A life as long, influential and bountiful as Dick Clark’s cannot be given the appropriate amount of detail or put into the proper context in a dozen paragraphs or several hundred words.
Clark, who died of a heart attack Wednesday morning in California at age 82, was a shrewd businessman, a savvy trendsetter and a keen arbiter and peddler of fashion, entertainment and music in mainstream America. One of his most famous quotes: “I don’t make culture, I sell it.”
And sell it he did, like some combination of Pat Boone and P.T. Barnum. Clark has been one of our pop culture’s most recognizable and enduring faces and personalities since the mid-1950s, when he took over “Bandstand” from a colleague and fellow Philadelphia DJ named Bob Horn and turned it into a TV juggernaut and his own cash cow.
In his book “TV-A Go-Go: Rock on TV from American Bandstand to American Idol,” Jake Austen wrote of Clark: “If Clark is guilty of anything, it’s being a serial capitalist. It just so happened that the tool that best suited his dollar-bills-in-the-eyes ambitions also happened to be the show that got America dancing.”
Clark, a native of Mount Vernon, N.Y., was a sleek but warm combination of youthful good looks, impeccable manners and squeaky-clean personality that abided by his nickname: America’s oldest teenager. He also had a smooth, sonorous voice. His image was the antithesis to personas like the riotous Alan “Moondog” Freed. Once Clark hit the national airwaves, parents trusted him. Teenagers submitted to his innocuous charm.
He was also deep into the play-for-pay game that was standard in the recording industry before “payola” became a dirty word and Congress went after guys like Freed, Clark and others.
Clark emerged unscathed, except at his TV network, ABC, which told him to pick either “American Bandstand” or his music industry holdings. He picked the show.
In the ensuing decades, he built a vast entertainment empire via Dick Clark Productions. His resume includes various roles as producer or host of game shows such as “$10,000 Pyramid” and award shows such as the American Music Awards.
For three decades, he was the face of “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve,” an annual Times Square countdown tradition for millions of Americans. He missed only one year — 2004, after he’d suffered a stroke.
He also started his own chain of restaurants, Dick Clark American Bandstand Grill, for which he was a target of filmmaker Michael Moore in the 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine” over pay and working conditions in one of the restaurants.
But it is “American Bandstand” for which Clark will be best-known and most revered — a show that ran from 1957 to ’87 and was memorialized in the 1958 Chuck Berry hit “Sweet Little Sixteen”: “They’ll be rockin’ on ‘Bandstand,’ Philadelphia, P.A.”
Clark has been chastised in some corners for initially favoring white, pretty-boy crooners, like Fabian, Gene Vincent and Frankie Avalon. The show was also slow to integrate its field of young dancers.
It wasn’t until 1965 that “Bandstand” featured its first prominent African-American dancer, Famous Hooks. In 1991, Hooks told the Los Angeles Times, “It was the most fun of my life. I met so many people and did so many things. Because of my image, I couldn’t have been bad if I tried.”
By 1965, according to Austen, about 35 percent of the music on “Bandstand” was by African-American artists. Clark has admitted he tried to keep things wholesome, away from the more rebellious side of rock ’n’ roll and acceptable to parents and adults, but the list of bands and artists who have performed on “Bandstand” is vast and impressive.
Clark never indulged Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, the Who or the Beatles, but his guest list included legends such as Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly the Crickets, Stevie Wonder, the Beach Boys, the Miracles, Ike and Tina Turner, the Four Tops, Jackie Wilson and Simon and Garfunkel.
He also hosted latter-day stars including Madonna and Prince. There’s a great YouTube video out of a 1966 episode of “Bandstand” featuring an interview with Don Van Vliet and then the show’s dancers bouncing along politely to Captain Beefheart’s “Diddy Wah Diddy.”
Rock critic Lester Bangs once called the show “a leggily acceptable euphemism of the teenage experience” — a fair and fitting description.
But even to those of us who would move on to other more progressive music showcases like “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” “The Midnight Special,” “Soul Train” and then MTV, “Bandstand” was an initial gathering point, a place to hear new music or connect with bands and performers we’d already heard, a safe place where teenage abandon showed up well-dressed and was expressed orderly and in good manners.
In his own very businesslike way, Clark made what he was selling — what he had cast in his own image — appetizing, hard to resist and memorable.
Joins “American Bandstand” as host, replacing original host Bob Horn. Under Clark’s guidance, it’s transformed from a local Philadelphia show to a national phenomenon.
Forms a production company, later named Dick Clark Productions, the cornerstone of his entrepreneurial success.
Produces and hosts “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.”
Hosts “The $10,000 Pyramid,” which in different versions brought him multiple Emmy Awards for best game show host.
Creates the American Music Awards at the request of ABC, which lost the broadcast rights to the Grammy Awards.
His “American Bandstand,” one of network TV’s longest-lived series as part of ABC’s daytime lineup starting in 1957, ends its network run, moves to syndication.
Produces an “American Bandstand” series for USA Network, with new host David Hirsch, which runs for less than a year.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Clark, who condemned censorship and gave black performers their due, is saluted for defending pop artists and artistic freedom.
Co-hosts “The Other Half,” a syndicated daytime talk show for male viewers, with Mario Lopez, Danny Bonaduce and Dorian Gregory.
Produces “American Dreams,” an NBC drama about a Philadelphia teenager who’s a regular on “American Bandstand.”
Suffers a December stroke, is forced to miss his annual appearance on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” He returns the next year, despite impaired speech, and is praised by stroke victims and others for his bravery.
2006: Honored at the Emmy Awards, he tells the crowd: “I have accomplished my childhood dream, to be in show business. Everybody should be so lucky to have their dreams come true.”