A Dick Clark appreciation: The deceptively laid-back, conservative revolutionary

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

Dick Clark’s on-camera image — that of the relaxed, welcoming presence, whether as host of American Bandstand, the Pyramid game-shows, or Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve — belied the fact that, just beneath the surface, was an ambitious man who succeeded through hard work and shrewd business decisions to become one of the best-loved personalities in TV history.

Clark may have started out in radio (his creamy, intimate voice made him a natural), but it was in becoming the host of a local-TV Philadelphia-based dance show that in 1957 went national as American Bandstand that Clark found his natural habitat. A youthful-looking man in a suit, Clark was the perfect person to bring rock-and-roll to the TV medium. At a time when many TV outlets considered the wildness of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and others a potential headache for families and advertisers, Clark recognized that if you placed these stars in the right context, they’d be welcome in mass-America living rooms.

The setting was simple: Surround the rockers with groups of wholesome-looking youths dancing to the music, with Clark serving as a soothing voice of explanation and reason. (“It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”) Behind the scenes, Clark as a budding producer kept the overhead low by having the stars lip-synch to the music rather than hauling out back-up bands and the possibility for technical malfunctions or wiseguy misbehavior. Kids across the nation thus became familiar, many for the first time, with what their idols looked like when performing, even as Clark kept the proceedings restrained.

Of course, sometimes even Dick Clark could not tame unruly performers.

Certainly one of my favorite American Bandstand moments occurred in 1980, when Clark played host to former Sex Pistols leader John Lydon’s group Public Image Ltd. Look at the way PiL deconstructed Clark’s carefully built edifice, even breaking the lip-synch rule:

You think Clark wasn’t shrewd? Read what he once told critic Lester Bangs in Creem magazine: “A lot of the whole world that kids don’t understand is politics and money. When you learn politics, money, the advertising world, where the skeletons are buried, you have then matured enough to stay alive… One must learn to screw the system from within.” This was Dick Clark’s quietly conservative revolution at work.

Clark took flack for promoting white stars and white cover versions of songs — frequently booking the likes of Pat Boone, Fabian, and Bobby Rydell as often as the black creators of some of the best early rock — but he ended up an ambassador to rock music, the gateway-personality to the revolution.

He found a second career as a game-show host, one of the best ever: Presiding over various incarnations of Pyramid, starting with The $10,000 Pyramid in 1973. The game itself was exciting, made all the more so by the contrast Clark provided — a tension-building game show, Pyramid needed a quietly commanding presence as a host, not a rabble-rouser or a show-boater, and Clark helped make Pyramid a great game show.

In 1972, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve began broadcasting on ABC, initially as a youthful alternative to big-band-leader Guy Lombardo’s long-running New Year’s Eve broadcast on CBS. It’s amusing to think now, but when it started, Rockin’ Eve was considered a wild experiment doomed to fail — who could challenge Lombardo’s hold on the tradition? But Clark did it, once again using the contrast of his serene demeanor on a wild party night, combined with a live countdown from Times Square, to achieve great success.

Other of Clark’s TV successes were an afternoon 1960s rock show, Where The Action Is, featuring Paul Revere and the Raiders, as well as co-hosting with Ed McMahon Bloopers and Practical Jokes.

But for baby boomers, Dick Clark will always be the man who guided them toward rock on American Bandstand, and for a generation after that, the man who ushered them into a new year, every year with a smile on his face as warm and bright as the lights of the glittering Times Square countdown ball.

Twitter: @kentucker

For more: Dick Clark dies at 82


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