Dick Clark’s on-camera image was that of a relaxed, welcoming presence, whether as host of American Bandstand, the Pyramid game shows, or Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. But this carefully cultivated image belied the reality that just beneath the surface was an ambitious man who succeeded through hard work and shrewd business decisions in becoming both a media juggernaut and one of the best-loved personalities in TV history by the time he died on April 18 of a heart attack at age 82.
Clark, who was born in Bronxville, N.Y., in 1929, may have started out in radio (his creamy, intimate voice made him a natural). But it was as the host of Bandstand that he found his natural habitat. When the dance showcase was broadcast nationally in 1957, Clark was the perfect person to bring rock & roll to TV. At a time when many TV outlets considered the wildness of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and others a potential headache for families and advertisers, Clark surrounded the rockers with wholesome-looking teens dancing to the music, with the host as a soothing voice of explanation and reason. (”It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”)
Behind the scenes, Clark became a cunning TV producer. He kept the overhead low by having the stars lip-synch to the music rather than hauling out backup bands that allowed for the possibility of technical malfunctions or wise-guy misbehavior. As host, he frequently sat among the kids in the studio audience to conduct quick interviews; the fact that he invariably wore a suit and tie was what distinguished him in the crowd and led to the nickname that stuck: ”the world’s oldest teenager.” Clark managed to escape the payola scandals of the late 1950s, in which music figures such as the DJ Alan Freed, one of Clark’s concert-promoter competitors, were accused of taking money from record companies to play certain music. One of the keys to Clark’s success was that he never set himself up as a tastemaker or a highly opinionated discriminator among musical styles he may have liked or deplored. He presented every trend, from British Invasion rock & roll to disco to punk to grunge, as a pop culture anthropologist, packaging each wave of music neatly for his millions of viewers.
The result was that Clark became a pioneer almost in spite of himself. Careful to avoid controversy, he nonetheless was one of the first TV personalities to preside over a racially integrated dance floor, and introduced a predominantly white audience to the first national television appearances of acts such as the Jackson 5, Little Stevie Wonder, and later, rapper Kurtis Blow. Always mindful about playing it safe, Clark also extensively promoted the careers of blander musical artists, from Pat Boone to Sheena Easton.
In 1972 he inaugurated New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, initially considered a novel, live-TV business risk. But Clark once again used the contrast of his serene demeanor with a wild party night to set the perfect tone. Through the decades, he became his own ubiquitous brand, always front and center, declining innovation in favor of comfort. For baby boomers, Dick Clark will always be the man who guided them toward rock on American Bandstand, and for generations after that, the man who ushered them into a new year with a smile as bright as the lights of the glittering Times Square countdown ball.