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Why Dick Clark Can't Say 'So Long.'

In the 40 Years Since 'American Bandstand' Hit ABC, Its Host Has Survived a Payola Witch Hunt, Produced TV Ranging From 'The $25,000 Pyramid' to the American Music Awards and Been Inducted Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now, at 67, Richard Wagstaff Clark Would Like You to Understand One Thing: He Is NOT Retired.

June 29, 1997|STEVE POND | Steve Pond has written about music and pop culture for Rolling Stone, Premiere and other national publications

He walks with a slight limp. In a twisted way, that's refreshing: At 67, a man should show some wear and tear, and when you're dealing with Dick Clark, you take that wear and tear wherever you can find it. Even if it's nothing more than the lingering effects of a mishap when he stepped out of an RV. * At any rate, Clark limps slightly as he mounts the stairs to the stage of the Shrine Auditorium. He's on his way to greet singer LeAnn Rimes, the 14-year-old country sensation who was born when Clark had already been a national celebrity for 26 years. Clark pulls a spritzer out of his pocket for a quick hit of breath freshener, chats with Rimes for a while, then wanders around the stage as crew members prepare for the American Music Awards, the yearly show produced by Clark's company.

Watch him from a distance and you'll see his usual demeanor--attentive and a little wary--frequently dissolve into a couple of other looks. There's the hearty one we've often seen on shows such as "TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes," where he breaks into a big laugh, bends over from the waist, slaps his hand against his leg. More common, though, is a look of general exasperation: A slight, vaguely theatrical scowl will crease his face as he looks in the direction of some real or imagined slight and spreads his arms as if to say, why me? Perhaps because we've seen the first look so often, in circumstances that are obviously scripted, the second seems more genuine.

But he's not scowling when he returns to the seats to watch Rimes. With his unfailing radar for what's becoming popular in Middle America, Clark has zeroed in on the teen sensation, and he watches intently as she belts out her new single, "Unchained Melody." The song was a big hit for the Righteous Brothers in 1965, but Clark remembers back further. "I've lived through about eight different versions of this song," he says.

From a nearby production table, a staffer shouts, "Hey, Dick! Who did the original version of this song?"

"Al Hibbler and Roy Hamilton," Clark says, ". . . 1955."

"I knew you'd know that."

He should. Both artists appeared with Clark during the early years of "American Bandstand," the show that launched Clark's career and kept him visible for the next 30-odd years. (Les Baxter's instrumental version of the tune appeared at the same time.) "Al Hibbler was a blind jazz singer out of St. Louis," Clark adds. "Roy Hamilton had a beautiful baritone voice, and he died of tuberculosis." (Hamilton died in 1969 of a stroke.)

Clearly, there's a reason Richard Wagstaff Clark titled his 1976 memoir "Rock, Roll & Remember." (He's published no fewer than 12 books, among them "Dick Clark's Easygoing Guide to GoodGrooming" and this year's "Dick Clark's American Bandstand.") But then, you'd expect him to remember his pop music trivia; after all, the man's career is inextricably intertwined with the history of rock 'n' roll. The cliches have stuck to him for years; he's "America's oldest living teenager," the guy who made rock music safe for Middle America. He's a pop culture icon who has a movie about "Bandstand" in the works at Danny DeVito's Jersey Films, a deal with the Opryland USA Theme Park for a stage show called "Dick Clark's American Bandstand Classics" and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"Dick Clark was significant in transforming the record business into an international industry," reads the Hall of Fame's citation. "His weekly televised record hops--which predated MTV by 25 years--played an integral role in establishing rock and roll, keeping it alive and shaping its future."

But rock music is only the half of it. "He is the marriage of television and rock 'n' roll," says comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, who's written both for Clark the host (at the Miss U.S.A. pageant) and Clark the producer (at the Emmy Awards). "Those two things started at more or less the same time, and up to the point when MTV started, he was the most visible link between them, and the most powerful one."

"He's created a universe that's unique in this business," says Ken Ehrlich, who has known Clark for 20 years and who competes with him each year as producer of the Grammy Awards, which usually receives more respect but lower ratings than the AMAs. "I think he genuinely loves the music--and in terms of people who are not musicians, he's had the most impact on music of anyone. I never see him ahead of the trend, but he's always been good at being right there when it's happening.

"I don't see him as a visionary," adds Ehrlich, "but I don't think he'd want to be called a visionary."

If Clark has a vision he's proud of, it is clearly the financial foresight that led him to create a music business empire by the age of 30 that made him a millionaire, and then to start over, rebuild and diversify when a television network and a congressional subcommittee forced him to give up his initial holdings. "I'm basically a businessman," he says. "I'm not in it for the glory."

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