Remembering Dick Clark: When They Were Rockin’ on Bandstand

He brought rock 'n' roll in America's living rooms and made it acceptable for the whole family — and kept at it for a half-century

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Paul Schutzer / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

The World’s Oldest Living Teenager is dead at 82. Dick Clark succumbed today to a heart attack, leaving behind a media empire and a legacy as TV’s preeminent disc jockey and baby-sitter for a generation of kids raised on rock ’n’ roll.

Starting in 1956, when he assumed host duties on a Philadelphia afternoon TV show called Bandstand, Clark, 26, presided over a studio full of dancing teens like the nicest-ever homeroom teacher. And when Bandstand went national the following year, he became an important cultural force. Calming, genial, sweet-faced and way cleverer than he appeared, Clark was the Ike of teens — a canny conduit to spread the social and sonic threat of rock ‘n’ roll from kids’ bedrooms into the nation’s living rooms. In November 1957, the wild man Jerry Lee Lewis came on, pounded away at “Great Balls of Fire” and flipped his head forward, letting his hair spill over his face like a thick blond veil. (The other guests that day were the teen duo Tom and Jerry, later known as Simon and Garfunkel.) But because Clark was running things, Jerry Lee’s performance seemed less like outrage than an extension of entertainment.

(MORE: Dick Clark, 1929-2012: 8 Memorable On-Air Moments)

Today’s kids might need the term “disc jockey” — radio record-spinner — explained to them. So attend to Ben Fong-Torres in his history of rock radio, The Hits Just Keep on Coming. They “seemed to inhabit another world,” he writes of the top-40 jocks. “They gave away cash and prizes on the air, and they presided over sock hops and Bandstand-style shows on local television. They were like Dick Clark. Only they lived in your town.”

Well, I’m from Philadelphia. I grew up in the ’50s. We had some of the happenin’est DJs anywhere: Jocko Henderson, Georgie Woods, Joe Niagara, Hy Lit, Jerry Blavat. And Dick Clark lived in my town.

(READ: Corliss on Philly in the ’50s)

You want to know if I was ON American Bandstand? No. I can’t dance, don’t ask me. I came from Northwest Philly, not South or West. And I’ve never been Italian. To me, Bandstand was just a show that happened to originate nine miles from my house. I didn’t connect particularly with the dancers or with the icky-pop Philadelphia style (Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell) that got so much play from Clark. But I do remember seeing some of the kids from Bandstand occasionally on the elevated train near the show’s West 46 Street studio. In real life they looked small, sallow, extravagantly Vaselined, with poofter pompadours and funny shoes. The rest of the country had Elvis lookalikes; we had Avalon clones.

Of course, the kids had to be dolled up — they were in show business! And they acquired something like the young luster of Annette Funicello on another ABC afternoon attraction, The Mickey Mouse Club. (Annette would have an apt, attractive fit with the Philly paisans.) The featured dancers on Bandstand received more mail than most Hollywood stars: 45,000 letters a week. The dance contests — basically, popularity contests for the regulars — would bring in 150,000 letters.

To many kids across the country, Kenny Rossi and Arlene Sullivan, Justine Carelli and Bob Clayton, Kathleen “Bunny” Gibson and Ed Kelly, Carmen MonteCarlo and Charlie Zamil were America’s sweethearts, their lives followed as avidly as soap opera characters’. Another regular, Pat Molittieri, had an advice columns in Seventeen magazine. When my wife Mary was a lonely teen in upstate New York — weaving fantasies of adolescent romance into the dance patterns of people her age 300 miles away — her Bandstand favorite was Frani Giordano. Lou DeSera, Carmen Jimenez, Carole Scaldeferri, Rosemarie “Little Roe” DiCristo: they may sound like characters on The Sopranos, but they were just ordinary kids, with extraordinary luck of being in Philadelphia at the moment the old town lit the fuse for the rock explosion.

(PHOTOS: Remembering Dick Clark)

Clark was, in the fullest sense of the word, a mediator — between the kids watching his show and the adults walking past, seeing this nonthreatening face and figuring everything was OK. He was prematurely middle-aged; it made sense that his show’s title and theme song (Charles Alexandrine’s “Bandstand Boogie,” as played by Les Elgart) evoked an earlier, less dangerous musical era. He didn’t talk with eccentric urgency, like so many of the radio DJs of the time; his only coinages were “IFIC” (from “Flavor-ific,” to describe Beechnut Gum, sponsor of a Saturday night show he hosted for a few years) and “gesachtstehagen” (then, and now, undecipherable to me). You could say that Clark was to rock ‘n’ roll what Pat Boone was to Little Richard: the nice white man who made the rough stuff palatable.

