American Bandstand became a powerful symbol of American teenage culture with its nearly four-decade look at the ever-changing tastes of the country's youth. Featuring guest artists who lip-synced to their latest tunes, and a teenage audience whose members danced for the cameras, the show launched a conga line of dance crazes, fashion and hair trends, and sent the latest teen slang expressions echoing from coast to coast.
From its beginning as a local Philadelphia telecast called, simply, Bandstand in 1952, to its 1957 national debut as American Bandstand, and on throughout its run, the show was known for treating teenagers with deference. Congenial host Dick Clark did not pontificate or preach; he instead let the kids and the music do the communicating. The antithesis of courageous rock 'n' roll proponents like fiery Alan Freed, Clark has been accused of homogenizing rock 'n' roll. Music historians have pointed out that he had a financial interest in some of the show's acts, but Clark has countered that the show reflected popular taste. Indeed, American Bandstand enjoys a reputation not only as a musical and cultural timeline, but as a fondly remembered part of adolescence for many if not most Americans.
Though Clark's name is synonymous with that of American Bandstand, the show originated with Philadelphia disc jockey Bob Horn, and the radio show Bob Horn's Bandstand. It was in October of 1952 that Horn and his Bandstand moved to Philadelphia's WFIL-TV as a live afternoon series. Against a painted canvas backdrop of a record store, the studio audience clustered on pine bleachers to watch lip-syncing artists such as pop singers Joni James and Frankie Laine. The show also featured dance and record-rating segments.
Because the TV studio was in the vicinity of three local high schools, Bandstand had no trouble finding an in-house audience. Within three months of its debut, some 5,000 students had applied for "membership" cards. Those who were given cards had to be between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. Gum chewing was prohibited, and there was a dress code. Males could not wear jeans or opened shirts, and were required to have a jacket or sweater with tie; females had to wear dresses or skirts—but not tight skirts. "When you dressed right, you behaved right," believed producer Tony Mammarella.
In retrospect, the show has been criticized for sanitizing its audience. And not just in regard to fashion. Though Philadelphia had a large African American population, it would take years for the show to reflect that segment of the population. Like many programs of the day, Bandstand did not officially ban African Americans from the audience; but neither did it issue them membership cards. And though the show became known for featuring the hottest African American artists of the 1950s, many of these artists did pop-style tunes. Additionally, there were early efforts to acquiesce to sponsors, who wanted white cover singers.
It was image-consciousness that led to the dismissal of original host Bob Horn. The Philadelphia Inquirer, which owned WFIL, was in the midst of an anti-drunk driving campaign when Horn made headlines with a 1956 drunk driving arrest. As a result, WFIL sought a new host. Enter twenty-six-year-old Dick Clark.
Voted the "Man Most Likely to Sell the Brooklyn Bridge" by his high school classmates, Clark was born November 30, 1929, in Bronxville, New York. He was in his early teens when he realized he wanted a career in radio. While still in high school he worked in the mailroom at a Utica, New York, station where his father was the promotional manager. At Syracuse University he majored in advertising and minored in radio, and was a disc jockey and newscaster for the campus station. Following graduation, he worked at a series of stations including the Syracuse, New York, station, WOLF-AM, where he hosted the country music show, The WOLF Buckaroos. After moving into television at Utica's WKTV, he became "Cactus Dick" of the station's country-western show, Cactus Dick and the Santa Fe Riders.
He relocated to Philadelphia in 1952 to host WFIL radio's daily easy listening show, Dick Clark's Caravan of Music. He also did commercials for WFIL-TV, and watched from the sidelines as Bandstand became a local hit. Though he was a novice in regard to rock 'n' roll, Clark was a marketing genius who intuitively understood the potential of both the show and the music. As the country's fourth-largest metropolitan city, Philadelphia was a break-out market for performers and their records.
It was on August 5, 1957 that ABC took Bandstand national. Debuting on 67 stations across the country, the live daily afternoon show was an instantaneous success. Just weeks into its run, American Bandstand was drawing 15,000 letters a week, topping the fan mail for the network's most popular show, Wyatt Earp. The success led to a Saturday night spin-off, The Dick Clark Show, which ran for two-anda-half years.
As network television's first show devoted to rock 'n' roll, it became requisite for both established and upcoming performers to put in American Bandstand guest appearances. Of the leading rock 'n' roll stars of the 1950s and 1960s, only Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson did not appear. Those artists who made their national debut on the program included Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, the Everly Brothers, Jackie Wilson, Johnny Mathis, Chuck Berry, and the duo of Tom and Jerry—later to be known as Simon and Garfunkel. As an integral force in the rise of the teen idol, American Bandstand also propelled Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, and other pin-up boys, to prominence.
