Dick Clark: The Beat Goes On
THE MOST AMAZING thing about Dick Clark is not that "America's Oldest Living Teenager" still fits that role at age 61. It's not that he's one of the most successful (and wealthiest) people in show business. It's not even the fact that nearly all the great (and plenty of not-so-great) artists in the history of rock 'n' roll have appeared on his American Bandstand. The most amazing thing about Dick Clark is that he can't dance. He's admitted it. Dick Clark has two left feet.
Beginning August 5, 1957, the Monday afternoon when he took over as host of the longest-running variety program in television, Dick Clark brought dancing into millions of American homes, first on a daily basis and then weekly. For over three decades, thousands of well-scrubbed kids appeared before the American Bandstand cameras to dance the Stroll, the Twist, the Bump, the Fly, the Jerk, the Hully-Gully the Frug, the Loco-Motion, the Philly Dog, the Madison, the Monkey and the who-knows-what to many more thousands of records. But Dick Clark never joined them. Not that he had the time to; he was too busy creating an American icon. And an empire.
In 1990 American Bandstand no longer exists. Clark finally took himself off the show more than a year ago and describes its current status as "in limbo." That hardly makes him an idle man, though. His Dick Clark Productions puts its stamp on dozens of television, radio and film projects every year and Clark's pace is no less hectic than it was during Bandstand's heyday: he hosts specials, such as the annual New Year's Rockin' Eve and the American Music Awards, a nightly Jeopardy-likegame show (Challengers), and his ever-smiling face graces myriad other programs. He has a lot to smile about — his hard work has paid off to the tune of a personal fortune estimated at more than $100,000,000.
While his story isn't quite rags-to-riches, Clark didn't get to where he is through luck or laziness. Always an ambitious workaholic, his career has been marked by smart moves, his eye sharply focused on trends in popular culture and how best to package them for the masses. Clark has often said that he doesn't make culture, he sells it. And no one in the entertainment industry is a better salesman.
Richard Wagstaff Clark was born November 30, 1929 in Mount Vernon, New York, the son of Richard Augustus Clark, a sales manager for a cosmetics company, and Julia Clark. An older brother, Bradley, was killed in action during World War II. "For almost a year," Clark later wrote in his autobiography, Rock, Roll & Remember, "I dealt with it by eliminating the outside world as much as possible." One of the ways he escaped was by listening to the radio. "It seemed so romantic to stay up all night and play records and get paid for it," he wrote.
After graduating from A.B. Davis High School in 1947, Clark and his family moved to Utica, New York; his uncle had purchased the nearby radio station WRUN and the elder Richard Clark was hired as sales manager. At the same time, Dick Clark was hired — he ran the mimeograph machine, stuffed envelopes, distributed memos. Before long, he was reading weather reports and the news.
When the summer ended, Clark began attending Syracuse University, taking radio and advertising courses. He quickly landed a spot on the campus radio station, WAER, and, in his senior year, moved over to local station WOLF.
Clark graduated college in June 1951, a B.S. degree in business administration in hand, and promptly discovered television, taking a newscasting job at the small WKTV in Utica. Even then, there was no doubt where he was headed. "He was full of ambition," station manager Michael C. Fusco told the New York Post years later. "When I hired him he told me frankly he only intended to stay a year. I hated to lose him, but he was much too good for a station our size."
Clark kept his promise and in 1952 relocated to Philadelphia, working first as a summer replacement announcer at radio station WFIL, where he hosted Dick Clark's Caravan Of Musicprogram. That June he married his high school sweetheart, Bobbie Mallery.
In September of that same year WFIL's television outlet, channel 6, launched a new program, Bandstand, to replace its afternoon movie program, which had been bombing. Bob Horn, a DJ on WFIL radio, had been hosting a program called Bob Horn's Bandstand and convinced the TV station management that the concept could transfer well to the budding new medium. With Tony Mammarella producing, Bandstand hitthe TV airwaves in October 1952, Horn introducing guest Dizzy Gillespie and cutting to musical film clips between artist interviews.
It wasn't quite the right formula, though. Horn took a cue from a radio program called The 950 Club: bring in kids to dance to the music. The station bit, assigned Horn a partner, Lee Stewart, and the program became an instant success. The kids would dance to current hits, introduce themselves and say what school they were from, and critique the records they heard.
