My friend, Bob Greene, and I were reminiscing on the phone recently about the passing of Dick Clark, who died at age 82 on April 18.
That two people from starkly different backgrounds like us would be talking about this TV icon says much about Mr. Clark's staying power, at least for those of the postwar generation who gave Mr. Clark his push to entertainment and economic success.
Bob and I are in our early to middle 60s, about two years apart in age. I'm white; he's African American. He grew up in rural Harford County at a time when schools were still segregated by race, as was most of the popular music played on local radio stations.
I'm from suburban Philadelphia, where schools weren't segregated and music began crossing over between black and white about the time Mr. Clark came to town to host what was then simply called "Bandstand," an afternoon local television show on WFIL-TV, Channel 6, that featured teenagers - white teenagers mainly from West Philly where the station was - dancing to the latest records by mainly white doo-wop and rockabilly artists.
"Bandstand" started around 1953 and was hosted by an older radio DJ named Bob Horn, who made the move to TV in the early days of the medium. The show aired weekdays from around 4 to 5 p.m., allowing the kids from West Philly and West Catholic and South Philly high schools time to leave class and make their way over to the studio at 46th and Market streets, conveniently located next to the El trains. Ducktails and bobby socks were de rigueur.
Bob Horn's somewhat tragic self-destruction as the "Bandstand" host and creator is well covered in an autobiographical book that came out last year by Jerry Blavat, who became another Philly institution as a DJ and rock 'n' roll impresario. Blavat was one of the kid insiders on the original bandstand and claims in his book to have led a revolt when he learned his mentor, Mr. Horn, was going to be cashiered from the show. Mr. Clark was being brought in as the replacement and though Blavat says he held no personal animus toward the new host, he and the other kids were loyal to Mr. Horn and didn't want an interloper taking over. The revolt fizzled, and the rest is history, as they say.
With his passing, I think many people became conflicted upon judging Dick Clark's influence on the rise of rock music - and the rebellion it helped fuel in the 1960s.
Though the "Bandstand" audience remained homogenized for its remaining run in Philly, I'd have to credit Mr. Clark with introducing many of us to the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly, three very formative artists from that era. He also brought in many lesser artists of both races to lip sync their latest "hit" records on the show. And, as most of us would come to find out in some unflattering ways, Mr. Clark was also involved - how deeply appears to be a matter of debate to this day - in the rise of the independent Philly labels of the late 50s that featured the likes of Chubby Checker, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian Forte, Dee Dee Sharp and groups like the Orlons and the Dovells, to name a few.
One obituary I read gave considerable credit to Mr. Clark for recognizing the potential gold mine teenagers could be for advertisers and television alike. I don't think his influence in this regard was underrated. In fact, if you watched his short-lived Saturday night show that aired from New York circa 1958, you'll never forget the slogan of his primary sponsor, Beechnut Spearmint Gum: "It's wrapped in green and made for a teen." Frankly, I doubt if anyone has chewed that gum before or since the Dick Clark Saturday Night Show.
The day came in the early 1960s that Mr. Clark got too big for Philadelphia and picked up and moved what had become the ABC Network's "American Bandstand" off to Hollywood. (I think he left the first Mrs. Clark behind, however, or so the story goes.) He was headed for more fame and fortune, of course, and the creation of an empire that backed recordings, movies, awards shows, rock 'n' roll revivals and the ubiquitous New Year's show that I frankly never watched. For a time, there was even a place for him on the annual Forbes 500 richest Americans list.
Before the move West, Mr. Clark was living in a fairly unpretentious house in Wallingford, a Philly suburb where I just happened to attend junior high school. You could, if you wanted (and we did once for some out-of-town guests), knock on the door, and the first Mrs. Clark would graciously give you a few autographed color glossies, free of charge.
The man himself showed up a couple of times to the dances that were held on Friday nights at the elementary school across the street from his home. He'd just walk in, smile and take the microphone, just like it was part of him, patter about a few records and then take a break and sit down and autograph more of those glossy color photographs.
I was telling Bob Greene about the dances. "What was he like?" Bob asked.
"I'd say…just like, well, Dick Clark," I replied.
Immediately I could sense there was a smile as big as my own on the other end of the line.