It didn’t have a good beat and you couldn’t dance to it, but Dick Clark’s testimony before the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight on April 29 and May 2, 1960, scored close to 100 anyway. Spurred by the TV game-show scandals of the ’50s and inflamed by the conviction that raunchy rock & roll was corrupting America’s youth, the subcommittee was investigating the influence of payola: the practice of supplying disc jockeys with cash or gifts to play records. Clark wasn’t the first or only industry figure called to testify — pioneering DJ Alan Freed (who popularized the term ”rock & roll”), among others, preceded him — but none had the clout of the 30-year-old host of ABC-TV’s week-day-afternoon dance show American Bandstand.
Always known as a smooth operator, Clark didn’t disappoint on the stand. Wearing a dark blue suit and speaking earnestly, Clark swore he had ”never taken payola,” while conceding that he might have promoted records in which he had a stake ”without realizing it.” The promoting, at least, was more than likely: At the time, Clark admitted to owning 160 song copyrights and a piece of 33 music-related businesses, including song publishers, pressing plants, and record companies. Shortly before the hearings began, however, he signed an affidavit stating that he had given up those investments and defended himself as an all-American businessman who provided ”wholesome recreational outlets” for teens. Despite initial skepticism from the committee, Clark was exonerated; Rep. Oren Harris (D.-Ark.) called him ”not the inventor of the system, [but] a product of it.”
Although Freed’s career was destroyed (he refused ”on principle” to sign an affidavit like Clark’s and was blackballed by the industry) and payola itself became a misdemeanor in September 1960 (with a maximum fine of $10,000 and one year in prison), ultimately the hearings had scant effect: To this day, no one has ever served time for taking payola. Clark, who remained host of Bandstand until 1989, is still a ubiquitous entrepreneur, said to be worth more than $180 million. Regarding the House hearings, he ”felt it was a witch-hunt and that there will always be witch-hunts,” says Michael Shore, coauthor with Clark of The History of American Bandstand. ”As a businessman, he’s an artist.” At the payola hearings, Clark played Congress masterfully.
Time Capsule: April 29, 1960
Listeners were stuck on Elvis Presley’s ”Stuck on You,” and Peter Sellers’ I’m All Right, Jack was A-OK with moviegoers. Sales of James Michener’s Hawaii were volcanic, and Gunsmoke continued to blast away all TV competition in its fifth season.