Bob Horn is credited with having introduced the Rate-A-Record segment of Bandstand, and it was during his tenure that the immortal line, "It's got a good beat and you can dance to it," was first heard. (Trivia note: the lowest-rated song ever on American Bandstand was 'The Chipmunk Song', which rated a 35, the lowest score a record could earn on the show. It went on to sell a million copies.)
Stewart left the show in 1955 and Horn was dismissed the year after that, following an arrest for drunk driving. In July 1956, Mammarella offered the job to Dick Clark, whose radio program, not so coincidentally, had also taken on the Bandstand name in the meantime. Clark debuted on July 9, 1956. One other thing had also changed: the music. Now kids were dancing to something called rock 'n' roll.
The number one song on Bandstand's "Teenage Top Ten" the day Dick Clark took over as host was 'Stranded In The Jungle' by the Jayhawks. Clark was by no means a fan of rock 'n' roll music, admitting he didn't "understand" it at first. But he grew to enjoy it and, in short time, to be able to smell a hit.
As the program grew in popularity, so, too, did Clark's power within the music industry. Radio stations jumped on records that the Bandstand kids liked, and promo men from record companies constantly shoved 45s in his face. Clark didn't allow himself to be bullied into playing a record, though. And more importantly, he didn't allow airplay on the show to be bought, a point that would save his career a few years later.
Bandstand was not strictly a rock 'n' roll show, however. Pop singers such as Tony Bennett and Al Martino were just as likely to make a guest appearance as any rocker, and country and jazz artists were featured as well.
Nor was Bandstand segregated. While black artists had been featured on the show literally since day one, the dancers were all white kids until Dick Clark insisted on integrating. "Look, it was just too painfully obvious that rock 'n' roll — and by extension Bandstand — owed its very existence to black people, their culture and their music," he told Michael Shore in the book The History Of American Bandstand. "It would have been ridiculous, embarrassing notto integrate the show."
Bandstand had become more popular than WFIL had ever imagined; what began as a time-filler for afternoon off-hours had become a magnet for local teenagers. Some of the kids who danced regularly on the program were becoming well-known in their own right. They received mail at the station. Lines formed outside the studio doors every day, kids hoping to make it inside to appear on the show. Bandstand was now the highest-rated afternoon TV show in any American city. Clark thought the show might be of interest to viewers outside of the Philly area. He wasn't the only one: clone shows sprang up in other cities.
Clark's enthusiasm wasn't immediately shared by network execs, one of whom was heard to proclaim, according to clark himself, "Who the hell would want to watch kids dancing in Philadelphia?" But the numbers spoke the truth and in June 1957 the ABC-TV network agreed to give Clark and his program a five-week trial run, allotting 90 minutes a day. On August 5, Bandstand became American Bandstand.
Some 67 stations carried American Bandstand that first day as Dick Clark played records, introduced guests Billy Williams and the Chordettes, and the kids danced.
The critics were not impressed. "As a sociological study of teenage behavior, the premiere was a mild success," said Billboard. "As relaxation and entertainment, it wasn't…A local smash, the series isn't going to help Philadelphia's reputation nationally as a quiet town."
What resulted, of course, was not only the national success of American Bandstand, but the elevation of Philly's status to that of a barometer for national music trends. Not only was it important which records Clark played and the teens liked; being a performer fromPhiladelphia could guarantee a measure of success. The so-called teen idols — Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, et. al. — became teen dreams immediately, largely due to their exposure on Bandstand. Local black performers such as Chubby Checker, the Orlons and Dee Dee Sharp (many of whom were signed to the Philly-based Cameo-Parkway labels) would later find national success. But just being on American Bandstand was a boost, and virtually every important early rock 'n' roll artist, save Elvis (and later the Beatles), appeared on the show.
So, too, did more than a few who didn't find success. Shore's Bandstand history book contains a complete listing of Top 100 songs lip-synced by the original artist on the show (artists never sang live until much later in the program's history, and even then nearly all mouthed the words to their records), but there are plenty of air dates where no artist is listed, generally meaning that day's guest's record wasn't greatly aided by the artists's appearance.
Dick Clark has always maintained that there was nothing he — or anyone else — could do to make a bad record a hit, that it was in the grooves; the kids either liked it, and bought it, or they didn't.
That didn't stop some of his colleagues in the broadcasting industry from trying to "help" a record along — accepting a little payola in the form of green paper or material goods from someone with a vested interest in seeing the record do well.
