The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: An Interview with Dick Clark

Barney Hoskyns

RBP marks the passing of broadcasting legend Dick Clark — he of American Bandstand fame — with this career-spanning 2004 interview by Harvey Kubernik——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Dick Clark is one of the most recognized personalities in entertainment in America: He hosts two nationally syndicated radio shows ("Rock, Roll and Remember" and "The Music Survey"), live "Good Ol' Rock 'n' Roll" shows, and various Rock 'n' Roll video collections.

Clark began his entertainment career at age 17 at WRUN Radio in Utica, New York. After graduating from Syracuse University, he became a news anchorman at television station WKTV. He later moved to Philadelphia to work for WFIL Radio and Television, where he became the host of the local television show, "Bandstand". Later, Clark convinced the ABC Network to carry the show nationwide, and shortly thereafter, "American Bandstand" was the country's highest-rated daytime show. "American Bandstand" holds the record as television's longest running music/variety program. VH-1 in the late 1990s aired select "American Bandstand" episodes weekly.

Clark was also responsible for TV programs like "Where The Action Is" that constantly spotlighted regional and national rock 'n' roll sounds circa 1965-1967. Some of the best punk rock. pop, rock 'n' roll and roots music, plus girls wearing bangs, are captured in the black and white archive film footage that came from that short-lived series.

Author Domenic Priore, whose most recent effort is Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys' SMiLE Song By Song, discussed Clark's TV legacy with me for my upcoming book Hollywood Shack Job: Rock Music In Film and On Your Screen. Regarding Dick Clark, Priore also has his own unique observations on his "Where The Action Is" program.

"The series was cancelled in early/mid '67. I remember reading an item in an old teen mag that the show was costing ABC too much money to do. It was, after all, quite ambitious, if you recall that they'd cut from the Four Seasons in Central Park to the Four Tops out at some Lake Michigan modernist resort with boats, to the Knickerbockers lolling about in Santa Monica at the Pacific Ocean Park entry pool. They'd be filming Bryan Hyland in a park in Alabama, you know, they even went and did stuff in London with Them, the Yardbirds and other bands like that... or the 13th Floor Elevators playing by a San Jose pool with the Count V too. ? and the Mysterians doing both '96 Tears' and 'I Need Somebody' and the Left Banke on a golf course singing 'Walk Away Renee' are my favorite moments from the show... during the middle-eight of 'Renee', the camera pans up to the clouds, and a girls' sunshiny face breaks through on a cross fade... real well-thought out stuff on occasion.

Without a doubt, this show was Dick Clark's finest moment. He was forced to do cool stuff because the Beatles' popularity made it impossible for him to do the bland teen idol cheese. This is why he featured so many of the best Garage Punk bands of the mid-'60s, he had no choice with James Brown and the Stones kicking ass," he suggests. "Then he had Paul Revere & the Raiders on the show every day, whose records are perfect examples of Garage Punk... so even if the guests that particular episode weren't your cup of tea, at least you could count on the Raiders to come through. Mark Lindsay was really a dynamic performer, you could say he was the American Mick Jagger."

I talked to Clark inside at his office in Burbank, Ca:, around production of his 25th "American Music Awards" show that saluted Frank Sinatra in 1998. I asked Clark about his radio years, and his extensive film and video music library, some heartfelt reflections on the loss of Sonny Bono, the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, his insights into the early recording careers of both The Beatles and Elvis Presley, and how to conduct an interview. He also offered some candid reflections on early '60s music touring packages and racial obstacles the bus endured, as well as a fond remembrance for the late Ewart Abner, former Motown president and assistant to Berry Gordy, Jr., who Clark knew for decades.

As a native Angeleno and teenager, I actually danced on "American Bandstand" when it filmed in Hollywood. One time the Mamas & Papas and Bob Lind were the in-studio guests. I was in the Slauson Line in May of 1966. You can stop being jealous...

I haven't really hung out and talked to Dick in a couple of decades. Nice to know he still talks to one of the legendary "American Bandstand" L.A. dancers, Famous Hooks.

