by RANDAL HILL
At 3 p.m. on August 5, 1957, a red camera light winked on in Philadelphia’s cramped WFIL-TV studio. Amid the background strains of a hopelessly square instrumental theme—Les Elgart’s Bandstand Boogie—came the introduction: “Hi, I’m Dick Clark. Welcome to American Bandstand.”
Those eight words, spoken by the 26-year-old host with a voice like warm
honey, launched what would become a daily ritual for many teenagers throughout
the nation and a prototype for MTV and other televised music and dance
shows to come.
A Syracuse University business graduate who was GQ-perfection appearance, Clark proved at ease with the TV camera and presided over his show like a kindly principal overseeing a school dance.
His 90-minute daily American Bandstand featured clean-cut teenagers
dancing to records and, between the discs, Clark schmoozing with the
audience. A strict dress code dictated that the boys wore jackets and ties,
the girls skirts and blouses or dresses. Onscreen hormones abounded in a
G-rated sense; kids often flirted, hooked up, broke up and got back together—all
before a national audience.
The show offered well-controlled
fun. On the Rate-A-Record segment,
audience members evaluated the latest singles. A dreamy “Spotlight Dance” slowed the often frantic action on the floor. A Top 10 Countdown listed the best-selling 45s of the day. Recording stars who visited usually signed autographs after their lip synched performances. Most major rockers of the 1950s longed for a coveted spot on
Bandstand with two exceptions: Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. Neither
needed the TV exposure.
American Bandstand featured a soundtrack of mainstream pop and rock songs—no “raunch ‘n’ roll” was allowed. That helped soften parents’ objectives to
the “wild” music that their offspring embraced.
Clark had many financial stakes in the records he spun, and with his clout launched the careers of numerous teen idols, often cute Italian American
boys recruited from the nearby South Philadelphia neighborhood and given new
names for the stage. Francis Avallone emerged as Frankie Avalon. Fabiano Anthony Forte became Fabian. Robert Ridarelli won fame as Bobby Rydell. Ernie Evans, a part-time chicken plucker at a market, became American Bandstand’s first black teen idol as Twist sensation Chubby Checker.
Watched by 20 million teenagers and adults, the show emerged at a time
of monumental change in culture and musical tastes, with Clark being a major
part of that tectonic shift.
Decades later, Clark told music mogul Joe Smith, “It took all of 20 minutes after we went off the air that first day for us to know we had a monster on our hands.”
Randal C. Hill, a former disc jockey, English teacher, record collector and author,
confesses to being hopelessly stuck in the past. He lives on the Oregon coast
and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.