Editor’s note: In the wake of the sad passing of the legendary Dick Clark, we first offer this already-scheduled reflection on the show he built into a powerful, music-industry-influencing entity. Next issue, we will include more on the life and legacy of this consummate master of ceremonies, and how he impacted many in the mobile DJ world.
John Oates could barely wait for the bell to ring, signaling the end of his final class of the school day. He was on a deadline. “Did I come running home from school every day to catch it? Damn right.”
What was the future member of the most successful duo in recording history so eager to see? What was “it”? “It” was the then- daily broadcast of American Bandstand.
“I’d check out the music, and the kids, their clothes, their moves, learn some dances,” Oates recalls in the book The History of American Bandstand. “Everybody knew the kids. The regulars were like, to us, a gang of pals that you met every day in a certain place. It just so happened that the place was TV.”
When American Bandstand progessed from a popular daily lo-cal show in Philadelphia to a daily national telecast on August 6, 1957 at 3:00 PM (the show ran locally from 2:30 to 5:00 PM with a national feed from 3:00 to 4:30 PM), television, pop culture and American society would be changed forever.
Within six months of its national debut on ABC, American Bandstand was picked up by 101 stations. An estimated twenty million viewers were tuning in, surprisingly, half of whom were adults. The show was also receiving 20,000 to 45,000 fan letters a week.
While rock & roll had been energizing America on a broad level since mid-1955 (launched by the rabid success of Bill Haley and the Comet’s version of “Rock Around the Clock”), “From the time it hit the national airwaves in 1957,” observes rock historian Hank Bordowitz, “Bandstand changed the perception and dissemination of popular music.”
And that would not have occurred had host Dick Clark and producer Tony Mammerella not recognized that appealing only to the younger generation was a sure road to obscurity. “I knew at the time that if we didn’t make the presentation to the older generation palatable, it could kill it,” Clark said in a 1985 interview. Thus, “the boys wore coats and ties and the girls combed their hair and they all looked like sweet little kids at a high school dance.”
Under the savvy stewardship of Clark and Mammerella, Bandstand flourished, growing into a musical, cultural, social and media marvel.
Musically, “Going on Bandstand was like hitting a home run with the bases loaded.” observes Philadelphia’s own Charlie Gracie, who had 1957 #1 hit, “Butterfly.”
Culturally, notes the Museum of American Broadcasting, “The impact of American Bandstand should not be underrated. Even if the show diffused some of the more raucous elements of rock & roll music, it helped to solidify the growing youth culture which centered on this phenomenon. But the show was important in another way as well. Once Clark took over the helm of Bandstand in 1956, he insisted on racially integrating the show, since much of the music was performed by black recording artists. When the show moved to the network schedule, it maintained its racially mixed image, thus providing American television broadcasting with its most visible ongoing image of ethnic diversity until the 1970s.”
John Oates puts it succinctly, when he says that Bandstand “set the tone and the pace for teenage style and attitude and everything else all across America.”
The show epitomized many important aspects of ever-evolving American popular culture: mass communication, popular music, youth culture, dance and fashion trends, as well as race and gender relationships.
The kids of the 1950’s tuned in and turned on to Bandstand because, well, they saw themselves. Bob, Justine, Arlene, Kenny, Frani, Little Ro, Betty, Carole…with the growing influence and financial power of young America, seeing kids just like themselves dancing on national television enhanced the sense that, for the time in American history, the cultural zeitgeist would skew away from adults and emerge from the Baby Boomer youth.
“I was always surprised,” one of the most popular regulars, Arlene Sullivan, says,” that people wanted my autograph. I danced on a TV show; nothing I did was different than kids were doing in their basements. But maybe that’s why we were so popular. We were them, and they were us.”
They had pimples, they felt awkward, they had relationship issues. They struggled, at moments, at school, they hung out at the malt shop—Bandstand was the first nationally televised “reality” show. These were real Philadelphia kids, dancing for fun.
In context, the youth of today are not much different, are they? No, they don’t rush home after school to view a scratchy black- and-white television set watching their peers dance to records and lip-synced music performances on TV. But, they do gather. On Facebook, via Twitter, via text messaging, on the cell phone. They dance. But, bypassing the networks, their dancing might be recorded on their phone and uploaded to YouTube for the entire world to see, or sent directly to their friends via the same phone.
They don’t have to rush home to view a television; the youth of today can carry the TV—virtually the world—in the palm of their hand on their phone or their iPad.
They still dance at dances. But, the record hops of yesterday featuring music and a disc jockey now often morph into multimedia audio and video presentations with guest interactivity via playback screens and on-site messaging. DJs are now producers and entertainers rather than simply record-spinners.
Kids still remotely gather to watch and see what their friends are up to now. The transaction, though, is often two-way instead of one-way, and virtually instantaneous, rather than shepherded by letter and mail.
Yes, much as changed since American Bandstand went national in 1957. But, much has not. Kids still love to dance and they still love to hear the bell ring at the end of the school day.
Filed Under: Issue #143, Profiles
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