After our discussion, Clark sent me two different handwritten thank you notes. He has manners. Most people in the entertainment business don't.

I'll say one more thing about this guy. Even when we were just out of our teens Clark would have his office call and invite us to various TV tapings and music specials he was producing locally. Sure we were part of the window dressing and filler, but I was always proud I danced on his show as well as "Shebang," that Casey Kasem hosted which Clark's company produced. And, more than a few times, at some parties and receptions over the years, Dick would walk across the room to say hello first, and always acknowledge DJ Rodney Bingenheimer immediately if we were hanging out at one of his functions or shows. Clark would then actually introduce us to record label executives like Jerry Moss and Clive Davis, even ahead of the celebrities and stars in the room, and this was long before I had a national byline or a book on the market. By the way, Clark's after-TV taping parties always had the best buffets.

Currently, Clark serves as executive producer of the weekly 2004 TV series "American Dreams" that also integrates archive film clips and footage of his "American Bandstand" legacy during the eras portrayed on the screen.

I was sad to hear Dick had a stroke in early December 2004. The concept of him not being in front of a camera anytime soon is sad.


Q: At the "American Music Awards Show" you honored Frank Sinatra.

A: Well, there are certain people who are very influential in music throughout the years. Go back to the days of Rudy Valee, who was the first crooner, Bing Crosby, and people followed. Sinatra learned his style, I'm told, by listening to Tommy Dorsey play a trombone. If you listen to the way he crafted a song, it's very "trombonish". I'm a great admirer, because he influenced so many people. I grew up with him when I was a disc jockey at an AC station in the days when it was "middle-of-the-road". I played a lot of Sinatra. I was a Nelson Riddle and Billy May fan. So it's a real pleasure. When we started off with The American Music Awards Award of Merit, it was Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Irving Berlin. So this takes us back to the very foundation of it all.

Q: Has there ever been any conflict, or awkwardness, in booking acts for "The American Music Awards", or in the program being perceived sometimes as in competition against "The Grammy Awards"?

A: It's not on our part. We don't compete with the Grammys. The Grammys compete with us. They have taken the stance that anybody who performs on The American Music Awards cannot appear on The Grammys. I don't agree with that philosophy. I think it's restrictive. That's their policy. We don't fight them. I accommodate people. One of the artists on this year's show said today, "Would you please make it possible? I want to appear on The Grammys, so unbook me". So I said, "You got it". We are very easy in that regard. They are very restrictive.

Q: What do you leave with, when the show is over?

A: The thing I leave with is that it's an awards show where all of the participants have fun. One of the few times in their lives where they all come together in one room. My favorite quote is from a country artist a few years ago, who said, "I do all the country shows and know everybody in our area, we hang out. This is the first time I ever met LL Cool J, or someone from far afield." They all have a mutual respect and there's equal applause and the audience is very enthusiastic. I don't want to get maudlin. It's not an evening of love, because there's a win and lose situation. But everyone has a mutual respect for what they bring to the party.

Q: Technically, what have been the changes in production over the 25 year period for the program?

A: Well, early on we had a line of dancers. We had a house band. Now you bring your own band, bring your own sound mixer. The equipment was so primitive when we first started. When it began it was a 90-minute show. It was an experiment that grew to two hours, then to three hours. Consistently it's been the second highest rated show next to The Oscars. It's just a phenomenal growth pattern. And it's all due to the fact of asking ordinary folks who buy music what they like.

Q: Do you miss the actual physical hosting of "American Bandstand"?

A: Yes, I'd be lying if I told you I didn't, but I knew at one point I had to leave the party when I turned 60. It would be inappropriate to be still doing the show. Not that I couldn't physically do it and pull it off, but you gotta know when to hang it up. It's a little bit like Jerry Seinfeld saying, "I gotta leave after this year". It's a tough decision, but I do miss it.

Q: And you have "The Best Of American Bandstand" currently airing on VH-1?

