids got up and really danced, or if everybody got up, that's how he knew he had a winner.

"Dick had that power. It was his reach. It got so big, and the cost of producing that show was so damn low. It was unbelievable. He had a virtually record-breaking run, no pun intended. He was a genius."

 

Where the Twist met the U.S.

Checker, who introduced the Twist to a national audience on Bandstand, recalled that he was just 16, and still known as Ernest Evans, when he first met Mr. Clark. "It was about two years before we did the Twist," recalled Checker, who said he last saw Mr. Clark in September.

"History was made the day Chubby Checker went on Bandstand with the Twist," Checker said. "Because with the Twist, you were looking at your girl, and she was looking at you. And the Twist did that. And it was all because of Dick Clark."

American Bandstand was the forerunner of all the music shows on TV that followed, Checker said, from Soul Train to MTV. "And dancing, as we know it today, is because of the way they danced on American Bandstand."

Philadelphia recording executives Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff called Mr. Clark "one of our inspirations for creating the 'Sound of Philadelphia' music brand. More importantly, we thank him for being one of the pioneers in promoting the Philly dance and music scene for the nation and world to enjoy."

Mr. Clark came to Philadelphia in 1952, and found a home in Drexel Hill (where he and TV personality Ed McMahon were neighbors) and a job on WFIL radio, then located at 46th and Market Streets.

"Radio and television were in the same building, and he was doing a lot of television commercials, too," recalled Lew Klein, then WFIL-TV general manager. "He did Tootsie Rolls, Barr's Jewelers, and commercials on the Paul Whiteman show. He had to compete for those jobs with other announcers, and he won a lot of auditions."

Klein said that ABC was reluctant at first to take Bandstand nationwide. "We worked hard to convince them," he recalled. "Finally, they said they'd give it a try, it's summer time, OK, fine. . . . The ABC people, I think, were humoring us. They put it on. Within about six weeks, it became a phenomenon. I think everyone was surprised. Everyone but us. And that's what launched Dick Clark as a national personality."

When Bandstand went national on ABC in 1957, it managed to make the sexually charged rhythms of emerging rock-and-roll acceptable to the mainstream. The host's wholesome image had much to do with that.

Critics would soon complain that the show overemphasized pop sounds. But it introduced the country to a racially diverse group of artists including Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Checker.

 

Inducted into the Hall of Fame

Mr. Clark's place in the music pantheon was recognized in 1993, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Beyond Bandstand, he was a major TV presence in front of and behind the cameras.

He hosted the game show $10,000 Pyramid from 1973 until 1985, by which time it had become $100,000 Pyramid. He was also host of one of the first comedy/reality shows, TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes, later called simply Bloopers.

He produced awards shows that became must-see events for entertainment junkies, gossip aficionados, and fashion followers, including the American Music Awards, the Academy of Country Music Awards, and the Golden Globe Awards.

  Richard Wagstaff Clark was born Nov. 30, 1929, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and decided to make radio his career in the 10th grade. After graduating from high school, he got a summer job as an office boy at a station owned by his uncle and run by his father, WRUN-AM in Rome, N.Y., where he filled in for a vacationing weatherman and announced station breaks.

He entered Syracuse University, majoring in advertising with a minor in radio, and held a job at a country-music station in Syracuse in his senior year. After graduation, he got his first TV job, as a newscaster for WKTV in Utica, N.Y., using the name Dick Clay.

By 1952, he was Dick Clark, living here and working for WFIL. That summer, the station started experimenting with a new form: Radio announcers across the country were beginning to spin records over the air and fill in the space between platters with patter.

Among the early WFIL disc jockeys was Horn, whose show was so successful that WFIL tried the format on TV.

In what would come to be seen as a forerunner to music videos, teenagers were invited to dance in front of the cameras in an afternoon show called Bandstand.

The show was so popular that high school students across the city would rush home from classes to learn the latest dance steps, performed by peers who'd lined up outside the studio for hours for a chance to strut their stuff. But sometimes passing teenagers on the Market Street elevated line would throw debris at the queued-up dancers.

The girls on the dance floor wore angora sweaters and pleated skirts, or Catholic school uniforms of serge jumpers over blouses with Peter Pan collars. Before too long, girls around the country bought those same Peter Pan collars, not knowing they were part of a Catholic school uniform.

The boys were neatly attired in blazers, button-down shirts and ties, or V-neck sweaters and khakis. The camera zoomed in for close-up shots of jitterbugging feet in penny loafers and saddle shoes.

 

National debut, 1957

Visiting performers stopped by to lip-sync their records from a stage, and the dancers applauded from benches surrounding the bandstand. It hardly seemed subversive.

Mr. Clark filled in on the TV show for the vacationing Horn in 1955. When Horn was arrested the following year and charged with drunken driving, Mr. Clark was asked to replace him permanently. It was July 1956, and the boyish-looking host, then 26, projected the clean-cut image the local station desired.

On Aug. 5. 1957, American Bandstand had its first national broadcast, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on ABC.

In early 1958, ABC gave Mr. Clark a coveted spot on the Saturday night lineup. Broadcast live from New York, The Dick Clark Show offered new acts as well as established ones.

Back in Philadelphia, Mr. Clark continued to invest in local record labels, and often featured artists from those labels on his show, which by 1959 was airing on 64 stations and averaging 20 million viewers daily.

That year, a Senate subcommittee investigated a form of bribery called payola, in which DJs were accepting illegal gifts in exchange for playing records. The senators looked into Mr. Clark's music-industry dealings and found he held 150 copyrights to songs and had interests in more than two dozen music businesses, from publishers to record pressers.

But the senators ruled he had done nothing illegal.

Asked by ABC to give up his business interests or leave the network, Mr. Clark sold the interests.

In the 1960s, Mr. Clark moved his Dick Clark Productions company to Los Angeles, where he produced Where the Action Is, hosted by Paul Revere and the Raiders (1965), and the annual American Music Awards, starting in 1972. The latter was conceived by young music executives as a hipper alternative to the Grammys.

In 1987, shares in Dick Clark Productions began trading publicly. The company produced a steady stream of TV series and films, including Celebrity Boxing, Greed, Donny and Marie, and The Weird Al Show.

Over the years, Mr. Clark made numerous cameo appearances in films, often playing himself (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; Bowling for Columbine). In the first Spy Kids movie in 2001, he was a financier.

Mr. Clark is survived by his wife, Kari, whom he married in 1977. He had three children from two previous marriages: Richard Jr., Duane, and Cindy.

 


Contact staff writer Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com. Inquirer staff writer John Timpane, former Inquirer staff writers Beth Gillin and Murray Dubin, and former TV critic Jonathan Storm prepared parts of this article.