Voices of America

I have been thinking since yesterday of what I might say about Dick Clark today, and I find it odd that my opinions about his contemporary, Don Cornelius, were a lot stronger at his death earlier this year. Perhaps it’s that to a farm boy from rural Wisconsin, Cornelius and Soul Train were exotic, while Dick Clark and American Bandstand were more firmly anchored in the world I knew. Perhaps it’s because Soul Train was an acquired taste and hard to find, while American Bandstand simply appeared on Saturday mornings, like the weather.

That’s not to downplay Clark’s contribution to the history of rock ‘n’ roll. He emerged at a moment when the music needed a popularizer. And while some of what he popularized was bland—the Fabian/Bobby Rydell crop of teen idols—or derivative—the denatured R&B of Chubby Checker—he also helped make the rest of the rock ‘n’ roll world palatable to a suspicious generation of adults. Surely that nice young man on the TV wouldn’t be involved with anything sleazy or harmful. (It’s arguable that if Clark hadn’t existed, the record industry might have invented him.)

Clark was, of course, involved in some sleazy things. Over 50 years ago, he escaped the payola scandals with his reputation and career intact by being congenial and forthcoming with Congressional investigators, while his contemporary Alan Freed got the book thrown at him, even though their involvement was similar. And while Freed ended up dying in obscurity, Clark built a media empire.

Despite his ubiquity on TV from the 70s forward—The $10,000 Pyramid, his blooper specials, and his 40-year run on New Year’s EveAmerican Bandstand is Dick Clark’s monument. Bandstand‘s greatest contribution to American culture may not have been the musicians it brought into our homes every weekend. In a three-channel universe, American Bandstand had tremendous power in shaping how young people perceived themselves. You’d sit there watching the show, those kids, what they wore, how they cut their hair, how they moved, and you’d see yourself—or a self you wanted to be. Clark didn’t patronize the kids who crowded around him every week, or the performers he interviewed. He understood why the music mattered, even if he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who listened to Alice Cooper in his free time.

Dick Clark, clean-cut and definitely not of our generation, was one of us nevertheless.

30 Days Out has a nice collection of Bandstand clips, including performances by Iron Butterfly (!) and ABBA. The ABBA clip is especially noteworthy for the costumes Anna-Frid and Agnetha are wearing, and for Dick’s peculiar hairstyle that day. Grantland has a fine obituary.

On Another Matter: I don’t think the Band ever appeared on American Bandstand, but fans of the Band were saddened to learn this week that Levon Helm is in his last days. I got the news only a day or so after I watched an episode of Saturday Night Live from October 1976 on which the Band appeared, getting the rare honor of playing three songs in a row (“Life is a Carnival,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Stage Fright”) and appearing later for a fourth (“Georgia on My Mind”). They were less than a month away from their farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco, filmed as The Last Waltz, and they were tremendous. Every once in a while I come across a piece that reminds me of my limitations as a writer and makes me think I should give it up. Charles Pierce’s blog post about Helm, “Whip to Grave: Levon Helm, the Real Voice of America,” is one of them.

If, after that, you’re still inclined to read any of my stuff, there’s another of the World’s Worst Songs over at Popdose, and another installment of The #1 Albums will appear later today.

5 thoughts on “Voices of America

  1. Willie

    While Soul Train catered to the Black community, American Bandstand was for ALL Americans. He featured everyone from ‘Til Tuesday to Y&T, even Leonard Nimoy. Clark was the lead who always played second fiddle to everyone and everything around him. That’s why he was beloved and someone like Howard Stern is reviled.

    1. J.A. Bartlett

      I think it’s wrong to imply that “Soul Train” wasn’t “for ALL Americans.” It was targeted at a particular audience, but there was nothing exclusionary about it. It’s not like it was on a channel only black people could get or anything like that. I completely agree, however, that Clark himself was never the focus of his shows (not just “Bandstand,” but “Pyramid” and the New Year’s shows, too), yet they became intimately identified with him anyhow.

  2. Chris

    I was fortunate enough to grow up about 50 miles outside Philadelphia, and get ‘Bandstand’ on WFIL Ch. 6 via the ‘rabbit ears’. This was when it was strictly local, before going national on ABC. My older sisters would come home from high school and turn it on. That’s the Dick Clark I’ll remember, and not the sad spectacle of ‘Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.’

    On Levon Helm, the Pierce article was referred to by at least half-dozen Facebook friends; it is indeed splendid writing. Enjoyed ‘Last Waltz’ almost as much for the back-stage Robertson-Helm story-telling as the music itself.

  3. Shark

    Dick Clark was one of those rare people who who had a keen eye, and ear, for entertainment. Plus, he had an unflappable personality. Just last night, I saw an interview piece with him from 1995 as he walked the interviewer thru some American Bandstand artifacts on a sound stage, proudly talking about them. When some nearby stage crew members were getting loud, Clark called over to them, saying,”Hey guys, we’re doing an interview over here. Can you keep it down?” And, right away, the sound stage quieted down. Everything he did was probably strictly scripted, yet he made everything he did look easy for him. If he were on live TV and a National emergency took place, he’d say something to the effect of, “we’d really like to continue, but a situation has developed that requires our utmost attention. For now, Dick Clark, so long.” (followed by his signature salute)

  4. Words

    I’m not trying to downgrade Don Cornelius but Clark definitely had to be more influential. Cornelius wouldn’t have existed without him.

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