A: I did new wraparounds for it in the old studio. It makes me happy because it's been on in the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's, and now the 90's. I only wish it had stayed on as a new production in the 90's. If I had kept it on another three months we would have made it into the 90's. But I didn't think about it historically.

Q: Did you ever think there would be a problem with recording artists lip-synching their songs on live TV, or that it would have such an impact on viewers?

A: Oh yeah. I've never relegated the lip-synch to a lower form of entertainment. Lip-synching is an art unto itself. A lot of people can't do it. Jazz singers, improvisational singers just can't pull it off.

Q: What about the interviews you conducted on "Bandstand", and even today what constitutes a good interview or technique between yourself and whoever you are talking to?

A: In the old days, our interviews with the artists were short. Two to three minutes max. The way I patterned them - I've done 10,000 of them. 10,000 individual interviews. I had what I hoped was a beginning, middle and end. I tried to get something out of it other than "Where do you go next?" I always tried to get something you could hang on to. Sometimes totally frivolous. Sometimes very stupid. Sometimes not memorable. Maybe just show the humanity. The Prince interview was a failure. Huge, but most memorable 'cause he didn't say anything.

Q: Is there a different technique or style when doing a radio interview?

A: I think radio is the most intimate medium there is, because it goes with you wherever. On radio I get background information, so I know what I'm walking into. On the flipside, what is this guy or woman on the radio for? To plug a record or a television show? Give them the courtesy of allowing them to get their plug in and then get what you want out of it. It's a very symbiotic relationship. We are using one another.

Q: You have some programs airing on the radio with you hosting.

A: 15 years ago we started "Rock, Roll and Remember" when we started the united stations the first time. It's a four hour show that replaces an air shift on the weekend when somebody has to get a day off. It works really well because it deals with music I love a lot. Roots music. There's only a certain number of radio stations that are formatted that can handle it, but it's been very successful. The other one is "U.S. Music Survey". There have been several spins of that. It's had several titles. That's a current AC countdown. A three hour show. I do both of them at the studio we have in my offices. The equipment we have is minimal at best. We have DAT and a few goodies. You can still send it over the air and put over the disc. It used to be tapes. Then CDs and someday it will go direct. "Rock, Roll and Remember" has a play list.

Q: You emerged out of radio?

A: First job I had I was 17 years old. I was primarily the mail room boy at the radio station. An FM station. And in those days nobody listened to FM. It was a bastard medium that played classical music, and that was it. I used to argue with my father, who was the manager of the station, "Why don't you play music that ordinary people would like?" In addition to classical, they had an FM rural radio network. Weather forecasts for farmers. So I did the area forecast and would relay it to Schenectady, knowing there were a few farmers and some geese listening. That's how I first got behind a microphone. Later I was on WFIL. AM dial with 5,000 watts that covered the world because it was low on the dial. It was like a powerhouse 50,000 watt AM station in those days, owned by The Philadelphia Enquirer. The play list was highly restricted. Based on the taste of the owner.

Q: When did you know or realize how valuable your film, TV and video archives were? Did you collect and document all performances, knowing one day the footage would be rare and valuable? The strength of your library?

A: I have no idea. I wasn't bright enough to know they had historical or money value. But I've always been a collector. Look around my office. I never throw anything away. (I have dibs on The Beatles butcher cover hanging.) I started when I was a child. I saved the returned kinescopes. I begged ABC to give me the old films. We have a huge file. Second or third biggest in the world. Now I realize the historical importance of all of this.

Q: When did you know there was afterlife with this stuff? Clips of Fabian and Bobby Rydell?

A: You've mentioned Fabian and Bobby Rydell. People think that's the file, but it's Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Crows... It's The Jefferson Airplane, The Doors. That's what's so phenomenal about it. I knew it would have entertainment value. I didn't know it would have historical value until I got older.

Q: Who is the most popular requested music performer for licensing?

