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He Had A Beat, And We Could All Dance To It

Mention Dick Clark and certain stock images spring to mind…eternal teenager… rock impresario…game show host…extraordinary businessman.  But more importantly, he was a populist. In many ways, whether by plan or happenstance, Dick Clark found ways to lift our spirits by turning everyday people into icons.

"American Bandstand," 1957 (Gary Wagner, Getty Images

Every “American Bandstand” episode lavished tons of  TV time to just plain kids on a dance floor. In skirts, jackets and ties, they reflected high-school gym dances anywhere in the country. They  were avatars – representing American teens in a way that Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and hundreds of other post-Elvis teen sensations couldn’t.

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Dance crazes spread across America whenever Justine and Bob, or Arlene and Kenny, launched them under Clark’s cajoling direction. Even Chubby Checker, the King of the Twist, waded into the sea of writhing torsos, rather than standing isolated on a separate stage.

Dick Clark seemed to innately sense his place on the vortex of American culture. His espousal of  Bobby Rydell and Fabian might have been partly because, as Philadelphians, they could practically walk to the studio. But their parent-approved acts, and many more like them, brought legitimacy to the likes of the uncontrollable Jerry Lee Lewis, the surly Gene Vincent, and scores more from rock’s dark side.

And he seemed to understand the need to reach parents. Teenhood was a decade-old memory for Clark when he ascended to prominence, albeit on a network that nobody watched. Even “Bandstand Boogie,” by the Les and Larry Elgart big band, was evocative of the era that rock and roll killed, a sax-and-brass-laden swing number built for the Lindy, not for the Frug.

Even his incursion into the institution of New Year’s Eve was a simultaneous nod to the past and the future. This was a musty television domain when Clark gave it a new coat of paint. It was a shrewd business move that also tied teens and twentysomethings to a ritual as old as time itself – and one that was pushing a century of age in Times Square.

Clark worked hard at his clean public image, with a sensible haircut, pearly teeth and the attire of a young executive. He was a consummate salesman, with tons of satisfied viewers carting away mental purchases they didn’t even know they needed. And he sold too many actual products to even count

Congressional hearings into payola in 1960 led to the dismissal of entire airstaffs, and even the slow alcoholic death of Alan Freed. Clark wasn’t unstained, but his candor in testimony and willingness to shed his seamier vestiges satisfied the nabobs of Capitol Hill while it refocused his destiny.

He still trotted out kids and champion his vision of popular music on “Bandstand,”  “Where The Action Is,” and “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” But he transformed from a powerful deejay to an entertainment conglomerate. “The $25,000 Pyramid” and all its permutations. “Foulups, Bleeps and Blunders.” All cheap ways to raise smiles, inform American culture, and become fabulously wealthy.

The first time I crossed Dick Clark’s path was totally accidental. I was walking to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan and he was exiting an office building – and scowling. I saw Dick Clark not smiling, a rare moment in history. It became clear in an instant that he was as intensely private as he was outgoing.

The second and last time was at his induction into the Emerson Radio Hall of Fame, in a hotel in New York City. That time I got the famous toothy grin as well as a handshake, and a moment of conversation. I learned then that he loved the ability to spread enjoyment, that he had a deep affection for people and for America – and that he would have been just as content if he never earned a dime.

So, Dick Clark, thanks for showing us the steps…and for deepening the glow of that New Year’s ball in your own special way.

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