Affectionately known as “America’s oldest teenager,” Dick Clark was significant in transforming the record business into an international industry. As host of American Bandstand, Clark provided many acts with the opportunity to reach a national audience via television, spreading the gospel of rock and roll to teenagers across the country.
Born Richard W. Clark on November 30, 1929, in Mount Vernon, New York, he entered the music business as a sales manager for an upstate New York radio station at the age of 17. He then became a news anchor on WKTV, a television station in Utica, New York. In 1952, he began doing a radio show ("Caravan of Music") at WFIL in Philadelphia. The station’s TV affiliate had a teen-oriented show called Bandstand. In 1956, the show, which was the city’s top-rated TV program, was taken over by Clark. He was such an affable, magnetic host that Bandstand was picked up for national distribution by ABC in 1957. The first national broadcast, on August 5, 1957, featured Clark interviewing Elvis Presley. With Clark as businessman, personality, music lover and host, American Bandstand catapulted to popularity. In 1958, ABC added the show to its Saturday-night lineup, and it was attracting more than 21 million viewers. American Bandstand was the first TV show to feature black and white artists performing on the same stage. It also brought many artists – including Ike and Tina Turner, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Talking Heads and Simon and Garfunkel – their first national exposure.
Though his demeanor was low-key and agreeable, Clark did not shrink when it came time to defend rock and roll. He stood up for the music when it was under attack from censorious voices who branded it immoral. “I was roundly criticized for being in and around rock and roll music at its inception,” he said. “It was the devil's music. It would make your teeth fall out and your hair turn blue, whatever the hell. You get through that.”
By playing R&B records by the original artists on his show, Clark helped stop the longstanding practice whereby records by black artists were “covered” in lame, sanitized versions by white artists, thereby robbing the former of income and recognition. Such figures as Buddy Holly and James Brown made their national debut on American Bandstand. The show’s success helped spread the word throughout the entertainment industry that rock and roll was no fluke.
Thanks to the success of Bandstand, Clark was able to branch out into other areas of TV. In 1963, he began hosting game shows, including The Object Is and The $10,000 Pyramid. Then, in 1972, he broadcast his first Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve show. Meanwhile, his weekly televised record hops – which predated MTV by 25 years – played an integral role in establishing rock and roll, keeping it alive and shaping its future. In 2002, American Bandstand celebrated its 50th anniversary. It was the longest-running variety show in television history.
In 2007, Clark suffered a massive stroke. Then, on April 18, 2012, Dick Clark died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, California. He was 82 years old.