Dick Clark: 20 Years of Clearasil Rock

A look back at the 'American Bandstand' creator's golden days: "I look back on those as not the prime, but the fucking good old days," he says

August 16, 1973
dick clark 1973 american bandstand
Dick Clark, host of 'American Bandstand.'
ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES—Dick Clark has few frustrations. But the man who's had things go his way for 20 years – who fell into the Bandstand job through other people's mistakes; who emerged from the central depths of the Fifties payola scandal as the Clearasil-clean millionaire Prince of Rock and Roll (while the King, Alan Freed, died penniless); who considers himself "just a bystander" in today's drugola mess; who's built an entertainment empire covering TV, radio, films, concert promotions and, of course, corporate consultant work in the field of youth – is upset. Standing behind the bar in his Malibu beach house after barbecuing and eating an overdone steak dinner, he gets mixed up with his Japanese dessert, and he dips his strawberry into the brown sugar instead of the sour cream first, and he makes a face, wrinkles show around the eyes, and the 43-year-old who looks thirtyish suddenly looks fortyish.

The subject is a movie he badly wants to do, has spent four years trying to put together, has gone from studio to studio trying to pitch. Called The Years of Rock, it would be "the definitive study of what happened in 20 years of rock and roll." But most important, it would relieve Dick Clark of one of his other frustrations.

"I got to do this film," he said, "because I don't want to be remembered for doing a medley of my Clearasil commercials. My youngest kids say to me, 'What the hell was going on?'... They don't say 'hell,' they say, 'Tell me about the olden days.' And I want to pull out a piece of film and say, 'That was what it was all about. That's why you are like you are today.' " And right now, that film is nowhere, except for a 13-minute sampler financed by Warner Brothers, who has since dropped out of the project. "They got discouraged with the failure of all the other music films."

Dick Clark is not given to muttering; he never speaks in any way except distinctly. He is a man with no, you know, verbal tics, and he allows nothing – a leading question or an inner anger – to affect his pitchman-perfect, best-selling salesman smoothness. But if he ever allowed himself to mutter, he'd be mumbling-stumbling right now:

"If you want to know why you are like you are today, all you have to do is examine the music. I'm running into the same goddamned prejudice I ran into in the Fifties, the Sixties and the Seventies. They don't know what the hell I'm talking about and they got the bread."

Another problem is getting 20 years of stars to agree to participate. "There are 1200 clearances involved in that film, if we ever get it made. The damn thing's got to be a labor of love because it's such a drainer. I mean, you sit for hours and hours and caress people's egos. You'll beg them to please let you have a little piece so you can represent them. It's really strange; you run into all sorts of reactions. Some people say, 'How much time can I get?' Others say, 'How little can I give you?' I had four meetings with Mick Jagger about the footage that he wanted to see. Bob Dylan says, 'Fine, just let me see the pieces and whatnot.' Prior to this year it was very difficult to get Allen Klein, who could gather three of the four Beatles. Those are the problems you run into. But I can't even worry about it now, because I don't have a deal. When I do, I'll figure out a way to get the releases."

But of course, this episode in Dick Clark's career has an upbeat little twist. Even if the movie is in limbo, even if he may have to pluck out one of his own millions of dollars to make the film, he's got this album out, timed with all the recent promotion of his televised celebration of American Bandstand's 20th anniversary, an oldies package on Buddah Records called Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock and Roll. It has just been certified gold – "a legitimate half-million-seller," he said proudly.

It is not Clark's first big record, and, as for the word "legitimate" – well, he brought it up.

As the man running the most influential record show in America in the late Fifties, young Dick Clark, as one disk jockey working in Philadelphia at that time put it, "had a piece of everything." In the Fifties, payola was not illegal; you broke the law only if you failed to pay taxes on such income. Clark, the Philly DJ was saying, had a price. "He really put them up against the wall, and he was never reasonable about how much... he always wanted half the publishing and three cents a record and..."

And so, it is said, in the transcripts of the House Legislative Oversight Subcommittee hearings on payola in 1960, Dick Clark had some hits. He owned or part-owned 33 corporations in the music business – record companies, publishing firms and record pressing plants. He got the copyright on the Crests' "Sixteen Candles" and played it heavily on Bandstand and earned $12,000 in royalties. All together, he got the copyrights to 160 songs, 143 of them as "gifts." Clark explained: "If you were a song-writer then and you had a song, you'd want me to own it because I could do the best by it. That's just good business."

Philadelphia, home of Bandstand, dictator of the dances, the fashions, the record-buying habits of teenagers all over America, was riddled with payola. Dick Clark, professing his innocence from the beginning, weathered a seven-month investigation and then sailed through the hearings as calmly as if they were just... TV shows. At the end of the sessions, the chairman of the committee called him "a fine young man." How did he do it? Said Clark: "I had done nothing illegal or immoral. I had made a great deal of money and I was proud of it. I was a capitalist." No more, no less. Said the Philadelphia radio veteran: "Clark was no cleaner than anybody else. They never even got into half the shit that Clark did, because he was sitting before a Congressional investigating committee that when the cameras were shut off, all the Congressmen would rush up to ask for his autograph for their daughters. It was a total fucking joke." So how did he do it? "The same way that all the bastards that are testifying in the Watergate thing will all end up running large corporations, they look so good."

Just the way Dick Clark spotted me glancing at his record shelf and let sail a disclaimer – "Oh, those are just there to fill the space; my actual collection is in a warehouse with all my stuff" – because he didn't want his story pockmarked by a list of crappy records he happened to have laying around, Dick Clark hoped that the payola issue wouldn't dominate a piece on his 20 years in the business. He could even see the headline: Old Payola King Talks About New Payola. And he didn't want that; didn't want to add to the gas.

"We're far removed from that mainstream of music commerce today," was about all he would say. The payola hearings of 13 years ago followed government investigations of Jimmy Hoffa and TV quiz shows, and Clark has been quoted as calling the payola hearings "just politics. An election year and all; they were just looking for headlines." Did he feel the same about the "drugola" talk now getting senatorial attention? "I don't know if it was politically timed," he said, "But I know when it'll explode. When Watergate is over."

The story of how Dick Clark emerged out of those 1960 hearings looking so ific – as his finger-snapping, Beechnut-cracking, side-swaying teen galleries would have put it – is a large part of the story of Dick Clark.

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