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Dick Clark served up what he called “Japanese strawberries” during my visit to his home in Malibu for a Rolling Stone interview one afternoon in 1973. They were fresh berries, dipped in brown sugar and topped with sour cream. Delicious.
We then proceeded to spar. Representing a magazine that thought of Clark as a greedy exploiter of pop culture, an insatiable money-grubber with countless business ventures who produced and often hosted game shows, lowbrow bloopers shows and awards ceremonies, I asked why he had to get his hands into everything. Clark smiled at this naive, long-haired inquisitor from San Francisco. “The problem with you,” he said, “is that you’re a liberal, and I’m a f–ing whore.”
Of course, he was effing right.
Clark, forever known as “America’s oldest teenager,” was 43 when we met in Malibu. I respected that he was who and what he was, and he made no apologies. Although the article was timed roughly for the 20th anniversary of his becoming a host of the original American Bandstand in Philadelphia, I was visiting his office, then his Malibu home, for a profile, not a tribute.
So, soon after gathering the facts of his early life and radio days, I asked about the 1960 payola hearings before the House Special Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight. They were widely perceived as a campaign against rock ‘n’ roll by establishment forces, including those in the radio, recording and music-publishing industries. Payola — paying for special favors (in the case of radio or TV, playing a record that might not have aired without incentives) — was an unspoken and common way of doing business. But many DJs were nailed on tax-evasion charges for not reporting the extra income.
Clark, who was 30 at the time, knew just how to take payola. And he knew that others took bonuses in different forms, from cash to hookers at conventions, TV sets at Christmas and gifted songwriting credits (with royalties).
“I found a better way to do it,” he told me, “to be in the music business.” He got into talent management and music publishing. He invested in record distributors and pressing plants. He bought, at a low stake, an interest in several record labels. And when they profited — sometimes with help from exposure of artists and songs on Bandstand — so did he. “I had done nothing illegal or immoral,” he said. “I had made a great deal of money, and I was proud of it. I was a capitalist.”
On the eve of the congressional hearings, ABC ordered Clark to divest his music businesses — 30 some companies in all. But at the hearings, the clean-cut, no-nonsense Clark made a good impression. As he recalled, “The chairman, Oren Harris, said something about the fact that you’re a bright young man, and I hope we haven’t inconvenienced you. ‘Inconvenienced?’ Hell, they took my right testicle and almost my left!”
Clark had plenty more balls to put into play during the next half-century. Not so for Alan Freed, the pioneer DJ out of Cleveland who was credited with coining “rock and roll” to describe the R&B-based music he was playing in the early ’50s. Freed was ruined by the payola hearings, and, in our interview, Clark noted: “I had a little more education. Alan had raw emotions. I knew the game.”
It’s ironic that, in the obituaries and tributes to Clark, he is credited with dismantling racial barriers, playing black artists on Bandstand and having black teenagers in the audience. The New York Times obit mentions a 1958 taping of The Dick Clark Show, a Saturday night spinoff of Bandstand on ABC that had black and white teens in the audience — it was, the reporter wrote, “one of the first racially integrated rock concerts.” Freed, along with other disc jockeys — black and white — had been playing what was known as “race” music and staging integrated events for at least six years.
It was in 1956 that Clark, who’d recently begun co-hosting Bandstand on a Philadelphia TV station, took over the podium and began playing music for teens instead of adults. He soon took the local show national, as ABC picked it up for about 60 affiliated stations, and Clark began hosting the Silhouettes and James Brown, along with black performers from Philly and Motown. Clark was always happy to set the record straight: “Between Alan Freed in Cleveland and Bob Horn and Lee Stewart in Philadelphia and George ‘Hound Dog’ Lorenz in Buffalo, they began to find out that white kids liked black music. It was a very significant period of time before I got there.”
But none of the other platter-spinners had Clark’s forum — a daily show on network television. They could not match his appeal and his reach — into living rooms, after school, every day. Radio stations could break a hit locally. A radio industry magazine or tip sheet might take notice and spread the word, then with airplay and sales, it would begin its climb up the Billboard charts. Clark could help a record achieve all that with one spin or artist appearance on Bandstand. Through the years, he gave dozens of performers their first national exposure, including The Everly Brothers, Johnny Mathis, Chubby Checker, Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel, Kiss and Madonna. But ultimately, if the artist got the dancers going, kids around the country would demand to hear it on their local stations and flock to record shops. That was power.
Add youthful good looks, an easygoing style, business savvy and more than a little drive, and you had Dick Clark, an entertainer and entrepreneur for the ages.
My Rolling Stone article was titled “20 Years of Clearasil Rock” — another slap at the guy — and that was pretty much it for him and me. But a couple years later, we both learned we’d be in Las Vegas — me to profile Olivia Newton-John, him to host a Caravan of Stars oldies revue. We agreed to get together.
After Clark’s show at what used to be the Thunderbird Hotel, he and his future wife, Kari, took me and my future wife, Dianne, out on the town. Exiting the hotel, we bumped into Dion DiMucci and Cornelius Gunther of The Coasters from the revue, prompting Clark to regale Bandstand fan Dianne with backstage stories about the show’s stars — that is, the teenaged dancers. He could not have been more charming.
Clark never complained about the 1973 article, but when I interviewed him in 1998 for a book, he opened with this remark: “You know, the writings you laid down still come back to haunt me.” Clark added: “Oh, people come back and dig that old shit up. Now that we’ve got computers, you can pump up anything that anybody ever uttered.” And yet, he patiently answered my questions, including one about his unrelenting pace. “It’s a miracle to be busy this long,” he said, “so I’ve got nothing to complain about.”
Now, as we reflect on his death, I’m brought back even farther, to the spring of 1968. Rolling Stone had been publishing for only a few months, and, along with my post-college roommates, I was a fan. One day, a roomie told me about a free concert to promote a movie about the Haight-Ashbury, produced by Dick Clark. What? Dick Clark and hippies? (The movie was Psych-Out, with Jack Nicholson in the role of “Stoney,” a year before Easy Rider.) I called the magazine, then based in San Francisco, with the tip and wound up with my first piece in Rolling Stone. Within a year, I’d joined the editorial staff. And I have Dick Clark and his exploitative, capitalistic ways to thank.
I felt for him, reached out to him in 2004 after he’d suffered his stroke. I continued to tune in to see him on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. It’s been difficult the past few years as he struggled with his speech. Many people wondered why he’d put himself out there like that for all the world to see. But he’d never shied from the spotlight. He craved it; it was his comfort zone. And, for many years, it was ours, too.
Ben Fong-Torres writes the San Francisco Chronicle’s Radio Waves column and was portrayed in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous as a magazine editor. He’s at work on a book about the band Little Feat.
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