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

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

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."

Horn was also forced to work with this skinny kid with the inferiority complex.

"Bob Horn and I," said Clark, "did a radio DJ show in the afternoon the same time the TV show was on. He would come on and do the first 15 or 20 minutes with me. He was the shill – the well-known disk jockey the station used to put his name up on so that they could sell it, and hopefully draw an audience, then he'd split and do a TV show. And I did the rest of the show and he would occasionally come in and do a 15-minute thing at the end. It was a bad setup. He was being used. He didn't like it. He didn't like me. He made it abundantly apparent that he hated every minute of it and I can see why, in retrospect."

Horn, who didn't like Lee Stewart much, either, and had long been rid of his partner, did not have to share a studio with Clark for long. In 1956, as Donahue remembered, "Horn got busted for drunken driving. He could not stop, getting busted driving a hundred miles an hour. Also, young girls ..." Horn (now dead) was accused of statutory rape with a 14-year-old girl, herself alleged to be part of a teenage vice ring in Philly. Horn was also in trouble over charges of tax evasion on payola income. He was acquitted of the rape charge, but the payola (he was convicted, the first DJ to be nailed) and the drunken driving did him in. WFIL's owners also owned the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the paper was conducting an anti drunk-driving campaign when Horn hit a hundred. In July, 1956, clean-cut 26-year-old Dick Clark took over the localBandstand.

Clark says he was still a naive young would-be Garry Moore. "I wasn't as old as a 16-year-old today, in terms of sophistication." All he knew was that Horn didn't seem to like kids so much, and that, if he were to succeed, he would have to get along with them. But not so well, he knew, that he might be accused, as he so gingerly put it, "of jumping on one of those 13-year-olds in there." He eschewed the rocket-powered, rhythm 'n' rhyming bebop talk prevalent among radio jocks in the Fifties. He wore a coat and tie and kept his hair short and bear-greased. "Pretty much what you saw," he says, "was Dick Clark according to the mores of the time. I was cast as an All-American boy, and although I smoked and drank and swore and all of that in private life, that was not presentable for television. That was the myth that was built up. But other than that, that was pretty much me."

Clark got rich quick. In his first year, he says, he combined his still-paltry WFIL salary with enough work at area record hops to come out with "at least $50,000." So when the station began plans to hook up with ABC, and possibly replace Bandstand with whatever the network fed it, Clark scurried up to New York, to pitch ABC on his dance party. After much hounding, the heads of ABC began to seriously consider the show. Clark, naive as he may claim to have been, snuck a friend, "a record plugger, pretending to be a sponsor," into the meeting. Clark got back the word: They thought he had droopy eyes and a lousy set, but network-quality lighting and staging could make it work. They agreed to send it out, to 67 ABC stations.

"And in order to show them that we had people watching, in the first three or four days we were on we ran a contest on 'Why I'd Like a Date with Sal Mineo.' It drew 40,000 pieces of mail. The next month we ran the annual dance contest that had been going on since '52, and drew 700,000 pieces of mail. The only time we beat it was in the Beatle era when we drew about a million and a half pieces for Beatle memorabilia – George Harrison's soda pop bottle, Paul McCartney's pillow case, craziness like that."

But craziness is always lovelier the first time around, and when Bandstand hit teenaged America, they... Well, they caught the beat, and they could dance to it. They gave it a hundred, and Chuck Berry gave it top billing in his "Sweet Sixteen." Suddenly, along with Dig magazine, sock hops, soda shop juke boxes, and drive-ins, they had their own TV show, this combination big-name record hop and teen-love soap opera.

American Bandstand consistently presented all the big artists, lip-synching them at the rate of two a day, ten a week. There inevitably arose the need for new artists, and – inevitably – they came from Philly.

"Man, everybody sang in South Philadelphia," said Jerry Stevens, who joined WIBG in 1960, after the payola rumble and the subsequent departure of several "Wibbage" big guns. "It was a third-class hang-around-the-drug-store scene. People like Jimmy Darren, Fabian and Frankie Avalon – they all lived in the same row of houses." Tom Donahue: "Philadelphia was always an incredibly good market in that, you get a big record, you could sell a hundred thousand in town." And of course, Bandstand attracted newly established artists for their first TV appearances, and those included Johnny Mathis, Neil Diamond, Fats Domino, and, in 1957, a crew-cut pop duo called Tom and Jerry, later changed to Simon and Garfunkel.

