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Dick Clark posing with Ryan Seacrest, Dec. 31, 2006. (ABC News)
Dick Clark posing with Ryan Seacrest, Dec. 31, 2006. (ABC News)

Appreciation

Dick Clark made pop culture Add to ...

“I don’t make culture,” he reportedly once claimed, “I sell it.”

Dick Clark wasn’t wrong often, but he was mistaken there. His American Bandstand holds a spectacular place in pop-culture history, its legacy continuing even if the show and the world’s oldest teenager are no longer around.

Clark, who died of a heart attack Wednesday at age 82, was a Philadelphia disc jockey turned television icon. He hosted and produced the pop-music institution from 1956 until its final season in 1989. Sonny and Cher, the Jackson 5 and Aerosmith all made their first television appearance on American Bandstand. The show inspired Soul Train and Top of the Pops. It instigated a national dance craze by booking Chubby Checker in 1960 to gyrate to The Twist, a social swivel without parallel. Culture? Clark sold it, yes, but like Simon Cowell, he absolutely made it as well.

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American Bandstand legitimized rock ’n’ roll. Fakery was okay – lip-synching was a godsend to tone-deaf singers, until blatant fakery began being seen by “purists” as wrong.

The telegenic Clark kept Main Street USA safe from the malt-shop millions – the teeny-boppers who raced home after school each day to take in the sounds. And let’s not underestimate Clark’s eternal youth. The sock-hoppers of the Eisenhower era could for years look upon the suspiciously ageless boy-wonder and know that they were younger than he was, thus extending their own youth.

With his relaxed demeanour, the television personality was a soothing presence, important in an era when some homeowners were building bomb shelters.

He would talk to his guest musicians, yes, but Clark was no journalist. (At a press conference he once asked Elvis Presley if he kept any pets, to which the King replied, “I’ve just added a couple of mules.”) Vapid questioning of celebrities by pretty hosts? Still in vogue.

Clark’s greatest legacy, however, would lie in Bandstand’s interactive character: The dance-happy audience members would “rate” each new record. The show was a precursor to the current phenomenon of televised talent contests, where empowered viewers vote on singers, thus becoming taste-makers themselves.

Clark, who would go on to host a hugely popular game show ( Pyramid) and an annual special ( Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve), operated in a mono-culture that no longer exists. No longer exists, that is, except in small pockets, including the well-watched Idol franchise.

His catch phrase on Bandstand was his signoff: “For now, Dick Clark ... so long.” In many ways, he never left.

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