Dick Clark, affectionately known as the "world's oldest teenager," has died. He was 82, and had suffered a heart attack while in a Santa Monica hospital for an outpatient procedure.
Richard Wagstaff Clark became a national icon with American Bandstand in the 1950s, hosting the show for more than 30 years. Clark also hosted the annual New Year's Eve special for ABC for decades. He weathered scandals, hosted game shows and renewed his Bandstand fame with a new generation by producing the nostalgic TV drama American Dreams.
Clark's emergence on the national stage owed much to his being in the right place at the right time. After a childhood immersed in the world of radio — his father worked as a station manager at WRUN in Utica, N.Y. — Clark became an announcer with WFIL radio in Philadelphia and hosted the local show Bandstand.
Four years into his time at WFIL, Clark got his big break. A Philadelphia TV host on a local teen dance program called American Bandstand had been accused of sexual impropriety with some of the teenage dancers and arrested for drunken driving. The station faced enormous pressure to cancel its most lucrative program, and the producers needed a new host.
Music historian John Jackson says Dick Clark "had a clean-cut, impeccable image. He had a boyish look about him, an innocent look." In other words, he was the ideal candidate.
At the time, rock 'n' roll still carried an air of danger and controversy, but as host of American Bandstand, Clark would make the scandalous look tame. He changed American pop culture by creating an image of wholesome American teen life to which bubbly pop music was fundamental.
Clark was one of the first to take kids seriously as consumers and use the music they liked as a marketing tool. Today the kids-as-consumers concept drives much of television programming, so it's hard to imagine the kind of resistance Clark met from ABC studio executives when he first proposed that Bandstand go national.
"He was laughed out of the studio," says Jackson. "They said to him, 'Who wants to watch kids dancing in Philadelphia?' "
As it turned out, a lot of people did.
American Bandstand premiered nationally on Aug. 5, 1957, with Billy Williams singing "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." The show was an instant success, and in addition to bailing out the struggling ABC, it helped sell hundreds of thousands of records.
It's difficult to overestimate Bandstand's influence on the music industry — and as a cultural bellwether.
"We got serviced with the latest releases," Clark said in a 1998 NPR interview, "and we had a huge teen audience watching who were trendsetters. So radio-station program directors used to assign their assistants to watch the program and copy down what we played. And within a day it was being played everywhere."
Rocker Brenda Lee says the Bandstand experience was transformative for musicians like her.
"If you were on the Clark show with a new record, it was almost like Dick Clark giving his blessings and saying, 'This record is gonna be a hit,' " she told NPR in 1998.
Among those transformed were musicians Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Freddie Cannon — all of whom Clark and his show made into teen idols.
"People today can't imagine how much power he had. In the 1950s, when Dick Clark started, he was the only national disc jockey," says historian Jackson, who wrote a history of American Bandstand.
Using the earnings from his fabulous success, Clark began to acquire record companies — a move that got him into trouble in 1959 when Congress began to investigate "payola," or the exchanging of bribes for record promotion. Clark, it turned out, was hyping records that he secretly owned.
When the dust settled, Clark had to choose between his music-industry interests and hosting American Bandstand. Needless to say, Bandstand won.
Clark would continue to diversify his portfolio, though, buying radio stations and oil wells — and pouring money into TV. He produced and hosted game shows like The $10,000 Pyramid and TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes, and ventured into the movie business with popular exploitation films like Psych-Out (1968), The Savage Seven (1968) and Killers Three (1968).
In an unlikely role reversal, Dick Clark plays a TV announcer critical of youth culture run amok in Wild in the Streets (1968).
"Who in America can truly resist the clarion call of youth?" the announcer asks. "Never has it been so brazenly sounded. Experience? It has brought you nothing."
It's an uncharacteristically cynical pronouncement from a man whose uncanny youthfulness was essential to his brand. More likely, Clark will be remembered for empowering youth culture — and for quotes like "Music is the soundtrack to your life."
And, of course, his signature Bandstand signoff: "For now, Dick Clark. So long" — followed by that jaunty salute to the camera.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The world's oldest teenager has died. Dick Clark became a national icon in the 1950s as the host of "American Bandstand." The show continued through the late '80s, and for more than 30 years, Clark hosted the New Year's Eve special for ABC. Dick Clark died this morning after a massive heart attack. He was 82 years old. We hear more about his life from NPR's Neda Ulaby.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In 1956, producers at WFIL TV in Philadelphia had a big problem. The host of the city's top rated show, a local teen dance program, was accused of sexual impropriety with some of the teenage dancers, then he was arrested for drunk driving. The station faced enormous pressure to cancel its most lucrative program.
