Temecula, CA – Dick Clark passed away yesterday and I read the report shortly after it happened. I reflected a minute about how I had recently talked to someone who thought that he died years ago. I had thought the same thing though I couldn’t quite remember when he had taken his final bow. So seeing the news of his death yesterday was an ‘oh’ moment. I hadn’t planned to write a story about Dick Clark, as everybody knows Dick Clark. Then this morning I see all the majors running the story front page and being in the music scene myself, well. Unlike in most of my stories, there is no direct personal involvement with the subject. I never met Dick Clark or came even close to. Like most people, I knew Dick Clark through pop culture music.
When Dick Clark and American Bandstand started, things were very much as depicted in the movie Shampoo. It was the most ‘separate but equal’ time in America. Music was separated less with black acts seen by blacks and whites but most white acts seen by whites only. Christian gospel genres are still separated in competitions or were up to a few years ago. The music known as ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ at first was played by black and white artists. Then the system of segregation kicked in and music by black artists was relegated to black music radio markets. Around this time also there was a change in rock ‘n’ roll with the addition of a gospel fueled rock done to a groovier, more bluesy beat. This became known as rhythm & blues and gave a perfect dividing point to the music made by the two dominant racial groups of America, whites and blacks. To a degree, music in the commercial arena is still marketed this way but thanks to Dick Clark, the music market today is a mixed demo, with fans of all colors.
Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love and Dick Clark, a young man himself, saw the kids as a group scene and symbol of the new emerging media of television. All across the nation American Bandstand brought you 'live' the songs that were featured on the newsstands' music magazines that printed the lyrics to the teen hits in both markets. The selection on American Bandstand reflected this cross market music approach. That was saying a lot in a day when some white parents would chase their [daughters especially] kids from the room when a black person [usually entertainers] would come on the television screen. By the same token, I remember being thrilled to see performers like Jerry Lee Lewis tickle the ivories. Where else as a kid would I have experienced that? It wasn't like my folks were his fans of his music.
Aside from the latest hit teen singers, American Bandstand also introduced America to ‘the latest dance craze sweeping the nation’, something the movies had fostered to teens the generation before. The ‘adults’ were stuck in their ballroom dance moment and we teens weren’t into anything 'old school' back then. We were looking forward to flying cars, moon cities, elevated highways of concrete, UFOs landing, and the good life. Though most posters in general sight always showed a white (blond woman usually) couple doing this or owning that, black folks knew that if they went to school [college] and worked hard, they could have the same things.
Though a dance might have the same name, there was always some different move or twist to most of the named dance styles that people now call line dancing. American Bandstand was the first TV program to show this style of dance in a number of variations and names. Long before adults and later country fans line danced, it was a strictly teenage dance craze falling into both the white and black cultures, from city to city, and from locale to locale. We would watch AB to see how the kids in Philly were doing The Stomp.
But more than what it did on cross marketing to two separate cultures, AB exposed the vast white market of teens to black artists and songs they weren’t hearing on their radio stations. Interest in these artists brought pressure and ratings enticement to stations to play some crossover black artists, breaking the self-imposed racial barrier placed on the emerging genre. Dick Clark and American Bandstand lived up to being American in music selection.
American Bandstand inspired countless local independent dance party television shows that were dedicated to the teen market. I happened to win one such TV show contest in my salad days, around the crouton stage. Perhaps the most famous AB imitation was Soul Train, whose host Don Cornelius died just a while back. And the one spin-off of sorts, was Club MTV, a half hour television show molded after American Bandstand that aired on MTV between the years 1985 and 1992.
Though the media will dwell on Dick Clark being a shrewd business man, what impressed me about him most were two things; his class and his honor. Long after AB had hit the zenith of its popularity and become an institution, Clark made a public apology to the black artists who had been either ripped off by unpaid white cover royalty fees or left out of being recognized by the mainstream media and his organization. He apologized for every redneck racist involved in the music industry and that took a big man with class.
When I first got involved with the music scene as a part of it, the image of Dick Clark sitting in the stands with all the kids around him, and never once a scandal, is my inspiration for being the person I am in the scene. R.I.P. Dick Clark, and be welcomed by many of the stars you knew as kids who preceded you. What a joyous time for you.