Friday, May 4, 2012

The Man Who Made Us Listen Outside Our Comfort Zone: Dick Clark (1929-2012)

“I played records, the kids danced, and America watched.” - Dick Clark (1929-2012)

Dick Clark said his job had been simple, “I played records, the kids danced, and America watched.” And it looked simple too. Watching a series of interviews a day or two after his death on April 18, 2012, I was struck by how completely ordinary he was. There was no flash, no attempt to show off any deep research; as he spoke with Creedence Clearwater Revival, or Abba, he appeared to be a regular guy talking to other regular guys (or gals, as the case may be). He might insert a little joke but for the most part it was, “How are things?” or, “What do you do in your spare time?” The fun came from the answers. Van Morrison mumbled, “I go for walks…”

Dick Clark was part of the music scene for most of my life. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, in the Non-Performers category, he joined such luminary managers, producers, and businessmen as Alan Freed, Sam Phillips and Ahmet Ertegun. Does he belong in their company? You’re darn right he does.

Born on November 30, 1929, he began his long career in broadcasting at 16 working in the mailroom of his uncle’s AM radio station, WRUM in Rome, New York. Soon after that, he filled in for a vacationing weatherman, and there was no stopping him. He moved to a country radio station, and before long he was on television, hosting a country music show Cactus Dick and the Santa Fe Riders.

He took over as host of a local music show called Bandstand in Philadelphia, which was picked up by ABC-TV and renamed American Bandstand. It debuted on August 5th, 1957, with Clark interviewing Elvis Presley. Originally. the show had a 'whites only' rule, but Clark quickly overturned that and began presenting black rockers on the show. And then he integrated the audience. White kids danced alongside their black schoolmates. Artists like Ike & Tina Turner, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Stevie Wonder were invited as guests. Simon & Garfunkel and Talking Heads also appeared on Bandstand. The show ran for thirty years. The first song played on the first show was Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. The last song in 1987 was Laura Branigan’s “Shattered Glass.”

Clark interviewing Michael Jackson
The thing I remember most about the show was Rate-a-Record. Three of the dancers were chosen from the audience to listen to a new song and rate it. “I’ll give it a 75, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” My friends and I continue to rate records this way!

The show moved to Los Angeles in 1963 and introduced America to the surfing craze as personified in The Beach Boys and Freddy “Boom-Boom” Cannon ("Tallahassee Lassie")! Dick continued to be modest about his contribution to the music. “My talent is bringing out the best in other talent, organizing people to showcase them and being able to survive the ordeal. I hope someday that somebody will say that in the beginning stages of the birth of the music of the Fifties, though I didn't contribute in terms of creativity, I helped keep it alive.”

Clark was a producer of other shows, and hosted game shows like The $10,000 Pyramid. He created the American Music Awards, a Grammy-type award voted on by the people who buy records. Most people know him today as the face of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. This show, featuring rock music, began in 1972 under the name Three Dog Night’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 1973. As well as Three Dog Night, it featured performances by Blood, Sweat & Tears, Helen Reddy and Al Green. For teenagers at the time it was a welcome relief from the usual New Year’s Eve broadcast. For example, in our family, we would gather at my Nana & Poppy’s house for late dinner, charades, a little music (playing my Nana’s 78s) and then Guy Lombardo’s big band music to ring in the New Year. Clark's show was a major breakthrough as far as my brother and I were concerned.

The show was a hit, and it came back the next year with The Pointer Sisters, Billy Preston, Linda Ronstadt and Tower of Power. Last December 31st, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj were the big names featured.

Dick Clark hosted almost every year; in 2000 Clark participated in ABC 2000 Today, while everyone waited by their computers for global meltdown. In 2001 Rockin’ Eve was back with Dick in charge. A stroke felled him for 2004, and Regis Philbin filled in, but Clark was missed. He returned for the 2005 show with co-host Ryan Seacrest. The stroke had affected Clark’s speech. For so many years it had been strong, mellifluous and flowing, now it was halting and you had to listen to pick up every word. Some people thought he shouldn’t be there; it was humiliating ... but for survivors of strokes, Dick Clark became an icon. The show was renamed Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest. Seacrest treated Clark as a mentor, saying this about him, “I’m still trying to be Dick Clark cool.”

Clark, at this past year's Rockin' Eve
Was Dick Clark cool? The jury is out on that one. Seacrest wrote a tribute in which he thanked Clark for the five things he taught him about broadcasting: be nice, people are just people. look past the camera, build a great team, and refuse to be a quitter. When you think about it, Dick Clark exemplified all those things. He always said ‘thank you’ to his guests. He treated rock stars like people, just as he did the contestants on his shows. He looked at the audience when he talked … right through the television. He obviously had a great team (the American Music Awards continue to this day). And he never quit. He worked on his speech, he fought back from the stroke. He died a day after having surgery for an enlarged prostate. He would have appeared on December 31st, 2012 had he lived. I guarantee it.

The Associated Press asked celebrities for their opinion of Dick Clark the day he died. Motown founder Berry Gordy said this, "Dick was always there for me and Motown, even before there was a Motown. He was an entrepreneur, a visionary and a major force in changing pop culture and ultimately influencing integration.”

Diana Ross said, “I will always appreciate what he did for me and for popular music. He presented Motown and the Supremes on tour with the Caravan of Stars and on American Bandstand, where I got my start. Dick Clark was a pioneer, he was a music star maker, he was a legend and was my friend."

We called him America’s Oldest Teenager. For thirty or forty years he never seemed to age. We mocked him, but he taught us to listen to music outside our comfort zone. His importance to the world of rock and roll was unfortunately lost or ignored, because of thirty years of bland television appearances with Ed McMahon and Ryan Seacrest (and because he had the misfortune of dying the same week as Levon Helm). But the truth is that Dick Clark made a difference, Berry Gordy said it … and we should remember him for that.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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