A: Buddy Holly. The irony there was that we once did a retrospective show for ABC, and I had an editor in from San Francisco who lost the Buddy Holly footage. Never found it. The only Buddy Holly footage we have of him doing "Peggy Sue" is from "The Arthur Murray Dance Party". I'm still a friend of Mrs. Murray and her former husband who passed on. I told her, "Let me have your tapes. You'll own them always, we'll just administrate them. And we'll take good care of them and store them in various formats so they won't get lost". Steve Allen's "Hound Dog" performance with Elvis was sitting in his closet in Encino. I said, "Steve, let me make a dub of it. I'll put it in my file and give you an extra dub". Two, three months later, he gave me a call. "That tape I gave you, did I ever get it back?" I said, "Yes. You signed for it." Here's the receipt. "I can't find it." I struck another deal. Somebody has to be crazy enough to save stuff. I mean, the very first show of "The Tonight Show" is gone because NBC destroyed it. When I called for the films of ABC, they wouldn't give them to me. Against company policy. I said, "You're gonna scrap 'em like at ten cents a pound - let me at least buy 'em for that." "We can't. It's against company policy. It's against the rules." Ironically, a mailroom boy called me one day and said, "I've got a truckload of stuff here. Cans of films and tapes that have your name on them. I'm gonna take it to the dump. Do you want it?" "DON'T MOVE THE TRUCK! I'll be down in a minute." We went to the truck and physically removed all those tapes that were going to be taken and burned, thrown in a pile somewhere, and saved them. So you have to cut through stupid organizational red tape. Sometimes they're human beings and know it has value.

All the clip requests come to me, the president of the company, and the archivist. The ball dropping at New Year's Eve is a big request. The night of "We Are The World" when everyone was on stage at "The American Music Awards", prior to Quincy and the gang going to A&M to make the record. The reason they booked the studio date was because we had 'em all on "The American Music Awards". As far as requests for footage - unfortunately, anybody who is deceased we immediately get requests. The most talked about things are early Michael Jackson when he was with The Jackson Five. Madonna's very first appearance is quite memorable. It all depends on the individual needs of the producers.

There were not a lot of sources for the early stuff. As time went on, and videos were made and other tape recordings were made of concert appearances, people saved them. So there's more material available. History gets shorter. You can get stuff from the '80s and '90s. '70s is fairly available. '50s and '60s is scarce.

Q: What about the home video market? Did you and your staff anticipate the growing lucrative market for collections?

A: It's not lucrative for us. The archives... I guess maybe this year they will be profit-making. It's not a big business. We've never ever been able to put a compilation together that was clearable. The rights clearances are so horrendous. It's very difficult. Some day it will work.

Q You were inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame. What are your feelings about the honor? I know Phil Spector was one of the people lobbying for your inclusion. I saw your note to him at his home.

A: Dion's speech is hanging framed on my wall. I needed his introductory remarks for my wall. It was a very big night, to be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame with all of your musical contemporaries. Colleagues, icons, idols. That's heavy duty company.

It took a lot of years for me to get in. There was resistance. I'm a non-performer. So you sort of have to wait in line, because they only put in a few each year. I was overcome with emotion because they finally let me in. I think I had an important role in that period of time. I know it doesn't sound very humble, but I was there from the beginning. I appreciate the honor.

Q: You know, the thing that strikes me about your durability and longevity is, during research, it became apparent that you gave and presented a TV platform for many seminal rock and R&B figures years before you were identified with "The Philly Sound".

A: Well, one of the aggravations in life - and it really doesn't happen much anymore - but there was a period of time when young music writers took a stance that "American Bandstand" was the home to Philadelphia recording artists. Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Chubby Checker. These are my very dear friends. I'm not demeaning their talent. That was one aspect of it. But they never really gave any thought to the fact that the Penguins, The Crows, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, all made their first appearances on "Bandstand". That aggravated me, but that's just stupid youth perpetuating an untruth. The truth has come out now and we don't hear much about that anymore. We've got smarter people writing.

