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Dick Clark: 20 Years of Clearasil Rock

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Dick was the third man to stand behind the podium of what was then the Philadelphia Bandstand. But it was he who became "The Kingpin of the Teenage Mafia," or "The Czar of the Switchblade Set," in those publications that heard rock & roll, accurately enough, as no more than tribal jungle noise.

Clark himself liked jazz, listened to DJs like Freddie Robbins and Symphony Sid on WOV in New York. Dick had wanted to be a disk jockey since age 13 after he saw Garry Moore and Jimmy Durante doing a radio program; he went to Syracuse University, and in his first year got a spot on the campus station. For his audition, he did an imitation of a radio announcer. He did impersonations in high school, he said, "to get over a terrible inferiority complex... I was not physically terribly attractive. I was skinny and I had a lot of pimples like everybody else did, and I was going through that teenage thing of 'I don't want to get involved with too many people.' " His mimickry was apparently enough to cover up some of the blemishes, and Clark got elected class president in his senior year.

He moved on to Syracuse, where he studied business administration, majoring in advertising and minoring in radio. After college, he bounced around in DJ and newscaster jobs at radio and TV stations in Syracuse and Utica, New York. "I was the Walter Cronkite of Utica," he said – at $52.50 a week.

In late 1951 he moved to Philadelphia. Clark is happy to skip right into the story of the two originalBandstand hosts and how they started the show in 1952, and how he got tapped as the solo host in August, 1957, exactly 16 years ago. But first things first:

Another radio announcer, who was there, recalled – without skipping – Clark's beginnings. "He was hired onto WFIL radio as a summer replacement. I think the manager and Dick Clark's father co-owned a TV station – in Utica or Syracuse. Anyway, he was the second of two guys hired, and after the summer, they had to drop one of them. Normally, the first one would have stayed, but he used to do a network feed from the Epiphany Church, and every time he did it, he'd mispronounce it as the Epi-fanny Church. So they fired him for that, and Dick got to stay."

The star of the station, longtime nighttime DJ, Bob Horn, was teamed up with a rotund little Muntz television pitchman, Lee Stewart, on WFIL-TV, Clark recounted – "almost like a disk jockey comedy-oriented team, because they had nothing to fill in the afternoon on the ABC station.

"I can remember those guys walking around the music library, practically saying, 'What the hell are we going to do?' And they had old musical films of people like George Shearing, Peggy Lee and Nat Cole. They determined they would play some of those. They would make, like, Dialing For Dollars calls to viewers at home, and interview guests that came to the studio. They asked to have a studio audience. The studio was at 46th and Market Street in Philadelphia. It was out of the way. The only people in the area were the girls who went to West Catholic High School. So the only people that came by that first Monday or Tuesday were little girls in their Catholic school uniforms who sat in the studio bored to tears. And the music films came up and they said, 'Could we dance?' So the two girls would dance together. A bright-eyed cameraman turned the camera on the girls and the director said, 'That's interesting,' and punched it up. Couple of people called in and said, 'That's fun, let's watch the kids dance while the films or the records play.' By the end of the week the response was overwhelming. And then they remembered that in the movies, people never really sang, they did a lip synchronization. So they brought artists in and they would mime their records. And the format never changed in 20 years. When I started, the big stars were Joni James, Patti Page, Eddie Fisher, the Four Aces. It had nothing to do with rock & roll music because there wasn't any. It's the evolution of popular music. There were also jazz and blues. Dizzy Gillespie had a song that was played. The Cadillacs and the Crows and all of those people, the Orioles used to play the show. Laverne Baker was there constantly. So, between Alan Freed in Cleveland and Bob Horn and Lee Stewart in Philadelphia and George ["Hound Dog"] Lorenz in Buffalo, they began to find out that white kids liked black music. It's a very significant period of time, before I got there."

The Philadelphia Bandstand drew sometimes 60% of the daytime audience, and the dance-party format began spreading around the country. Rock & roll was beginning to pay off, and Bob Horn was one of the first ones paid. Or, as Tom Donahue said in the book, The Deejays, Horn was "the closest thing to a Roman Emperor I've ever known." Donahue worked at WIBG radio in Philadelphia through the Fifties and saw lots of payola money flying around. "Horn," he said, "was making a lot of money."

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