Singer Gene Pitney once estimated that a single American Bandstand appearance could lead to next-day sales of 20,000 to 40,000 records. After nearly giving up on her career, Connie Francis had her first number one hit when Clark touted "Who's Sorry Now?" When Jerry Lee Lewis appeared on the show in April 1958 to perform "Breathless," viewers learned they could own the record by mailing in fifty cents and five wrappers from Beechnut gum, a leading sponsor. Within three days, tens of thousands of gum wrappers were mailed in.
Clark himself was the force behind the 1958 number-one hit "At the Hop." Danny and the Juniors had originally recorded a demo called "Do the Bop," which referred to one of the show's dance fads. Clark suggested that lyrics be changed to "At the Hop." It was also Clark who triggered Chubby Checker's enormous 1960 hit, "The Twist." Credited with revolutionizing popular dance, "The Twist" was written and first recorded by the raucous rhythm and blues group Hank Ballard and the Midnighters as the flip side to their 1958 tune "Teardrops on Your Letter." After seeing the dance performed on his show in the summer of 1960, Clark approached the local Cameo Records and suggested a new recording.
The Twist was but one of many dance fads popularized by American Bandstand. Others included the Strand, the Stroll, the Duck, the Calypso, the Fly, the Loco-Motion, the Watusi, the Limbo, the Bristol Stomp, the Mashed Potato, the Hully Gully, the Bird, and the Smurf. It wasn't just the dances that garnered the spotlight; some of the dancing "regulars" became celebrities in their own right, complete with fan mail, their own fan clubs, and coverage in the teen fan magazines. The show's most popular dance team of Bob Clayton and Justine Carrelli even cut their own record.
The show's reputation, as well as Clark's, was briefly jeopardized when the payola scandal broke in November of 1959. By this time, Clark was involved in music publishing, talent management, record pressing, label making, distribution, and more. But, he insisted to a Washington subcommittee that he had never accepted payola for playing or not playing a particular record. He survived the scandal, but ABC made him divest his music-related interests.
During the 1960s, American Bandstand's influence was undermined by societal changes, as well as changes in the music world. Los Angeles, home of surf and car-culture music, had become the new heartbeat of the industry. And so, in February 1964 the Philadelphia fixture relocated to Southern California. No longer live, the show was taped; having lost its daily time slot, it aired on Saturday afternoons.
Oddly, the series failed to capitalize on the British invasion. Meanwhile, as FM radio grew in popularity, the diversity of music types created a conundrum. On a purely practical level, psychedelic songs were not danceable. To enliven the dance floor, American Bandstand cranked up the soul music—an irony, considering that it was 1965 before the series had a regular African American dance couple.
In the 1970s, American Bandstand exploited a new roll call of teen idols, including Bobby Sherman, David Cassidy, and John Travolta. The series also reached into its vaults for a highly rated twentieth-anniversary late night special. Still later in the decade, the show's dance floor was revitalized by disco. The following decade saw the abandonment of the dress code. But spandex and plunging necklines, and guests as disparate as Madonna, Jon Bon Jovi, Prince, and the Stray Cats, could not offset changing technology. MTV debuted on August 1, 1981; four years later, it spawned the sister network, VH-1, which was aimed at viewers ages twenty-five to forty-nine, a demographic group who had left American Bandstand behind. There was also competition from music-video oriented series, such as NBC's Friday Night Videos. Finally, after thirty-seven years of catering to and reflecting teenage taste, American Bandstand came to an end in October 1987. Through syndication, The New American Bandstand ran through September 1989.
But the beat goes on. Dick Clark Productions continues to exploit the American Bandstand moniker with tie-ins including a chain of theme restaurants. And the show continues in reruns. In fact, VH-1, which contributed to the original show's demise, has been an outlet for The Best of American Bandstand. Befitting a symbol of Americana, the show's podium, over which Clark used to preside, is on display in the Smithsonian Institution; the show itself was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as TV's longest-running variety program. Meanwhile, the theme song, "Bandstand Boogie," enjoys instant recognition. As does Clark, whose ever-youthful appearance, and association with the series, have won him the appellation, "the world's oldest living teenager."
—Pat H. Broeske
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Shore, Michael, with Dick Clark. The History of American Bandstand. New York, Ballantine Books, 1985.
Uslan, Michael, and Bruce Solomon. Dick Clark's The First 25 Years of Rock & Roll. New York, Delacorte Press, 1981.