*Does Dick Clark’s recent passing mean he’s not going to host the next “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve?” Please forgive my lousy attempt at levity. It’s just that I’ve never been on the planet without the indefatigable Dick Clark, and it feels a little weird.
Various obituaries and tributes referred to Clark as a television producer and host. And, of course, this is what he was. But in the ’60s, when I was a kid worshipping at the altar of top 40 radio, Dick Clark was so much more. Decades before cable television, the Internet and Facebook, the immense popularity of Clark’s “American Bandstand”–a simple show featuring teenagers dancing to the hits of the day and performances by top artists–made Clark a pop music deity.
It was by watching “Bandstand,” that I got to actually see the acts I’d hear on Oklahoma City AM radio. Bands like American Breed (“Bend Me, Shape Me”), Steppenwolf (“Born To Be Wild”), The Box Tops (“The Letter”) and the Foundations (“Why Do You Build Me Up Buttercup”); top forty stalwarts like Bobby Goldsboro and one-hit-wonders like Jeannie C. Riley (“Harper Valley P.T.A.”).
To a young, enthralled student of pop, Clark’s show was school. Watching “Bandstand,” I developed a keen eye for the most skilled lip-synched vocal performance, as well as a gnawing annoyance for electric guitars with no obvious cords coming from them.
Using his distinctively authoritative yet smooth and conversational announcing manner–a style prevalent today in the on-air technique of broadcasters like Bryant Gumbel, Bob Costas, Brian Williams, Matt Lauer and Ryan Seacrest–Clark gleaned from his guests all kinds of fun trivia.
For example, who knew “Brady Bunch” star Maureen “Marcia” McCormick, making a “Bandstand” appearance, was “friends” with Michael Jackson? Or that Motown sax man Junior Walker of the All Stars had a recording studio aboard his tour bus? I didn’t know how something like that worked, but man, it sounded exciting.
At Clark’s passing, much has been said about the role he and “Bandstand” played in breaking down racial barriers during the ’50s and ’60s. There is no question that the show was instrumental in introducing many black artists to a wider, white audience. Motown Records founder Berry GordyJr., Clark, his longtime friend, with being the first to put his label’s artists on national television.
However, I don’t exactly see Clark as a champion of black music. It was a matter of business: he put black artists on “Bandstand”–and on his traveling music revues–because of the overwhelming popularity of black music. The black performers chosen for the show weren’t obscure to begin with; almost exclusively, they were acts with hits, culled from the same list the show chose its white acts: the cream of Billboard’s pop singles chart.
But Clark did know that black music’s market was growing. Which is why in 1973 he launched “Soul Unlimited,” a black dance show (hosted by Buster Jones, a black actor and voice-over artist) designed to compete with Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train.” Cornelius made such a public stink about Clark’s attempt to muscle in on “Soul Train,” itself a “Bandstand” knockoff, that Clark took the program off the air in a matter of weeks.
Clark was as competitive professionally as he was fastidious regarding detail. I saw this firsthand when, after moving to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, some friends took me to a taping of Clark’s “In Concert,” which rivaled late night music shows “The Midnight Special” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” The show we saw featured Ike and Tina Turner and the Staples Singers.
“In Concert” didn’t have a host; I was excited that from my tenth row seat I was able to observe a casually dressed Clark, wearing a headset and stalking the set, in Executive Producer mode. During a break in the taping, a crew member apparently did something wrong. Right there in front of the audience, a fuming Clark fired him on the spot.
A few years later, I imagine Clark was even angrier when “Bandstand” hosted the 1980 national TV debut of a 19 year-old musician by the name of Prince.
Go online and find a tape of Clark’s interview with the artist, who has just lip-synched “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Watching the host attempt to coax the impish Prince into more than one word answers is excruciating. Legend has it afterward Clark banned Prince from ever appearing on any of his TV shows, a decision no doubt reconsidered after Prince’s subsequent outsized success.
I went to Dick Clark’s home once. In the early ’80s he and his wife Kari hosted a VIP dinner at their place in Malibu. I don’t recall the occasion for the evening; I only remember that as a music journalist, I was invited and that the Clarks were really kind. I’ll never forget that the part of the home we were in had separate restrooms for men and women, just like in a restaurant.
I remember that when Byron Allen, hired as the evening’s comic, went into a bit about some Hollywood scandal that had recently made headlines, Clark, from the back of the room, yelled “Yo! Yo!” while waving his hand across his throat, as if to say, “Cut!” Wisely, Allen stopped mid-sentence and went to another joke.
Mostly, at that dinner I recall reminiscing back to all the Saturday mornings I’d lounged on our couch in my pajamas while watching “American Bandstand.” And I thought of how surreal it felt to be sitting in the home of Dick Clark.
That’s why it’s hard to see Clark go. With him goes a part of my life. Clark didn’t simply create shows such as “Bandstand” and in 1973, the American Music Awards and “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve;” he nurtured popular music–rock, pop, soul–and in the process created a media culture of his own, a culture I loved dearly. I liked the beat and you could dance to it.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via STEVRIVORY@AOL.COM.