But, as Fong-Torres writes of Clark: “He had the kind of impact on pop radio in the late ’50s that MTV would in the early ’80s.” Clark gave hundreds of rock stars their national TV debut. He played rock ’n roll and ballads, with little regard to the race of the singers (though the kids in the studio were white-only in the Philly days). He also promoted gimmick tunes, like Tommy Facenda’s “High School U.S.A.,” which had at least 28 different regional versions, each with a few dozen school names.

Clark made records by playing them and, by not playing them, broke them. To get him to play their songs, singers made new versions of their 45s: George Hamilton IV turned “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” (covered, much later, by Marilyn Manson!) to “A Rose and a Candy Bar” so as not to annoy the show’s candy sponsors. John Zacherle’s horror-novelty song “Dinner With Drac” was toned down for Clark; a record was then issued with the hard and soft versions. Chuck Berry didn’t need prompting to insert, in his “Sweet Little Sixteen,” the lines “Well, they’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand, Philadelphia, P.A.”

I remember Bandstand before it was “American…” It started in 1952, when Walter Annenberg, whose Triangle Publications owned the WFIL radio and television stations, suggested an afternoon TV dance party. The hosting job went to a dour fellow named Bob Horn, who had been running the Bandstand show on WFIL radio. On Oct. 7, after a two-week summer tryout, Bob Horn’s Bandstand had its TV premiere. Originating from the station’s West Philadelphia studio, it featured kids from the three local high schools. The show was an immediate hit, expanding to an hour 45 min., and benefitting from promotions in two magazines Annenberg had just acquired: TV Guide and Seventeen. Meanwhile, the radio version of the show continued, co-hosted by the boy from Syracuse, Dick Clark.

Horn was no glad-hander; he reminded me of two other saturnine gents of the day, Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn. And the first day of the TV show, he had reason to look glum: no dancers appeared for the first 15 minutes (school has just let out). Then two girls showed up. By Day 3 a thousand teens were trying to get in. Two years later, the show was a smash; it introduced dance crazes like the Bunny Hop, and Horn had received an award from TV Guide. The dancers were taking the spotlight, and Horn showed that, after all, he had a rapport with the kids.

Too much, it turned out. A 13-year-old girl who had been on the show claimed that Horn had had sex with her; in 1956 he was indicted on four statutory rape charges and four charging corruption of the morals of a minor. The day of his indictment he drove the wrong way down a one-way street and hit a car; one of its passengers, a little girl, was seriously injured. He had been arrested for drunken driving before and here was again found to have been intoxicated. Horn was fired from Bandstand, moved to Houston, got a radio job under the name Bob Adams and soon lost it. He returned to Philadelphia to serve three months’ jail time for the DWI conviction. In 1966 he died of a heart attack. He was just 50. (This strange tale and others are related at the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll website.)

Clark walked into, and deftly out of, his own scandal, when in 1959 the House Oversight Committee investigated payola, the record industry’s system of bribing disc jockeys and program managers in return for airplay. It ended the career of Alan Freed, the man credited with applying the black sexual term rock-and-roll to jump music. (By the way, that’s not true; the phrase goes back much earlier than Freed. In the 1941 film Swing for Your Supper young Dorothy Dandridge sings of her musical education: “They made me rock ‘n roll … brought me up on good ol’ rhythmatic.”) Freed had been his own worst witness, confronting the committee, contradicting himself under oath. Clark — who had become a millionaire by investing in 33 music-related businesses and by being “given” the royalty rights to 143 songs, many of which he promoted on Bandstand — was much smoother.

(READ: Dick Clark, America’s Party Chaperone, Dies at Age 82)

In his testimony, Clark paraded the same agreeable cool that had pacified so many South Philly punks. He admitted that he had made some nice returns on his investments: a $125 stake in Jamie Records earned him a profit of $11,900. He acknowledged that he owned a startling 27% investment in records he had played on Bandstand. He didn’t say any of this was kosher; he just said it wasn’t against the law. As he noted later in his autobiography Rock, Roll & Remember: “A record company could give a disc jockey $100,000, a list of records with how often to play each one, and it wasn’t illegal.” He informed the committee that he had divested himself of all outside interests. More important, he was courteous and efficient throughout. At the end, Chairman Orrin Harris called him “A fine young man.” (Well, he looked clean.) And Clark went back to work, spinning discs. All the way to the bank.

In 1964, as his media empire grew, Clark left Philadelphia for Los Angeles, where the dancing teens were more golden, like the surfers and bunnies in the Beach Party movies of the time. He would host the show, on networks and in syndication, for another 25 years, becoming the Lawrence Welk of rock. He hosted game shows, produced “reality” series (TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes) and John Carpenter’s Elvis biopic with Kurt Russell. In 1974 he inaugurated Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, which continues each year under the Ryan Seacrest aegis. Felled by a stroke in 2004, Clark finally looked old and stricken. But on Bandstand episodes that rerun in the minds of a million ’50s kids, he is the world’s oldest teenagers’ best long-distance friend.