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Thursday, April 19, 2012

R.I.P. Dick Clark: America's Oldest Teenager Goes to Rock 'n' Roll Heaven

Posted By on Thu, Apr 19, 2012 at 3:30 AM

Dick Clark in 1961
  • Dick Clark in 1961

If you were a teenager in the 1950s, you hated TV. Your parents watched TV. Anything your parents liked, you despised. Springsteen's song "57 Channels (And Nothing On)" talked about the video wasteland in 1992, but in 1956, even in a big city like New York, there were fewer than 10 channels on the air. There really was nothing on TV worth watching. Teenagers listened to the radio to get their rock 'n' roll fix. That changed when American Bandstand debuted in 1957.

Dick Clark, who didn't look much older than the kids on the show, hosted the program. Off camera, someone played the latest records -- hits or newly released sides by known and unknown singers. On camera, an audience of teenagers, about 200 of them, danced. Bandstand came on at 3:30 in the afternoon, and suddenly the streets in my neighborhood were deserted. We all rushed home to hear the latest sounds and see Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Freddie Cannon, Little Richard, and others lip synch their hits. The kids looked just like the kids I knew and, on every show, they got to rate new records on a scale of 35 to 98. The typical critique was, "Its got a good beat and you can dance to it," which quickly became a popular catch phrase. There was no pop music journalism in the '50s, so hearing your peers rate a record had an enormous impact. It created hit songs overnight.

Dick Clark was the perfect host. He was young and clean cut and made you feel like he was talking directly to you as you sat on the floor in front of the TV. If your parents came in, they liked his suit and tie and passed by without comment. Clark was one of the first white DJs to play the hits of African American artists, instead of the tamer cover versions by white pop artists, and one of the first to expose black rockers to a national TV audience.

Clark was a teenager himself when he started in radio, working in the mail room at his father's radio station in New York state. After he graduated from college, he started spinning records WFIL in Philadelphia. When WFIL started a sister TV station, they put together Bandstand. After a few shakeups, Clark became the host and took the show national on ABC. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, you can't escape pop music on TV, but for a long time, the only place you could hear rock 'n' roll on television was American Bandstand. The show ran from 1952 to 1989, helped create teen culture, and made Clark a household name. More importantly, it introduced America to real rock 'n' roll at a time when many stations refused to play what they called "Negro music."

If today's young music fans know Dick Clark at all, it's because they've seen his New Year's Rockin' Eve on ABC sometime in the last 30 years. But without Clark and American Bandstand, rock music wouldn't have gone mainstream as quickly as it did. Dick Clark, who was once called America's Oldest Teenager, had a heart attack and died Wednesday morning. Teenagers of all ages will miss his warm smile and, if they still have record players, will spin an old copy of "Tutti Frutti" or "Great Balls of Fire" to mark his passing.

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