The payola scandal of 1959-60 was one of the darker episodes in rock music's history. For reasons that remain somewhat unclear — yet all too clear — the U.S. government decided to crack down on the practice at that time. It was rampant, if illegal, and the government wanted it stopped.
The roots of the payola hearings can be traced to the establishment of BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) in 1939 and its rivalry with ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). Although too complex a situation to be discussed within the confines of this article, the culmination of the war came in the mid-'50s when BMI became the target of criticism (and lawsuits) not only from ASCAP but various songwriters' associations, whose oldlline Tin Pan Alley songwriters felt threatened by the new rock 'n' roll industry, which relied on its own writers.
That, and the perceived threat of rock 'n' roll in general by the nation's adults, led to the antitrust subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee in Washington investigating the so-called payola practice. Looking for a way to stop rock 'n' roll — and, they hoped, BMI — the subcommittee began holding hearings on payola, a common practice in the music industry for a hundred years. If they could prove the rock 'n' roll disc jockeys were accepting gifts in return for playing records, they could get rid of that national threat led by Elvis Presley and his greasy-haired legions.
The scandal brought down more than one broadcasting career, most notably that of pioneering rock 'n' roll disc jockey Alan Freed. Freed, then working for powerful New York radio station WABC, had refused to sign an affidavit saying he'd refused to accept payola, or bribes, for playing records over the air. He was convicted, fined and given a suspended sentence but his career was virtually ruined by the incident. He died a broken man in 1965.
Clark says in his book that he had, of course, been approached by promo men eager to hand him cash in exchange for favors. When called before the subcommittee, he even admitted that he had accepted gifts, including cash, a fur and jewelry for his wife — but never as a payoff to push a record. In addition he had invested a sizable chunk of his even more sizable income in music business-related concerns since his career took off in 1957. Clark was already a multi-millionaire by the time the payola hearings came about, and as far as the House was concerned, there had to be some shady business behind his good fortune. There had to be something wrong with a guy making all that money off that disgusting "music."
On May 2, 1960, it was Clark's turn to go to Washington. Grilled by politicians with little schooling in music or the industry, he answered one absurd question after another. Basically, what their poking around -boiled down to was that Clark had to be accepting bribes or he wouldn't be playing such trash; he'd be playing Frank Sinatra, or Mantovani, anything except rock 'n' roll.
Clark held his ground. He played what the kids liked, he played hits, he didn't take money. He defended his business interests, listing 33 of them from music publishing to stuffed animals. "You say you got no payola, but you got an awful lot of royola," said Rep. Steven B. Derounian (R-N.Y.). "I seek to provide wholesome recreational outlets for these youngsters whom I think I know and understand," Clark said. When it was all over, Clark was cleared. He divested himself of all music-related business interests, throwing away an estimated $8 million in the process. One congressman called him a "fine young man."
American Bandstand prospered throughout the '60s. In 1964, as the Beatles — Clark missed the call on them, didn't see any potential — and their British compatriots came along, the show moved to Los Angeles. Eventually, the daily show was dropped in favor of a weekly program.
Clark, who had established Dick Clark Productions early in his career for the purpose of diversifying, created new TV programs, including the music shows Where The Action Is, Happening and In Concert, and funded films, among them Because They're Young and the 1968 San Francisco hippie exploitation classic Psych-Out. Later films (many of them for television) included Elvis and The Birth Of The Beatles. He's hosted the successful radio programs The Dick Clark National Music Survey and Dick Clark's Rock, Roll And Remember.
Clark has been enormously successful outside of the music arena as well, creating the game show $10,000 Pyramid (later doubled to $20,000 and then raised another five grand), TV's Bloopers And Practical Jokes, The Golden Globe Awards, The American Music Awards, The Country Music Awards and countless specials. He's been known to have regular programs running on three networks simultaneously.
And Dick Clark has lent his name to records, books and videos (culled from old Bandstandepisodes). The bottom line is the bottom line for Dick Clark: will it sell? If it will, and it falls within the scope of what he considers good entertainment, Clark is likely to take on the project. Not everything his hands have touched has turned to gold, but enough has to keep him from worrying where tomorrow's dinner will come from.
In 1959 he began taking artists on the road on "Caravan of Stars" tours, promoting dozens of top names of the day and bringing integrated concerts to some places that had never seen any — in Atlanta, the Ku Klux Klan dropped by to see if they could stir up a little trouble when Sam Cooke was presented on an otherwise all-white bill.