Music historian, John Jackson, said the show needed a new host fast.
JOHN JACKSON: And, at the time, there was a gentleman working on a show, a nondescript radio show, and he had a clean-cut, impeccable image. He had a boyish look about him, an innocent look. And that gentleman happened to be Dick Clark.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ULABY: One of the things Dick Clark did best would make the scandalous tame. At the time, rock 'n' roll was still sort of controversial. Clark created an image of wholesome American teen life, to which bubbly pop music was fundamental. By doing so, he changed the culture.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
DICK CLARK: I think "Bandstand" was important historically because it gave the world a look at a world perhaps they'd never looked at before. That's the world of kids.
ULABY: That's Dick Clark in a 1998 NPR interview. He was one of the first to take kids seriously as consumers and used the music they liked as a marketing tool. Now, of course, that concept occupies entire TV channels. So, in retrospect, John Jackson says, it's hard to imagine the reaction in 1957 when Clark proposed to ABC that "Bandstand" go national.
JACKSON: He was laughed out of the studio and they said to him, who wants to watch kids dancing in Philadelphia?
ULABY: It turned out, everybody did.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TWIST")
CHUBBY CHECKER: (Singing) Come on, baby, let's do the twist.
ULABY: The show was an instant success and bailed out the struggling network. Richard Wagstaff Clark got his first job at an upstate New York radio station owned by his uncle and managed by his dad, but nepotism only got him so far. In Philadelphia, Clark was on his own and he credited "Bandstand's" immediate success partly to its sense of place.
CLARK: We were in a major city, Philadelphia. We got serviced with the latest releases and we had a huge teen audience watching who were trendsetters, so radio station program directors used to assign their assistants to watch the program and copy down what we played, and within a day it was being played everywhere.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW")
THE SHIRELLES: (Singing) Tonight, you're mine completely.
BRENDA LEE: You know, if you were on the Clark show with a new record, it was almost like Dick Clark giving his blessings and saying, this record is going to be a hit.
ULABY: Clark made a teen idol out of Brenda Lee, who spoke with NPR a few years ago, as well as Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Freddie Cannon.
FREDDY CANNON: Whatever record you had out on that show, I mean, you automatically sold 50-, 60-, 70-, 100,000 records by the end of the week of that week. That's how much records that were sold off of one television show. The power of that show was so strong.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PALISADES PARK")
CANNON: (Singing) Last night, I took a walk in the dark. A swinging place called Palisades Park.
JACKSON: People today can't imagine how much power he had. In the 1950s when Dick started, he was the only national disc jockey.
ULABY: John Jackson wrote a history of "American Bandstand." He says all that power eventually got Clark into trouble.
JACKSON: Nobody knew it, but he began to accumulate record companies, music publishing companies and a record pressing company and Dick would go on "American Bandstand" and play a record and rave about it up and down and say, here's this great new record. And nobody would know that he owned the record.
ULABY: That conflict of interest became public in 1959, when a congressional investigation into payola targeted Dick Clark's business practices. Clark had to choose: his music industry interests or hosting "American Bandstand."
"Bandstand" won, but John Jackson says the experience embittered Clark and he carried on legitimate entrepreneurship with a vengeance.
JACKSON: He diversified. He bought things from radio stations to oil wells and this was the early 1960s, but probably the most important thing that he did - and he had a tremendous amount of foresight - Dick put a lot of that money into producing.
ULABY: Dick Clark became one of television's most powerful independent producers. He produced and hosted game shows, like "The $10,000 Pyramid," celebrity specials, celebrity blooper specials and exploitation movies. One featured Dick Clark. He played a TV announcer critical of youth culture run amok.
CLARK: Who in America can truly resist the clarion call of youth? Never has it been so brazenly sounded. Experience? It has brought you nothing.
ULABY: That's an uncharacteristically cynical pronouncement from a man whose uncanny youthfulness was essential to his brand. A more repeated quote was this: Music is the soundtrack to your life. Dick Clark died this morning in Los Angeles.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.