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Dick Clark dies at 82; he introduced America to rock 'n' roll

The music impresario whose 'American Bandstand' put rock music in the mainstream was also known to millions as a New Year's Eve tradition.

April 19, 2012|Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times

The stories of Clark as a backstage ogre are numerous, but there are also numerous tales of envelopes of cash made for employees or former colleagues in need.

Richard Wagstaff Clark was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., on Nov. 30, 1929. Thirteen years later, he was in the audience in a New York City theater where Jimmy Durante and Garry Moore were broadcasting a radio program. On the spot he decided that he wanted his own future to include a microphone and an audience. His focus even as a teen was enough to sway his father into a career turn of his own.

"When he found out I wanted to be in radio he quit his job," Clark once said on CNN's "Larry King Live." "He was in the cosmetics business. And my uncle was opening a radio station and he said, 'Dick' — my father Dick — 'come on up and run this place. It needs a good sales manager and you can do it hands down.' So [my father] is thinking he's a little fed up with New York City. And he moved upstate. He was thinking, run the radio station and maybe help the kid and, lo and behold, he did."

The station was WRUN in Utica and Clark's family connection was enough to earn him a job in the mailroom. Soon, though, he was on the air handling news bulletins and weather reports. He was 17 when he finally found an audience, albeit a modestly sized one.

Clark studied advertising and radio at Syracuse University, and he took equal interest in the handling of ledgers and on-air interviews. By 1952 he had moved to the far more dynamic Philadelphia market and was honing his craft at the WFIL/WFIO radio and television stations. The TV station's afternoon slate of shows included a dance show called "Bandstand" with a host named Bob Horn who was popular with sponsors — until his 1956 drunk driving arrest.

The smooth-speaking and youthful-looking Clark was handling a similar radio program called "Caravan of Music" and had made his television debut as the unlikely host of a country music show stuck with the name "Cactus Dick and the Santa Fe Riders." Clark had already aspired to make the leap to "Bandstand," according to John A. Jackson, author of "American Bandstand," a book on Clark's empire. The book cites a peer of Clark's who said the young broadcaster coveted the rock 'n' roll show: "I'm gonna have that show and that's all there is to it. That will be mine."

Clark did get the show, and it turned out to be a historic promotion for him and for rock 'n' roll.

The show was a hit locally and Clark enjoyed working with the young fans who would come on the show to dance. He chatted them up with a comfort that set the show apart from others of its ilk that came off as condescending or clumsy.

The music was not his favorite — he had been a jazz aficionado — but he saw its growth potential. In 1957, he heard in the office that the ABC network was looking for a new Sunday program, so he went to New York City with a kinescope copy of "Bandstand" and met with executives Dan Melnick and Jim Aubrey. (The latter would go on to be chief of CBS.) Melnick saw something in the simple formula that might click with kids watching on the weekend, and a memo he penned earned "Bandstand" a seven-week trial on the network.

The daily show hit No. 1 in the ratings within a month. In 1957 the show got a brief run in prime time on Mondays, but after a few months it reverted to five afternoon shows during the week.

Clark was thinking long-term. Worried that the youth-conscious broadcasting world might someday force him into a reluctant retirement, he launched his production company to ensure that he would always have a business to fall back on.

Clark's savvy business eye and increasingly attuned pop ear took him into wider music pursuits. He used "Bandstand" as a foundation for new roles as artist manager, music publisher and running record-pressing plants and a distribution business.

He had partial rights to more than 100 songs and had his name on the financial paperwork of more than 30 music-related businesses. Clark also got artists to sign releases that gave him ownership of the footage of their appearances on the show, clips that have been repackaged often.

It was Clark's interests in the radio industry that would lead to the most turbulent chapter of his success story. "Payola" was a term that was becoming part of the national vocabulary in 1960 as congressional hearings were set to investigate the music industry practice of paying disc jockeys to play particular records.

Clark was called to testify and admitted that he had accepted a fur stole and jewelry from a record executive. He avoided any substantive penalty even though peers, such as famed disc jockey Alan Freed, found their careers in tatters.

Clark said he never accepted money to play music and that his entrepreneurship was in keeping with the practices of the day in the nascent sector.

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