Clark's open-mindedness toward music has never faltered. While he admits falling out of step during the late '60s — the San Francisco era left him on the outside looking in — Clark has always embraced the new. His personal taste has never played a part in any decision determining the music he's booked — if there's interest in it, he'll book it. Looking over the listing of Bandstand guests during the '70s and '80s, one marvels: disco, punk, pop, jazz, rap, everyone from Aerosmith (1973) to Janet Jackson (1982), Los Lobos (1985) to the Sugarhill Gang (1981), Bobby Sherman (1971) to Madonna (1984), have appeared on the show.
Dick Clark isn't a man who dwells on the past. Although he admits in the following interview that of all he's done he is proudest of American Bandstand, he is an entrepreneur with an eye on what's next, not what's come and gone. He is acutely aware of his own place in the history of twentieth century popular culture and modest in spite of it. "The greatest thing about the '50s was that nothing happened," he once told a reporter.
That, of course, is not true. Rock 'n' roll happened, and Dick Clark's American Bandstand was there to bring it into millions of American living rooms, making sure that it would never go away.
Goldmine: At this point in your career you could obviously take it easier than you do. Yet you're still involved with a multitude of projects at once. What keeps you going at this pace?
Dick Clark: It's always challenging and interesting. It isn't always great, but it does keep life interesting and I suppose that's all you can ask out of any line of work. Once you lose interest in it you probably shouldn't do it anymore.
Goldmine: Which part of the entertainment business do you prefer, the entertainment or the business?
Dick Clark: I think they're so intermingled to the point that you can't separate them. Everybody's in show business, that's what makes it fun.
Goldmine: You once said that you don't make culture but sell it. Does that still apply?
Dick Clark: I think there's a tremendous amount of truth in that. I think culture and the art comes from the artists. The people who merchandise it, make it available, sell tickets to it, put it on television, send it to venues, are merely the tool with which it reaches the public.
Goldmine: What does Dick Clark Productions encompass today? How many projects do you take on in a given year?
Dick Clark: There are probably 30 or 40 under development right now, in active stages of development, several hundred flying around the airport just trying to land. It runs from radio, television, motion pictures and theatrically for television.
Goldmine: Before you made your name in television, you worked in radio. What attracted you to the medium of radio initially?
Dick Clark: I don't know. I looked in a diary I had the other day and every other page was "I listened to the radio." As a sub-teen I was hooked on radio. There wasn't any TV at that time; when I first entered the business it was all radio. I was in television about the time it was created. I started in radio about 1947 and by '49 or '50 I was appearing on television, regularly in'51.
Goldmine: Rock 'n' roll wasn't really around yet at that time. When it did come into the mainstream, what did you think of it? Did you foresee yourself as someone who might play such a key role in its development?
Dick Clark: I don't know how to answer that. I was just there at the right moment in time.
Goldmine: Why do you think Bandstand happened in Philly? Could it have happened elsewhere?
Dick Clark: Bandstand went on the air in 1952 and was an immediate success with two other hosts so it could've happened in Cleveland or Buffalo or Dallas or Dubuque. It just happened to be in Philadelphia, which is propitious because not only was it in the east, it was close to New York, it had its own music industry. It did well probably because in those days I think Philly was the fourth or fifth largest city. It might not have happened in a tiny little town.
Goldmine: Were the anti-rock 'n' roll critics on you from the beginning?
Dick Clark: First of all, you have to realize that from '52 to '55, there wasn't a great deal of controversy. Once rock music, rhythm 'n' blues and country music entered the field, then the heat was on because the people who were attuned to another world and whose purse strings were attached to it got very upset that newcomers were maybe going to take the money away, which eventually they did. So in the process, they tried to kill the art form.
Goldmine: When did you realize that you were starting to gain power in the industry as someone who could break records?
Dick Clark: Well, the secret was that everyone said that Bandstand was a powerful promotion vehicle for music when in truth we did have a huge audience and what caused the power was most of the…I don't even know if they called them Top 40 radio stations in those days, but the ones who played the popular music of the day would copy the [Bandstand]playlist, then immediately jump on [the records played on the show]. So you got this double whammy where the radio and television were playing the same songs and they hadn't even entered the charts yet. So it was tremendous clout and we were the folks who got the credit, and not totally justifiably.
Goldmine: You must have had the pushy promo men on your back every day. How did you learn to handle them and keep your distance?
