American Bandstand, which went national 61 years ago this past Sunday, is probably the most important program in music history. Watching the old clips–and there are plenty of them on YouTube–is like watching that world change before one’s eyes.
The show launch in Philadelphia in 1952 and had three hosts before (and one after) Dick Clark, the man with whom it is almost synonymous. The program, with some variations in length, format, network and name, ran for 37 seasons. Ironically, at least according to Wikipedia, there were exactly 3,000 episodes.
Television had established itself as a tastemaker by the 1950s. At the same time, a new and bewildering array of new music was beginning to attract kids. The 15 years or so from the birth of the show until the late 1960s were transformative for pop music. There was an explosion of music from the east coast, the west coast, the cities and, of course, England. American Bandstand navigated it all. Indeed, it did more than navigate it. The show was instrumental to its success. Today’s music simply wouldn’t be the same without American Bandstand.
In “The Nicest Kids in Town,” a 2012 study of American Bandstand within the context of the Civil Rights Movement in Philadelphia, Matthew Delmont writes about the show’s important role. Previously, he wrote, music was a parochial business. Scouts spread throughout the country would report on the hot records in their coverage area. That input would determine which songs were pushed nationally. American Bandstand changed all that. It was a national show that made much of that local activity unnecessary. Promoting music became centralized, uniform and in the hands of fewer people. Dick Clark was one of those people. There was a ton of creativity and a narrow funnel through which people were exposed to it.
Dick Clark became something of a punchline during the latter years because he didn’t seem to age. Watching the old clips shows how much talent he had. He was an adept interviewer and had an easy charm. He was equally at home dealing with Bobby Darin and Molly Hatchet.
The Payola Scandal and Race
There was a significant darkside, however. The concentration of so much power in so few hands led to problems. Delmont, who is a Professor of History at Arizona State University, describes the Senate investigation that looked into the idea that DJs and others in the media were accepting money and other inducements to favor certain records. Delmont does a good job of describing the payola investigation that shook the music industry in the 1950s.
Clark does not come off well in Delmont’s account:
Clark was the only disc jockey with a national audience, and the subcommittee was especially interested in his business endeavors. The hearings revealed that Clark had an interest in thirty-three music-related companies and that he owned copyrights to 160 songs, 143 of which he received as gifts. Music industry witnesses called by the subcommittee testified to giving Clark copyrights to songs or paying him consulting fees to receive more spins on American Bandstand.
The bottom line, at least in Delmont’s telling, is that Clark was protected from payola charges by ABC because he was a valuable asset. Delmont doesn’t outrightly claim that Clark crossed the line, but the sense is that he was getting away with things that others weren’t and that there was a strong appearance of impropriety.
Delmont suggests that Clark’s record on race was not as strong as he claimed, at least until the time the show relocated from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. The question is whether Clark did as much as he could in the context of the times and the tough city in which he was operating. Perhaps he fell short of what was possible even in that constrained environment and his only sin was claiming later to have done more.
The point of this post isn’t to assess the honesty or progressiveness of Dick Clark. If anything, Delmont’s version of events suggests that the experience of Clark and American Bandstand mirrored the age. It was a world of fast change music, business technology and race. American Bandstand was shaped by these changes and extended its own influence over them.
The clip at the top shows Clark very informally educating the audience on some broadcasting basics before introducing Chubby Checker, who lip syncs “The Twist.” Notice smoothly Clark shifts from chatting with the cameraman — who looks like he can’t wait for Clark to go away — to the introduction of Checker. Below is another example of Dick Clark’s easy going approach in an interview of the young Beach Boys. What he is doing is not easy.