© 2024 KRCU Public Radio
90.9 Cape Girardeau | 88.9-HD Ste. Genevieve | 88.7 Poplar Bluff
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Telling History: American Bandstand

Dick Clark with teenagers on Amercian Bandstand.
Dick Clark Productions; ABC
Dick Clark with teenagers on Amercian Bandstand.

“It’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.” Magic Words that once upon time transformed boys from Philadelphia’s Italian neighborhoods into Fabian or Frankie Avalon, Teen Idols; transported modest tunes like “At the Hop” all the way to #1 on Billboard’s Top 40, hit records; and conjured up rhythmic rituals whereby seemingly ordinary adolescents flailed about like a Mashed Potato, dance crazes.

The wizard’s name: Dick Clark; the world’s oldest teenager presiding timelessly over the enchanted, musical world of American Bandstand.

So, come on baby, let’s do the Twist.

Dick Clark’s American Bandstand premiered nationally in August 1957, as part of ABC’s afternoon lineup. The television show – originally known as just Bandstand – had actually been on the air in Philadelphia since 1952, a popular weekly ballroom-style production on local station WFIL. The big three networks still considered rock and roll too far outside the cultural mainstream to be marketable, that is until Elvis Presley proved otherwise with three blockbuster performances on Ed Sullivan in 1956 and 1957. Perpetually the third-place network, ABC gambled, offering American Bandstand to a national audience Monday through Friday at 3:00 p.m., when teenagers arrived home from school.

Dick Clark emceed what was effectively the country’s largest high school dance. Still filmed live in Philadelphia, American Bandstand spotlighted the latest songs, performers, fashions, hairstyles, and dance moves. And almost overnight, Clark positioned Bandstand as the bellwether of teenage culture. Early in the rock era, teenagers developed a special relationship with radio disc jockeys – personalities like Murray the K and Cousin Brucie – ambassadors of rock and roll who brought the subversive, new genre into their suburban homes and cars every night. What today might be understood as influencers.

Dick Clark was the only national DJ, and Bandstand’s visual power and reach proved to be an irresistible trendsetting force, shaping mass tastes among baby boomers; arguably one of television’s most influential shows.

Showcasing musicians ranging from Dion and the Belmonts to Gladys Knight and the Pips, Clark invited studio guests to rate the newest records on a numeric scale and hosted dance contests. Radio station program directors tuned in for this invaluable crowd sourcing, and thus American Bandstand reflected and reinforced the rise of Top 40 AM radio.

Yet American Bandstand and Dick Clark’s real genius was bridging the initial gap between middle-American television and rock music, by taming the latter’s rowdy ways.

Whereas Cleveland DJ Alan Freed – who coined the term rock and roll – first introduced white teenagers to the raw rhythm and blues sounds of Ray Charles or Bo Diddley, Dick Clark distilled out the rebellion from rock, refining the devil’s music into a commodity acceptable to parents. American Bandstand featured telegenic teens dancing to noncontroversial music performed by safe artists. Though African Americans appeared on Bandstand, the studio’s segregated dance floor featured white teenagers adopting black dances.

For better or worse, Dick Clark’s black and white, wholesome view of 1950s youth culture remains one of our most potent memories of those idealized Happy Days.

American Bandstand moved to Saturday mornings in 1963 and out California a year later. It ran until 1989, charming Gen X with pop and disco well into the MTV era. Its magically ageless host, as always, signing off with a boyish salute, “For now, Dick Clark. So long.”

Joel P. Rhodes is a Professor in the History Department of Southeast Missouri State University. Raised in Kansas, he earned a B.S. in Education from the University of Kansas before earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.