Dick Clark: I was very young and innocent and cordial and they were my friends and they just lived at the television station. They would fly in from all over the world.
Goldmine: When did the Rate-A-Record concept come into the show?
Dick Clark: That was from the beginning. It was there from the first day and was there in 1956 when I took over.
Goldmine: You've been quoted as saying you were puzzled by the whole idea.
Dick Clark: I'm still puzzled by it. They still talk about "I like the beat and it's easy to dance to." They've been saying it for 37 years. It never seemed to affect the outcome of the success of the record because some of them that were just butchered by the kids went on to great success, while others that were praised to the skies disappeared.
Goldmine: You always said that there was nothing that could make the kids buy a record if it wasn't in the grooves.
Dick Clark: That's been proven right into the '90s. That's always been a truth. A lot of people don't believe it but it happens to be true.
Goldmine: Were you thinking in terms of going national with the show even before the network approached you to do so?
Dick Clark: Oh, yeah, that's the story of how, in my youthful enthusiasm, I went with a representative of WFIL, which is now WPVI, to New York to present a kinescope — we had no tape — of the show, which was getting 67 percent of the audience in Philadelphia. We said this could work nationally and their response was "Who the hell would want to watch kids from Philadelphia dancing to records?"
So they sent a guy down to investigate the phenomenon and he said, "I don't understand what they've got here but I think they're right and you oughta do it." They eventually gave us a five-week trial. It worked.
I missed the point though. He wrote me a letter which inasmuch as said don't call us, we'll call you. The letter is in my office. I ran up there [to New York] and in my enthusiasm said, "You're gonna love our show," and I guess we must've overwhelmed them.
Goldmine: You developed a lot of personal friendships from among the guests on the show. Who were some of the performers you became personally close to?
Dick Clark: There were all kinds of people. I still work with people I knew 35 years ago, which is the greatest joy of my life. I'm now into exchanging photos of their grandchildren and talking about their personal lives, and that rarely ever happens in the entertainment business. I just got an invitation to Rod Stewart's wedding. It goes from the '50s to the '90s. It's kinda nice. You hang on to the people you run into along the way.
Goldmine: Because of the show's roots in Philadelphia, you were often associated with the so-called teen idols, the Frankie Avalons and Fabians. History hasn't treated them kindly. How do you feel about the Philly teen idols of the '50s and early '60s now?
Dick Clark: You know, the shameful part of that is, they always speak disparagingly of teen idols, forgetting that Elvis Presley was a teen idol, the Beatles were teen idols, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were teen idols. It's a stupid journalistic thing to be critical of artists who are appreciated by the young.
Goldmine: Do you see a continuum from Elvis and Fabian through the Beatles on up to New Kids on the Block?
Dick Clark: Sure. The Osmonds and the Jackson Five were teen idols. Everybody gets painted with that disparaging crush. It's an easy, cheap shot to take if you're a writer.
Goldmine: We recently received a letter from Pat Boone at this magazine, and he thinks he got a bum rap in the history books. Do you agree?
Dick Clark: Yeah, well, he's intelligent enough to handle it so I don't worry about him, but what I worry about is people who are not in the business anymore or are constantly criticized. I ran into Fabian on an airplane the other day. Now, here's a guy who's still out there working, gainfully employed, working with his tongue in his cheek, and enjoying every moment and reflecting back on his good fortune. I'm sure he knows, and he's admitted in public, that he hasn't got the greatest set of pipes in the world but the man is an entertainer and the people who go to see him want to go see him and enjoy him and what he does. So what in the devil is wrong with that?
Goldmine: Do you feel you also got a bum rap from being associated with those people?
Dick Clark: The easiest thing to write, for the most part in the late '60s and early '70s — young people who had no touch with the business and hadn't grown up with it — was that all we ever did was play Philadelphia artists, not realizing that two-thirds of the people in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame made their debut on American Bandstand. They paid no attention to the Chuck Berrys, the Little Richards, the Platters, the Penguins, all the roots people who were on. They always said it was the white teenage idols.
If I were a writer I guess I could tie into that, along with all of the roots people and all of the country people and all of the jazz people. Yeah, we had some teen idols and we had some Philadelphia people.
Goldmine: You also had a lot of mainstream pop people, Frankie Laine…
Dick Clark: Tony Bennett was with us for years. And [Johnny] Mathis, for goodness' sake. So to put us in a pigeonhole, that really bugs the daylights out of me. It makes me very annoyed because that was an open store for all kinds of music, whatever sold.