The other thing everyone watched for on American Bandstand could have been called As the ID Bracelet Turns. Or The Regulars: Kenny Rossi and Arlene Sullivan, Bob Clayton and Justine Corelli, the blondes, Pat Molitierri, Franny Giordano and Carol Ann Scaldeferri chief among them.

"They," said Dick Clark, "became the stars. Within a year they were drawing 15,000 pieces of mail a week, addressed to Kenny and Arlene and Pat. People would look in and fantasize about what was happening. Just the images and you'd say, 'Oooh, look at the look she gave him.' 'They're not holding hands today,' or whatever, and they'd do this whole mind trip. It became a... national phenomenon."

In 1958, Clark began commuting to New York. It was really the big time now, the Dick Clark Show, Saturday nights from the Little Theater. Here would be the switchblade singers in concert, performing to a seated, non-dancing audience and, to another audience: in six million homes around the country watching Clark, and the Royal Teens, and Dion and the Belmonts, and Connie Francis and Robin Luke (who forgot the words to "Susie Darlin'"), while the girls snapped the sponsors' gum and wore big green and white IFIC buttons.

Saturday night lasted two years, and Clark became a millionaire. He was getting smarter all the time, but on the air, he maintained himself as a straight, bland MC, smoothly leaning toward the camera to start each show, mastering the short, inoffensive interview, never outright defending either teenagers or rock & roll. He was the understanding older brother, and only once, in the trade papers, did he speak out, against Mitch Miller, the pop head at Columbia Records in the Fifties who railed at rock to a DJ convention in Kansas City in 1959. "He was grinding his ax that was going dull at the time," said Clark, "and that's sheer business, man. When somebody jeopardizes your way of living, then you've got to quick run in there and take care of business." So it is more turf-protection than politics or sociology. Clark says he has no politics, publically. "I'm just an old liberal guy," he says.

Dick Clark sits back on his Malibu floor, against a fur-covered stool, and shakes his head. I am railing at a buddy of his, a record company president who purged "drug-oriented" groups off his label, then released old Grateful Dead material months later, when the Dead were high on the charts. He re-released ten R&B stiffs under the title The History of Soul when black music began to dominate pop charts. Clark's reasoning is that, in business, in this world of commerce, anything goes, "as long as you can sleep with yourself at night." I shake my head, slowly.

"The problem," says Clark, "is that you're a fucking idealist, and I'm a whore."

When they hauled Dick Clark before the House Subcommittee, he showed them just how much he slept, and how wide awake he could be. Accused of favoring records in which he had a financial interest, he hired Computek, a firm that did consulting for the US government, to check his records. "I'll show you how fucking innocent I was," said Clark. "They [the government] went to one of the biggest broadcasting chains in the world that was riddled with payola. Rotten, fucking, lousy, stinking mess. They arrived on a Thursday night, said, 'We'll be back tomorrow to examine the logs.' Somehow or other when they went back on Friday there weren't any logs. They had disappeared. One of the biggest spokesmen in the broadcasting business, who was looked upon as sitting at the right hand of God, said, 'I'm aghast at this,' on and on. And it all went, zappo, to Dick Clark, 27-year-old cat in Philadelphia. 'You want the records? Here they are! Look at them!' I could've burned those motherfuckers in two minutes. I had them examined; the examiner said 'You're right, you're straight.' They thought – dummies – I mean, 'How could a kid in Philadelphia make that much money?' They thought people came in with carloads and bagloads of cash and put it in my office. I found a better way to do it: to be in the music business. It was offensive to me, they thought I was that ignorant." And the fact that one of his labels admitted paying people to play records – "That blew their minds, but that's not what they were after. They wanted to prove I was the taker of bribes." Clark ended up dumping his corporations.

