With his neatly combed hair and affable personality, Dick Clark – the American Bandstand host and TV icon who died April 18th of a heart attack in Los Angeles at 82 – never looked like a rocker. He didn't want to admit to his favorite music, calling it "nobody's damn business" when Rolling Stone asked in 1990.
But Clark knew rock & roll and took it seriously, as Talking Heads learned when the band performed "Take Me to the River" on the show in 1979 –"It was the first mainstream-TV exposure we had," says drummer Chris Franz. "We'd all grown up watching it. It was an iconic program, and Dick Clark was an iconic personality." Popping into the Heads' dressing room before the taping, Clark surprised the band by seeming familiar with songs like "Psycho Killer." "He really did his research," says Franz. "And while we were playing, he was standing off to the side, taking it all in."
Clark's fascination with rock & roll – on both a musical and business level – helped make American Bandstand a land-mark show. From the time he began hosting it in 1956 until he left in 1989, Bandstand brought rock – as well as disco, R&B and punk – into America's living rooms. The list of acts who appeared to lip-sync their latest hits reads like a virtual history of popular music – from Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry to the Beach Boys, the Doors, Prince, Madonna and even Public Image Ltd. "American Bandstand was the holy grail of television shows for any rock & roll artist at that time," says Neil Diamond, who made his TV debut performing "Cherry, Cherry" on the show in 1966.
With Clark as its genial host, Bandstand was one of the first nationwide platforms for rock. "It was a unifying force," says Connie Francis, whose 1958 single 'Who's Sorry Now?" became a huge hit after Clark played it on the show. "It set the trend in hairdos, clothes and dance steps, and Dick didn't talk down to teenagers. It was like American Idol is today."
Born in 1929 in Bronxville, New York, Clark made his name as a TV and radio personality in central New York before becoming a DJ in Philadelphia. There, he also became the substitute host for Bandstand, then a local show. After its host, Bob Horn, was fired in 1956, Clark was promoted into Horn's job, and a year later, the show went national on ABC. "If he played a record on his show, we all knew we had to play it," says famed Top 40 DJ "Cousin Brucie" Morrow.
When Clark stepped down from Bandstand in 1989, he continued building a media empire; his company produced the American Music Awards and the Academy of Country Music Awards, and Clark co-owned the United Stations Radio Networks. He suffered a stroke in 2004 that limited his appearances on one of his other major franchises, New Year's Rock-in' Eve. But American Bandstand will remain Clark's signal contribution to rock culture. "There's no program in the history of TV like that," he told RS in 1973. "And they all buy records."
This story is from the May 10, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.