I can remember one day in Los Angeles we had Herbie Alpert, Billy Preston, I'm trying to think of who else….incongruous guests on one show. And it was acceptable and it should always be acceptable. It's unfortunate that we've gotten so segmented in music now.
Goldmine: What was the response when the show became integrated?
Dick Clark: The show was integrated in terms of artists from the first day in 1952 or '53. They didn't have artists on the first day but that happened within a week or two. One of the earliest was Dizzy Gillespie. Blacks were always represented. They were not in the audience till '55, '56.
When I was involved with the show in '56 we began to integrate with a greater purpose in mind, because it was obvious that was going to happen. Before that it was obviously a segregated show — it had a white audience, a white dancing audience. And the fact of the matter is that when it became integrated, there wasn't a ripple. Nobody cared, there were no outcries, there were no nasty letters, there were no fist fights. It just happened. The whole world should've happened like that.
Goldmine: Yet when you went out on the road with the Caravan of Stars tours, and you hit the south, it wasn't like that at all.
Dick Clark: Oh yeah, I wrote about that in my book [Rock, Roll & Remember, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1976] if you want to look up the horror stories. That was not one of the more pleasant days of my life. There's a poster here on my wall — I collect things — that says "Notice. Stop. Help save the youth of America. Don't buy Negro records." It goes on with some more wonderful racist remarks that, in the '90s you say, God, I can't believe these things were hanging around on lampposts. We would trail into town and be confronted by one of these things. It's scary stuff.
Right under that I have a picture of the first integrated concert in Atlanta, Georgia, that we put on, with Sam Cooke as the black artist on an all-white bill. He was playing in front of an integrated audience, which had never happened before.
Goldmine: Even a lot of the Philly artists you presented were black, Chubby Checker being the most prominent example.
Dick Clark: And the Orlons. And Solomon Burke. It's all nonsense.
Goldmine: You're probably sick to death of talking about the years 1959 and '60 [the years of the payola scandal]…
Dick Clark: No, never. Those were good years.
Goldmine: In spite of having to testify before Congress at the payola hearings?
Dick Clark: That's the dark side.
Goldmine: You've said that the payola hearings were an issue of greed, not morality. How did you mean that?
Dick Clark: Absolutely. It's not like what we're facing now, which is a controversy over the meanings of the words and people being able to say dirty words in public. This was absolutely founded upon here's a threat to my pocketbook. And the people who held the pocketbook strings in those days, the music publishers, the old-line writers, the artists, the record companies, they were concerted in their effort to squash this new form because they were going to lose money.
And they used as their excuse, and bamboozled enough people into thinking, that this was going to cause the moral decay of American youth. And a lot of people were swept into that, including a lot of prominent Broadway actors and actresses, writers, popular singers of the day: Mitch Miller, Frank Sinatra, Helen Hayes. Here's a wonderful quote from 1960 [reads]: "Congressman Tip O'Neill demands that the FCC investigate payola and protect America's youth from rock 'n' roll, which he calls "a type of sensuous music unfit for impressionable minds."
Goldmine: Do you see a correlation between that and the censorship issue of today?
Dick Clark: No, I think it's a little different. People understand but perhaps don't want to face the problem of do you undermine the right to free speech just because dirty words bother you? It's a very hairy issue. You might not subscribe to the lyrical content or the thought process that goes behind it, and regard for women is also mixed up in this whole thing, but that's a whole other issue. Whether you want to do that yourself or support it is questionable.
The problem is, you cannot governmentally censor it because then you're in the world of the Nazis. We fought too hard to get the First Amendment and freedom of speech and you can't take it back now.
Goldmine: The courts don't even seem to be able to come up with a consensus. One says 2 Live Crew's album is illegal to sell but another says it's okay for them to perform the same music in front of an audience.
Dick Clark: It'll sort itself out. It's a real easy issue to get people stirred up about because if you quote some of the current-day lyrics, to one mindset it's the most outrageous thing in the world. There are words that, in the old days, you didn't say in public. What these people don't understand is that the language has changed, the mores have changed, the world has changed. It's probably the reflection of a great number of people who are out there finding no problem with this.
Goldmine: Do you see the censorship battle as a racial issue?
Dick Clark: Oh, I'm sure it's probably mixed up in there somewhere, along with the feminist issue. Again it isn't necessarily as it was back in '59 and '60, one of money.
