The “American Bandstand” meme, “It had a nice beat, it was easy to dance to,” apparently is apocryphal, but you can say of the TV program’s long-time host that he had a nice beat — in the other meaning of the word.
The beat worked by Dick Clark, who died four years ago yesterday (April 18), was popularizing rock and roll music. Clark served an important function in the development of The Music — odd for a white guy from a New York City suburb, born a month after the stock market crash kicked off the Great Depression.
Clark was a radio guy in the early 1950s, but unlike Alan Freed, not particularly associated with the rhythm and blues music that would parent rock and roll. His first DJ job was in Philadelphia, at a station that was affiliated with a television station.
The TV side had a daytime show “Bob Horn’s Bandstand,” which featured teenagers dancing to popular records. Clark was the back-up host for the show, and when Horn was fired following a drunk-driving arrest, he took over as the regular host.
The rest, to abuse an overused phrase, is history. The following year, ABC picked up the show, renamed it “American Bandstand” and aired it nationally.
I was one of the millions of young Americans who watched the show, as I recall after getting home from school. Don’t remember what year I started watching it — probably in 1960, around the time I started listening to rock and roll on WLS-AM out of Chicago.
“Bandstand” was on for an hour and a half up through 1961 — enough time for our endless (as it seemed at the time) bus ride to get us home from Janesville Consolidated State Graded School. But there was a Monday evening version, and also a Saturday show under a different name, so I may be remembering pieces from those, too.
The format that Horn started at WFIL-TV continued through the rest of the 1950s. Clark summed it up it in comments he made later in life: “I played records, the kids danced and America watched.”
What we watched was black and white kids dancing in the same place — something people like me, who grew up in an area where there were few African-Americans, didn’t see live and in person. We picked up on the latest dance crazes on “Bandstand,” learned the new dance steps, saw what other young people were doing and what they were wearing.
Some of those young people, the ones Clark interviewed, had names, but I don’t remember most of them. The one that sticks in my head was named Famous Six or something like that — a black teenager who Clark seems to have interviewed more than once, hence my recollections of him.
Famous was probably one of those Bandstanders who famously said, when asked to “Rate-a-Record” during the regular segment of that name, “It had a nice beat and you can dance to it.” The Wikipedia entry on “Bandstand” describes that phrase as apocryphal, but I will go to my death swearing I heard it. References to it in popular culture — John Prine (I think it was) included it in one of his songs, and Cheech and Chong did a routine based on it — would indicate that it was said on the show.
Around the time I started watching “Bandstand,” the show’s emphasis changed to the artists who made the music that the kids were dancing to. A 1990 article in Rolling Stone magazine claimed that two-thirds of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees appeared on television for the first time on Clark’s program.
I remember most of those performances as appearing to have been lip-synched. But there is a video on an Internet site that claims to prove that a Jerry Lee Lewis appearance was not pre-recorded — a scary approach with The Killer, who was kind of a loose cannon.
The one “Bandstand” appearance that sticks in my mind was not so much about the music. Bobby Lewis probably did his No. 1 hit, “Tossin’ and Turnin,’” but what he said to the audience after the song was just as memorable: “No applause — just throw money,” or something like that.
Clark, and “Bandstand,” in later years became almost a self-parody — the old white guy trying to be relevant. Hosting game shows doesn’t encourage people to take you seriously, and his “New Years Rockin’ Eve” shows were rather cringe-inducing. When he returned to host the New Years show after his 2004 stroke, it was painful to watch — although props to him for not letting a brain attack get him down.
Props to him also for exposing a lot of us to a form of music that we otherwise might not have heard, which became part of our culture. Paul Anka may have become pop caricature himself, but he pretty much nailed it when he said of Clark, “This was a time when there was no youth culture — he created it. And the impact of the show on people was enormous.”
Clark himself, elaborating a bit more than he did in that earlier quote, said of his role: “My talent is bringing out the best in other talent, organizing people to showcase them and being able to survive the ordeal. I hope someday that somebody will say that in the beginning stages of the birth of the music of the fifties, though I didn't contribute in terms of creativity, I helped keep it alive.”