'American Bandstand' host Dick Clark has died

  • Article by: BRUCE WEBER , New York Times
  • Updated: April 19, 2012 - 9:19 AM

He was among the most powerful arbiters of music taste for decades.

Dick Clark, the perpetually youthful-looking television host and entrepreneur whose long-running daytime song-and-dance fest, "American Bandstand," did as much as anyone or anything to advance the influence of teenagers and rock 'n' roll on U.S. culture, died Wednesday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 82.

A spokesman, Paul Shefrin, said Clark had a heart attack Wednesday morning at St. John's Health Center after an outpatient procedure. Clark had a well-publicized stroke in December 2004, shortly before he was to appear on the annual televised New Year's Eve party he had produced and hosted every year since 1973. He returned a year later, and though he spoke haltingly, he continued to make brief appearances on the show.

The seemingly ageless Clark, who promoted as "America's oldest teenager," he was among the most recognizable faces in the world and was among the most powerful arbiters of pop-music taste for 35 years.

In addition to "American Bandstand" and "New Year's Rockin' Eve," he hosted innumerable awards shows, comedy specials, series based on TV outtakes and the game show "The $10,000 Pyramid" (which lasted long enough to see the stakes ratcheted up to $100,000). He also made guest appearances on dramatic and comedy series, usually playing himself.

But he was as much a businessman as a television personality. "I get enormous pleasure and excitement sitting in on conferences with accountants, tax experts and lawyers," he told the New York Times in 1961. He was especially deft at packaging entertainment products for television.

Starting in the 1960s, Clark built an entertainment empire on the shoulders of "Bandstand," producing other music shows like "Where the Action Is" and "It's Happening." He expanded into game shows, awards shows, comedy specials and series, talk shows, children's programming, reality programming and movies. His umbrella company, Dick Clark Productions, has produced thousands of hours of television; it also has a licensing arm and has owned or operated restaurants and theaters like the Dick Clark American Bandstand Theater in Branson, Mo.

But none of it would have been possible without "American Bandstand," a show that earned immediate popularity, had remarkable longevity and became a cultural touchstone for the baby-boomer generation. It gave rise to the Top 40 radio format and helped make rock 'n' roll a palatable product for visual media -- not just television but also the movies.

'Nowhere to the Top 10'

"American Bandstand" was broadcast nationally from 1957 to 1989, and the list of well-known performers who were seen on it, many of them lip-synching their recorded hits, spanned generations: from Ritchie Valens to Luther Vandross; from the Monkees to Madonna; from Little Anthony and the Imperials to Los Lobos; from Dusty Springfield to Buffalo Springfield to Rick Springfield. Clark was around for it all.

"It meant everything to do Dick's show," Paul Anka said Wednesday. "This was a time when there was no youth culture -- he created it. And the impact of the show on people was enormous. You knew that once you went down to Philadelphia to see Dick and you went on the show, your song went from nowhere to the Top 10."

The influence of the show waned somewhat after it changed from a weekday to a weekly format, appearing on Saturday afternoons, in 1963 and moved its base of operations to Los Angeles the next year. And as the psychedelic era took hold in the late 1960s and rock 'n' roll fragmented into subgenres, the show could no longer command a central role on the pop music scene.

Indeed, the show was criticized for sanitizing rock 'n' roll, taking the edge off a sexualized and rebellious music. But it was also, in important ways, on the leading edge of the culture. Clark and his producer, Tony Mammarella, began integrating the dance floor on "American Bandstand" shortly after he took over as host; much of the music, after all, was being made by black performers.

And he helped give black artists their due by playing original R&B recordings instead of cover versions by white performers, and he condemned censorship.

The right man at the right time, Clark was a radio personality in Philadelphia in 1956 when he stepped into the role of host of what was then a local TV show called "Bandstand" after the regular host was fired. By the following October, the show was being broadcast on ABC nationwide and for the next several years it was seen every weekday afternoon by as many as 20 million viewers, most of them not yet out of high school, eager to watch a few dozen of their peers showing off new steps like the twist, the pony and the Watusi.

Handsome and glib Dick Clark was their music-savvy older brother, and from that position of authority he presided over a grass-roots revolution in U.S. culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s. "American Bandstand" was the first show to make use of the new technology, television, to spread the gospel of rock 'n' roll.

'Kids might rule the world'

In its early years it introduced a national audience to teen idols like Fabian and Connie Francis, first-generation rockers like Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and singing groups like the Everly Brothers. Even more, it helped convince broadcasters and advertisers of the power of teenagers to steer popular taste.

"At that moment in time, the world realized that kids might rule the world," Clark said. "They had their own music, their own fashion, their own money."

Over half a century, Clark made millions -- making his first million by the time he was 30 -- as a producer or executive producer, shepherding projects onto the airwaves that even he acknowledged were more diverting than ennobling: awards shows like the Golden Globes, the Academy of Country Music Awards and the American Music Awards; shows like "TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes," featuring collections of clips; and TV movie biographies and dramas that targeted devotees of camp, kitsch or B-list celebrities. He said, "What is wrong with giving people what they want, what they enjoy?"

Said Clark, whose survivors include three children and his third wife, Kari Wigton Clark, who grew up in St. Cloud: "My greatest asset in life was I never lost touch with hot dogs, hamburgers, going to the fair and hanging out at the mall."

  • The Washington Post and Associated Press contributed to this report.
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