Goldmine: When you moved American Bandstand to L.A. in 1964 was it hard for you to leave behind all of the kids who had become regulars on the show? How did that move affect you and the show?
Dick Clark: As a matter of fact, that's a premise for a motion picture that may get made one of these days. We had Barry Levinson financing it at one point before Rain Man hit. The whole world changed that year. Kennedy was assassinated, the English came and took over the music world, the Bandstand moved from Philadelphia, Californians were rising to the top of popularity in music and the whole world turned around. Then the Vietnam War came on not too long after that.
Goldmine: There's a story in your book about the first time you played a Beatles record, "She Loves You," on Bandstand, and it just didn't click. The kids didn't think it was anything special and you didn't see what was coming.
Dick Clark: No, I couldn't figure that at all. I was at the dentist this morning and he said, "Dick, you always had a good ear for hits and know when people are gonna be stars," and I said, unashamedly, "Yeah, I'm pretty good at it." I don't point out the two or three I'd like to forget. That's one I certainly missed.
And logically, too, because most of that music that was coming to us from overseas was a reworking of stuff I'd already been through and I couldn't understand. But it was new to the public. And if they hadn't looked that way, if the German girlfriend of Stu Sutcliffe hadn't cut their hair that way and had them dress in leather initially, would it have been as impactful at that moment? Probably yes, but it certainly didn't hurt. Even today, someone like Sinead O'Connor, looking bizarre is one of the ways you get attention.
Goldmine: Were you disappointed that the two great acts that never made it ontoBandstand were Elvis and the Beatles?
Dick Clark: Not disappointed, because they were already huge. We settled for secondbest: we'd get telephone calls from Presley and videos from the Beatles.
Goldmine: Did a record ever skip on Bandstand?
Dick Clark: There are a lot of stories like that but I don't remember any of them. There have been stories written about artists who say it happened to them so I presume it did. The only one I remember distinctly was Jimmy Dean appearing and we played the wrong record; we played a Dee Clark record. Paul Anka tells a story that he came on once and the record skipped. I'm sure an artist would be much more aware of that than an onlooker or even I. I might've been turned away or talking to the control room or whatever.
Goldmine: Why did the show get scaled back to once a week? Was that your decision or the network's?
Dick Clark: That was ABC's decision, certainly not mine. My guess is that station managers wearied of the format and thought that they could put something else on that would prosper. The truth of it is that they lost the time period.
Goldmine: In the mid-'60s you started taking on new shows such as Where The Action Isand Happening. What was behind that decision?
Dick Clark: Where The Action Is was developed as a CBS summer replacement for Jackie Gleason. It had been turned down for a variety of reasons and a guy at CBS asked if we'd do it five days a week as a half-hour and we said yes. It was a wonderful vehicle for a lot of the English artists and American artists. We took it out of doors and did skiing sites and beach sites and parks and nightclubs. It was quite an undertaking.
Goldmine: I associate it more with the American groups, like Paul Revere and the Raiders, than with the English groups.
Dick Clark: They were regulars but we had the Yardbirds, the Who, the Moody Blues, Billy J. Kramer.
Goldmine: You've said that you started losing touch with the music in the '60s. Which music did you not take to?
Dick Clark: That was during the first psychedelic period. I couldn't figure it out. I wasn't into drugs so it left me behind. We still presented the artists but I couldn't tie into it because I didn't know what the hell they were talking about.
Goldmine: Yet you produced a movie at that time called Psych-Out, which was a classic '60s hippie movie.
Dick Clark: Yeah. Jack Nicholson wrote the original script. It was not accepted but he became a star. It was originally called The Love Children and they changed the title to Psych-Out because they thought the movie would be about bastard kids when they sent it out to the exhibitors; they tested the title and when it came back they didn't know what it meant.
Goldmine: Did you feel even more alienated from the music when disco and punk came along in the '70s?
Dick Clark: Once the drug thing took its position, everything was fine. I had no trouble understanding disco music; it's dance music. Punk was just a further extension of Little Richard and Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
Goldmine: The show's ratings didn't really jump when disco came along. That's surprising.
Dick Clark: We lived through the folk period and the psychedelic period when dancing wasn't all in vogue. The show wasn't really based on whether you liked dancing or not; it was whether you liked people of that age. What were they wearing, what were they doing?
Goldmine: Do you recall an appearance on the show in 1980 by a group called Public Image Limited? It was one of the more noteworthy moments in rock 'n' roll television in the early '80s.
