When Dick Clark died earlier this week from a massive heart attack at the age of 82, he left a musical legacy that's far too comprehensive and broad to easily sum up. Clark may have spent the latter part of his career hosting game shows, emceeing televised New Year's celebrations and even lending his name to restaurant chains, but his post as the host of the seminal American Bandstand television show starting in the 1950s helped shape the landscape of American pop music in too many ways to count.
Of course, there were the legendary acts like Ike and Tina Turner, Smoky Robinson and the Rolling Stones who found their way into countless American living rooms in the 1960s through the nascent medium of television. More profoundly, Clark's style and approach paved the way for generations of imitators, from the first MTV VJs to the current crop of televised singing contests like American Idol and The Voice.
Clark, a New York native who had majored in advertising at Syracuse University, took over as the host of American Bandstand in 1956 from its former host Bob Horn. Under Clark's leadership, the show quickly morphed from a regional program that only reached audiences in Philadelphia to a national phenomenon. After Clark's 1957 interview with a young Elvis Presley helped the show secure a spot on the ABC national lineup, American Bandstand quickly became a forum that launched the country's first rock stars, a showcase that helped set the tone and direction of American pop music.
As American Bandstand's focus shifted from merely playing records to hosting live acts, the show became the early equivalent of a modern MTV, American Idol and a traveling music festival all rolled into one. From early appearances of acts like Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Chubby Checker, Chuck Berry and Simon & Garfunkel (an act known as Tom and Jerry), Clark's show captured the rapidly shifting set of musical sounds and trends. It also marked more profound social trends.
When Clark took over from Bob Horn in the late '50s, he helped end the program's ban on black artists. The segregated seating policy on stage and in the studio was also eventually eliminated. As the fledgling Civil Rights movement began making national headlines, black and white artists and audiences shared a national stage that drew an audience of millions. Corralling the artists, the studio audience and the wider viewing public was Clark, a clean-cut host with a background in radio who made the newest and most revolutionary sounds in popular music palatable for the nation.
"I knew at the time that if we didn't make the presentation to the older generation palatable, it could kill it," Clark said in an interview with the Associated Press included in his obituary. "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."
It was a sugar-coated approach that found a complement in Clark's status as an omnipresent media star, a man who was just as comfortable hosting the $10,000 Pyramid as he was counting down for the new year on an annual basis. Clark, who earned the title of "America's Oldest Teenager" for his youthful appearance, made the underground trends commercial with an easy smile and soothing voice.
Beyond his later ventures into the restaurant business (a role criticized in 2002's Bowling for Columbine), beyond his status as a television icon, it's Clark's work in setting the tone and structure of the music business in America and beyond will serve as his most durable legacy.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.