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Jingle Jangle

AMERICAN BANDSTAND: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock 'n' Roll Empire. By John A. Jackson . Oxford University Press: 336 pp., $27.50

September 21, 1997|JON WIENER | Jon Wiener is the author of "Come Together: John Lennon in His Time." He teaches American history at UC Irvine

Rock fans have always separated the authentic from the phony. If the young Elvis personified the authentic rebel in early rock 'n' roll, Dick Clark exemplified the schlockmeister. The heyday of Clark and his Philadelphia-based TV show "American Bandstand" came from 1959 to 1963, when authentic rock 'n' roll almost died--when Elvis went into the Army, Chuck Berry went to jail, Buddy Holly went down in a plane crash and Jerry Lee Lewis went out and married his 14-year-old cousin Myra, which got him banned from the airwaves. After that, and before the Beatles rescued rock, a lot of lousy records made it into the Top 10. The worst came from Philadelphia. Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell--local boys with little talent--became teen idols, largely because of Dick Clark's energy and savvy.

John A. Jackson's fascinating book shows how Clark worked the biz side of pop music to become a multimillionaire and how his show fit into 1950s American culture and society. Jackson illuminates the ways the civil rights movement raised issues that extended into pop music and how public anxiety about interracial dancing set limits on what a TV show like Clark's could do.

Clark was born in 1929 in Bronxville, a prosperous New York suburb, and graduated from Syracuse University in 1951. He's so closely identified with "American Bandstand" that it's surprising to learn he didn't invent the format in which local teenagers danced while guest stars lip-synced to their current hits. He didn't even start the show. When he took it over, he wasn't much of a rock 'n' roller. He had been a deejay playing big-band pop and "didn't know Chuck Berry from a huckleberry," in the words of one contemporary. But his image as a squeaky clean, happily married family man was just what TV needed; his predecessor was dismissed when execs learned he would be charged with 20 counts of statutory rape involving a 13-year-old girl on the show.

The early rock 'n' roll audience threatened deep-seated taboos against interracial contact. Before Dick Clark got a network show, ABC gave rock's first great deejay, Alan Freed, a slot in 1957. Freed had promoted live shows in which blacks and whites danced together in the aisles, creating anxiety in some circles. On Freed's third show, black singer Frankie Lymon, who had been lip-syncing his hit "Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love," was shown by the cameras dancing with a white girl. ABC's Southern affiliates went berserk, and the national sponsors insisted that the network kill the show, which it did. A week later, "American Bandstand" made its debut on national TV, and Clark had learned an important lesson about '50s America: No interracial dancing on TV.

At the same time, the nascent civil rights movement made it clear that dance shows like "American Bandstand" could not be segregated. The key battle on this front was fought not in Philadelphia but in Baltimore, where the local equivalent of Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" was the "Buddy Deane Show." The kids on the Deane show were white--except for one day a month when they were black. This segregation brought protests from the NAACP. Deane didn't get it: He offered to reserve three days a week for blacks. Because of continuing protests, the station took the show off the air. Clark learned a second lesson: You couldn't show interracial dancing, but you couldn't ban blacks from the audience either.

Nevertheless, for several years the cameras on "American Bandstand" rarely showed blacks in the audience or dancing. Clark established a system of "regulars" that effectively kept black young people out of the studio without an official policy of segregation. Not until the mid-'60s did Clark really integrate the show.

The regulars were almost all working-class Italian American high school kids. Their close proximity to Philadelphia's black community, Jackson shows, was one of the keys to the success of "American Bandstand." Italian American kids "seemed to have a natural sense of rhythm and an inborn musical ability," according to Ed Ward in "The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock 'n' Roll." Especially in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, they were the "one ethnic group that knew anything about rock and roll." At a time when suburbanization was moving the white middle class out of the city, working-class Italians were left behind in close proximity to black neighborhoods. When the kids on "American Bandstand" brought new dances into the studio, they were dances they had learned from Philadelphia's blacks. The swim, the Watusi, the pony, the stroll and the greatest dance craze of all time, the twist, all were taught on "American Bandstand," and all originated in Philadelphia's black communities.

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