Dick Clark: Oh sure, [former Sex Pistol] Johnny Rotten, Johnny Lydon. He wasn't feeling well, he was tired, so he said "I'm not going to do a lip-sync, I'm just going to run around the studio and cause mayhem," and we said fine. It was a very bizarre appearance but typical and memorable.
Goldmine: Any other latter-day appearances that stand out?
Dick Clark: Oh, the Beastie Boys were pretty memorable. The first time Madonna was on was pretty exciting. Same with Cyndi Lauper. The first time Lionel Richie appeared as a solo artist. Prince was of course memorable.
Goldmine: Are you a fan of today's music?
Dick Clark: You don't stop being a fan. Being a fan of music doesn't necessarily mean you're a fan of all music. What your own personal taste is has nothing to do with what you're called upon to present.
Goldmine: There's a controversy in the music industry today involving lip-syncing by artists at supposedly live concerts. A few states are considering laws banning it. What's your feeling on that?
Dick Clark: I don't think it makes a bit of difference because obviously the fans of Madonna and New Kids and Milli Vanilli don't care. [Ed. note: This interview was conducted before the recent revelations regarding the two men known as Milli Vanilli not actually being the singers who made the record.] As long as the people who like the music are happy to be there and enjoy the occasion, they're the ones who have to worry about it. If it bothers you then the easy solution is you don't go. That's another one of those phony premises for whipping people into a frenzy. The world may blow up in the Middle East tomorrow; this isn't something to spend time worrying about.
Goldmine: What made you decide to drop out of the show?
Dick Clark: Iwas approaching my 60th birthday and the show was going to go to cable and I thought now's the time to pass over the reins.
Goldmine: What's the current status of the show?
Dick Clark: It's in limbo at the moment. I'm hoping that in the next year or so it'll come on in some form. We've had some interesting inquiries about it. It's one of the most recognizable names; it's an icon of sorts. I think it'll be back on television in one form or another.
Goldmine: Do you miss it?
Dick Clark: Yeah, very much. You don't hang around something for that many years and not miss it.
Goldmine: If it comes back would you want to host it again?
Dick Clark: No, I don't think so but I'd like to be asked back on occasion to do something.
Goldmine: Earlier you mentioned the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What's your feeling about it?
Dick Clark: I sincerely hope they get it done. It's been a long, hard fight; it's long overdue.
Goldmine: Are you upset that you haven't been inducted yet?
Dick Clark: I don't think there's any reason that I should be.
Goldmine: Last year you wrote a mystery novel, Murder On Tour [Mysterious Press, 1989].
Dick Clark: No, that was ghost-written. There was a book producer who called me and asked me did I want to do a mystery on a game show? I said, "No, no, no, what you want to do is get Pat Sajak or Merv Griffin." He then said, "Well, how about a rock 'n' roll tour," and I said that'd be fine.
Goldmine: Was there anything you ever undertook in your career that you wish you'd never done?
Dick Clark: Oh, I'm sure there are a lot of them but I don't dwell on those. Some things, you think, why did I ever do that. It's like having every tooth in your head extracted at the same time.
Goldmine: How have you changed the most in your 40 years in the business?
Dick Clark: I guess like everybody you mature a lot. I wish I'd had a little more maturity when I started but you don't get that when you're in your twenties.
Goldmine: But could you have done what you did if you'd been 10 years older at the time?
Dick Clark: Probably. I don't think that had anything to do with it because my predecessors were older. The only thing that would've helped me had I been a little older and more mature, I might not have made some of the mistakes I made in friendships that I had. There were some people around me that I couldn't realize weren't really my buddies.
Goldmine: How does it feel still being called "America's Oldest Living Teenager" at age 61?
Dick Clark: It's like being America's Oldest living Civil War veteran. That was first written inTV Guide over 20 years ago, as a dig, no less. I said that's a great piece of business. It works very well in introductions, whether you're giving a speech or making a personal appearance. It brings a smile to people's faces; it's obviously tongue-in-cheek and the silliest thing so it breaks the ice.
Goldmine: Of everything you've done in your career, of what are you proudest?
Dick Clark: I'm proudest of Bandstand because it proved a point, it stayed on the longest, it's the longest-running variety television show in history — that's in the Guinness Book Of Records. It's been a part of almost four generations. You can't get much better than that.
© Jeff Tamarkin, 1990
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