Dick Clark, who died Wednesday at age 82, made rock and roll safe for American living rooms. He popularized the idea that teenagers are an important consumer group. And his nationally televised American Bandstand influenced music, dance and fashion, establishing Clark as one of the savviest businessmen of the 20th century.
What the show didn’t do was fully integrate its studio audience as soon as he became host, as Clark has claimed.
Most of the obituaries of Clark, who took over Bandstand in 1956, have noted that the show used rock and roll to break down racial barriers, mostly because that is the story Clark told. But that is where his legacy gets complicated. While the nationally televised dance program hosted a number of prominent black performers, the show regularly blocked black teenagers from its studio audience until it moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in 1964. The image of teenagers that American Bandstand popularized bore little resemblance to the racial diversity of American teens.
When American Bandstand started broadcasting nationally in 1957, it had to avoid being tainted by the anti-rock and roll protests taking place across the country. City councils from Jersey City to Santa Cruz to San Antonio had banned rock performances, and radio stations in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Denver, Lubbock and Cincinnati refused to play rock and roll. The fear was in large part fueled by concerns about racial mixing, and on that front, Bandstand was indeed groundbreaking. Clark’s show put African-American music and performers on television every day.
While it featured a sanitized version of rock and roll, with white teen idols such as Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon, American Bandstand also hosted black vocal groups such as the Coasters and the Impressions; early girl groups such as the Shirelles; Motown artists such as Mary Wells and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles; and R&B and soul pioneers such as James Brown and the Famous Flames, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. Clark brought African-American performers to national television in an era when such performances were rare.
American Bandstand also helped invent the demographic that still dominates popular culture: teenagers. It was the first national television program aimed squarely at teens, and it laid the groundwork for the baby boom generation, defining what teens listened to, how they danced and what they wore, ate and drank.
Clark was well aware that advertisers were eager to reach teenagers, and his show offered daily access to young consumers. “It’s been a long, long time since a major network has aimed at the most entertainment-starved group in the country,” Clark told Newsweek in 1957. “And why not? After all, teenagers have $9 billion a year to spend.”