November 30, 1929 – April 18, 2012
In the world of American youth culture in regards to music, fewer men can claim as much influence and notoriety as Dick Clark, more significant considering he did it with a camera as his instrument and the United States as his stage. Richard Wagstaff Clark died early on Wednesday morning and although his physical self is no longer with us, his long lasting influence and effect on popular culture will resonate louder than any lifetime can hope to hold. Read on and help us celebrate the life of one of the most memorable and visible American Icons of the last century.
Clark’s Early Life and Introduction to the Music Business
Clark was born in Bronxville, New York to parents Julia Fuller Clark and Richard Augustus Clark. While being raised in nearby Mount Vernon, his older brother and only sibling, Bradley Clark, was killed in World War II. He attended A.B Davis High School and later finished his studies at Syracuse University in 1951 where he graduated with a degree in business.
A few years before finishing up at the Syracuse, New York, university, Clark had begun working for local AM radio station, WRUN, which was owned by his uncle and operated by his father in Rome, New York. Soon after his starting gig in the mailroom, Clark was asked to fill in for the weatherman who had gone on vacation and within a few months had began announcing the commercial breaks for the station.
After a brief stint as a disc jockey at WOLF-AM and a local country music station, Clark returned to WRUN where he began using the name Dick Clay. Although the last name didn’t stick much longer, he would soon forever be known as “Dick.”
His first foray into television came while working at WOLF-AM, being hired by Utika station WKTV as the host of a country music program entitled Cactus Dick and the Santa Fe Riders. Soon after, he would replace Robert Earle as a newscaster for the station.
The Birth of a Legend and Life of American Bandstand
In 1952, Clark took a disc jockey job at the radio station WFIL located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. WFIL had an affiliated television station with the same call letters and that same year had begun airing a show called Bob Horn’s Bandstand. After working as a substitute host for the show, he replaced Horn full-time in 1956 after a subsequent drunk driving arrest. The show would soon be rebranded as American Bandstand with Clark at the helm and picked up by ABC television network which would debut the show to a national audience on August 5, 1957, featuring an interview with Elvis Presley.
The show was an instant hit, garnering high praise from the teenage youth as well as ushering in the acceptance of rock n roll by parents, whose earlier views on the music rang close to the old “it’s the devil’s music” mentality. As Hollywood producer Michael Uslan put it, “he was able to use his unparalleled communication skills to present rock ‘n roll in a way that was palpable to parents. Along with featuring plenty of dancing teenagers, American Bandstand introduced several legendary music figures to a national audience for the very first time such as Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chubby Checker, as well as ending the show’s unspoken all-White policy by featuring rock legend Chuck Berry.
By the end of the 1950s, Clark was a household name and had brought rock ‘n roll into mainstream Americana. Clark was also famous for his uncanny pulse in indentifying the next big thing in terms of music. In 1964, he moved the show to Los Angeles and soon featured new Southern California “Surf” groups, most notably, The Beach Boys.
During the ‘60s, the show moved its focus from simply playing records with kids dancing to featuring actual live performances which gave several acts their first exposure to a national television audience. Groups such as Ike and Tina Turner, The Talking Heads, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Simon and Garfunkel and Stevie Wonder each made their national debut on the show, as well as several other bands.
The show ran until 1989, first as a Monday through Friday program and later as a weekly Saturday show. At the shows peak during the ‘50s and ‘60s, Dick Clark was seen as one of the most influential figures in America in terms of popular culture. As the songwriter behind “The Twist,” Hank Ballard, put it, “The man was big. He was the biggest thing in America at the time. He was bigger than the president!” Singer Paul Anka and former guest of the show explained Clark’s immense popularity by stating that “this was a time when there was no youth culture – he created it. And the impact of the show on people was enormous. As the man himself once put it, “I played records, kids danced, and America watched.”
Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and the new Mr. New Years
While in the midst of his fame from American Bandstand, Clark produced and hosted what would soon become synonymous with the holiday, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, the first in what would become an annual series to this day. The show was composed of live remote shots of Clark in Times Square with musical segments in between being tapped beforehand in Hollywood, ending with Clark’s famous countdown of the New Year’s ball to signal in the beginning of the New Year. The show would broadcast live in Eastern Time Zones while being appropriately pushed back in other zones to sync in with the ending of the year.
Before Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, Guy Lombardo and his big band orchestra was the main draw for viewers ringing in the New Year, garnering him the title of “Mr. New Years.” Before long, Clark took the helm as the biggest draw for the celebration, replacing Lombardo as the seminal head of New Years. The ABC broadcasted show was shown annually and continually hosted by Clark with only two exceptions, in 1999/2000 when ABC chose air ABC 2000 Today in order to cover the milestone of the turn of the century, with the second being in 2004/2005 while he was recovering from a stroke he had suffered earlier in the year. Regis Philbin substituted as host for that year.
After recovering from his health issues, Clark returned but with Ryan Seacrest as the primary host due to Clark’s speech impediment brought on by his stroke. Seacrest and Clark would share hosting duties from then on, with Clark’s role growing year by year as he improved, ultimately garnering about half the responsibilities by 2011.
Along with two highly successful ventures in American Bandstand and Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, Clark was also a part of several other notable projects. After hosting two quiz-game shows, The Object Is and Missing Links, in 1973 Clark became the host of CBS’s The $10,000 Pyramid. During the shows lifetime, the prize was upgraded to $20,000 when it was moved to ABC, syndicated briefly in 1981 as The $50,000 Pyramid and later returning to CBS in 1982 as The New $25,000 Pyramid and a daily $100,000 Pyramid, both with Clark as its host from 1985 to 1988. The daytime versions of the show would go on to win nine Emmy Awards for best game show with only Jeopardy’s twelve awards garnering more.
He would go on to host several other programs for all four of the major networks including NBC’s TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes and Fox’s Greed. Other notable television appearances include co-host of The Other Half with Mario Lopez, Danny Bonaduce and Dorian Gregory (a male version of The View), a brief stint as the announcer on The John Stewart Show, Host of Winning Lines and Scattergories, as well as several guest appearances on popular sitcoms such as Dharma and Greg and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The End of a Legend
Although he is no longer with us, the immeasurable impact that Dick Clark has had on music and popular culture will forever live on. Whether it was as the host of American Bandstand or Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, he always had an uncanny ability to connect and entertain. Never to be one without a sense of humor, Clark embraced his “never aging” reputation will all the humor and poise as one would expect from the icon, even going as far as appearing as himself in the Police Squad! episode entitled “Testimony of Evil (Dead Men don’t Laugh)” where he is seen purchasing “Secret Formula Youth Cream” from Johnny the Shoeshine Boy. While the body of a man will most assuredly wither and die, Richard Wagstaff Clark’s innumerable contributions will forever be “never-aging.”
*All Photos Courtesy of The Associated Press*