‘World’s oldest teenager’ led music, generation changes
LOS ANGELES – Dick Clark, the ever-youthful television host and producer who helped bring rock ‘n’ roll into the mainstream on “American Bandstand” and rang in the New Year for the masses at Times Square, has died. He was 82.
Spokesman Paul Shefrin said Clark had a heart attack Wednesday at Saint John’s hospital in Santa Monica, where he had gone the day before for an outpatient procedure.
Clark had continued performing even after he suffered a stroke in 2004 that affected his ability to speak and walk.
Long dubbed “the world’s oldest teenager” because of his boyish appearance, Clark bridged the rebellious new music scene and traditional show business, and equally comfortable whether chatting about music with Sam Cooke or bantering with Ed McMahon about TV bloopers. He long championed black singers by playing the original R&B versions of popular songs, rather than the pop cover.
Clark thrived as the founder of Dick Clark Productions, supplying movies, game and music shows, beauty contests and more to TV. Among his credits: “The $25,000 Pyramid,” “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes” and the American Music Awards.
For a time in the 1980s, he had shows on all three networks and was listed among the Forbes 400 of wealthiest Americans. Clark also was part of radio as partner in the United Stations Radio Network, which provided programs – including Clark’s – to thousands of stations.
“There’s hardly any segment of the population that doesn’t see what I do,” Clark told the Associated Press in a 1985 interview. “It can be embarrassing. People come up to me and say, ‘I love your show,’ and I have no idea which one they’re talking about.”
The original “American Bandstand” was one of network TV’s longest-running series as part of ABC’s daytime lineup from 1957 to 1987. It later aired for a year in syndication and briefly on the USA Network. Over the years, it introduced stars ranging from Buddy Holly to Madonna. The show’s status as an American cultural institution was solidified when Clark donated Bandstand’s original podium and backdrop to the Smithsonian Institution.
Clark joined “Bandstand” in 1956 after Bob Horn, who’d been the host since its 1952 debut, was fired. Under Clark’s guidance, it went from a local Philadelphia show to a national phenomenon.
“I played records, the kids danced, and America watched,” was how Clark once described the series’ simplicity. In his 1958 hit “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Chuck Berry sang that “they’ll be rocking on Bandstand, Philadelphia, P-A.”
As a host, he had the smooth delivery of a seasoned radio announcer. As a producer, he had an ear for a hit record. He also knew how to make wary adults welcome this odd new breed of music in their homes.
Clark endured accusations that he was in with the squares. In a 1985 interview, Clark acknowledged the complaints. “But I knew at the time that if we didn’t make the presentation to the older generation palatable, it could kill it.”
“So along with Little Richard and Chuck Berry and the Platters and the Crows and the Jayhawks … the boys wore coats and ties and the girls combed their hair and they all looked like sweet little kids into a high school dance,” he said.
But there was more than just twisting on his show. During “Bandstand’s” first national season in 1957, Clark integrated the show by adding popular black artists such as Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson to the guest lineups. He helped give black artists their due by playing original R&B recordings instead of cover versions by white performers, and he brought black teens on as dancers.
“It still wasn’t acceptable for them to dance with white kids, so the blacks just danced with each other. We were waiting for the explosion, but it never happened,” Clark told Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine in 1998.
“The wonderful part about our decision to integrate then was that there were no repercussions, no reverberations, no battles at all – it just happened right there on a television screen in front of millions of people. That was a giant step forward.”
His stroke in December 2004 forced him to miss his annual appearance on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” He returned the following year and, although his speech at times was difficult to understand, many praised his bravery, including other stroke victims.
Still speaking with difficulty, he continued taking part in his New Year’s shows, though in a diminished role.
Friends on Wednesday recalled a patient, encouraging man. “He was there for every crisis of my life and there were many,” singer Connie Francis said in statement. “Without Dick Clark there would have been no career because I was ready to abandon it. Dick was the most principled man I ever met in this business and treated everyone the same way, even if you were the little guy.”
He was born Richard Wagstaff Clark in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1929. His father, Richard Augustus Clark, was a sales manager who worked in radio.
Clark idolized his athletic older brother, Bradley, who was killed in World War II. In his 1976 autobiography, “Rock, Roll & Remember,” Clark recalled how radio helped ease his loneliness and turned him into a fan of Steve Allen, Arthur Godfrey and other popular hosts.
From Godfrey, he said, he learned that “a radio announcer does not talk to ‘those of you out there in radio land’; a radio announcer talks to me as an individual.”
Clark began his career in the mailroom of a Utica, N.Y., radio station in 1945. By age 26, he was a broadcasting veteran, with nine years’ experience on radio and TV stations in Syracuse and Utica, N.Y., and Philadelphia. He held a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University. While in Philadelphia, Clark befriended McMahon, who later credited Clark for introducing him to his future “Tonight Show” boss, Johnny Carson.
In the 1960s, “American Bandstand” moved from black-and-white to color, from weekday broadcasts to once-a-week Saturday shows and from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Although its influence started to ebb, it still featured some of the biggest stars of each decade, whether Janis Joplin, the Jackson 5, Talking Heads or Prince.
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