("It was called 'With a Shotgun to Your Head,' which would you like to be, in the music business or the television business?" Clark scratched lightly at his bear-greaseless hair. "Do you have any idea what those would be worth now? Who could predict that in another dozen years the industry would be a $2 billion-a-year business? I can't even think about that; I'd stay up nights thinking of the loss. I made the wrong choice!"

(Clark laughed – he's coming on naive again. But then, asked, if he was simply "in the music business," why he set up 33 corporations instead of one or two, he replied quickly: "There were tax laws in those days, capital gains situations. It was more advantageous to set up companies and fold them. It doesn't work anymore.")

The end result of the investigation, said Clark, "was the Chairman, Oren Harris, said something about the fact that you're a bright, young man and I hope we haven't inconvenienced you. 'Inconvenienced?' Hell, they took my right testicle and almost my left!"

He still did better than most. There were those that were forced out of town – and there was Alan Freed.

Freed was the biggest of the pioneers, and he was rich from radio, television, live concerts and – of course – "gifts," from songwriting credits on Chuck Berry compositions to – and this was his downfall – cash. On the eve of the payola hearings, he lost both his radio and TV jobs; the next year, after the hearings, he was indicted on payola charges in Los Angeles. Later, shortly before his death in 1965, he was indicted again for evading $47,920 in income taxes. The first case was finally dumped in 1964, and Freed was fined $300. But he was dying, by then.

"I was the last friend Alan had," says Dick Clark, "and I don't want to say what he did wrong. He made a lot of mistakes. I never met the man in my heyday, when I was king and he started at all. I met him afterwards, and he was groveling around and I tried to get him a job, and two days before he died I was called to contribute to keep him in the hospital, and, you know, it was just one of those terrible... bad scenes. You don't want to know about it."

But I did, and, interestingly enough, Lance Freed, Alan's son, now 25 and working at A & M Records in Los Angeles, could not recall such a closeness between his dad and Dick Clark. "There was a cordial, professional relationship before the hearings," he said, "but there wasn't a lot of contact afterwards." With his dying father in a Palm Springs hospital, Lance remembered people calling and bringing food, "But I never recall Dick Clark calling or coming down."

Clark corrected himself: "It was not an intimate friendship; I was one of several trying to get him back going again... Alan was the King, he found it, he had the gut reaction. He wasn't bright enough."

While Dick Clark, from Syracuse University, in business administration, was bright enough?

"What you're intimating now," he caught on, "and you're right – I had a little more education. Alan had raw emotions; I knew the game."

Dick Clark will survive. He is grossing between $5 and $6 million a year with his enterprises. The old Caravan of Stars idea is now the country's second or third largest concert production firm. On TV, he is busier than ever, doing specials for NBC, hosting a game show on CBS, dominating the area of rock on ABC, with productions of In Concert shows and specials, recent ones starring Roberta Flack and Chicago. And, of course, there's American Bandstand, still, as far as he's concerned, in its prime.

"Opposed to the Fifties, it has two-and-a-half times the audience. Due primarily to growth in the television audience, I grant you that. But it still reaches an average of ten million record buyers a week. Its demographic composition has never changed in 20 years: 25% subteens, 25% teens and 50% 18-to-35, primarily women. There's no program in the history of television like that – and they all buy records."

Clark will continue to host the show until someone runs him out of the network. Then, he says, he would syndicate it. What's he holding onto? "First and foremost," he replies, "it pays very well, and, secondly, it's become such a gigantic part of my personal life, it'll be a big trauma when it's canceled."

In Dick Clark's world, some things – the need to work, and make money, and maintain a name – don't change. But even he admits that there is more to today's nostalgia-mania than the mass remembrance of old times, so exploitable, as he knows, through albums, movies and TV.

"I look back on those as not the prime, but the fucking good old days," he says. "Those were more fun days, because, I guess, all of life in the Fifties and the early Sixties was more fun than it is now. We're rapidly getting back to that. We're all trying to get back to a simpler, less aggravating way of life. I don't think we'll accomplish it."

This story is from the August 16th, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 141: August 16, 1973