Q: Paul McCartney's appearance was utilized on a recent "American Music Awards". And, looking around your office, I mean, photos of The Beatles, John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe artwork, and I realized at one time you had a record label, Swan, that issued 'She Loves You' b/w 'I'll Get You' very early in the game. Can we talk about The Beatles? The anthologies are selling, the BBC tapes. What impressed you about them? (Clark goes to his office wall and shows me a Swan Records staff photo and a record presentation to The Beatles on their first American tour in 1964. And you ought to see the fantastic Jackie Wilson photo Dick has on the wall!)

A: You asked for it (laughs). Here's a ticket stub from November 1961 from a Beatles show which amounts to 42 cents U.S. money. Here's the photo of Bernie and Tony, my former partners in Swan, with The Beatles when I was in the music business; after the government forced me out of the music business, they went on with it. The first record Bernie brought back was from these four kids from England with the funny haircuts. I put it ('She Loves You') on "Rate-A-Record" (an "American Bandstand" segment) and the kids gave it a 73. They didn't like it. I thought they looked strange. I didn't particularly care for it, because I thought it was derivative. It sounded like The Crickets and Buddy Holly, and a little Chuck Berry. Recycled old American music. I didn't focus in on the fact that it had a different thrust. I had no idea they would go on and make their own music and change the world. The irony of the picture of Bernie and Tony with The Beatles and the record 'She Loves You' was that, had Swan sold 50,000 copies of 'She Loves You' that we played on "Rate-A-Record", we would have had the rights to the Beatles ad infinitum. I said to Bernie years later, "Why didn't you buy 50,000 copies? (laughs) This was their second release. Vee Jay and Ewart Abner had them first. Bernie was an alert guy. Someone called his attention and he went over to England to check The Beatles out. At the time, Capitol didn't want them in the U.S.

I look at this photo. How fate changes things. I'm looking at Ringo Starr... We did "Birth Of The Beatles" and Pete Best got aced out of a drummer's job and I met him and talked to him. I wondered, how did this man walk around without being a total nutcase, knowing that he got aced out of a job as one of four musicians who changed the world? He was the technical advisor on our show. A sweet man. I still hear from him.

Q: Did you ever see the band play live in the U.S. or promote any of their live shows?

A: I saw them in Atlantic City on their first tour here. The first time I saw them in the flesh. Several times thereafter.

Q: Did you like their stage show?

A: It was interesting because it was like the first time I saw Elvis Presley. There was this shriek, this sound, which I think is part of the reason they gave up performing in person. It was very hard to hear the music. The audience reaction was phenomenally interesting. That's what I found about Presley. I saw Presley in the '50s at The Arena in Philadelphia, a 4,000-seater. It was the first time my ears rang after a concert. The same thing happened in Atlantic City when I saw The Beatles. So you knew something was going on. We later promoted them in Pittsburgh, I think. We had to pay them $25,000 for the night, which was just incredibly expensive in those days.

Q: You also put together touring packages that featured live bands from England during the initial "English Invasion". Through my writing for Melody Maker and later employing some of these music-makers, I've gotten to hear some pretty tall tales of road life, and especially some of the insane racial scenes that existed when you presented and toured mixed black and white performers. What a minefield you all were walking into in the U.S.

A: "The Caravan Of Stars" started in the late '50s and was derivative of Allen Feld's "Biggest Shows" concerts. Those were primarily black-oriented shows with a few white performers. Pretty much stayed the same for years. The headliners for years and years were blacks and whites, but primarily black. We would have a couple of teen idol white types as a closer for the white audiences. We played to segregated audiences. That's all documented. But when it came time to bring the English over, they had no feel for the racism we had in this country. Because the Indian people had invaded their shores, the Pakistanis had been there, and I used to have long conversations and discussions with Eric Burdon of The Animals. We sat and argued about this for years (laughs). He was such a fan of black music. I said to him, "You have no idea what this country has been through". His first introduction was on a rock 'n' roll tour. He found they couldn't eat with the black performers in public restaurants. They couldn't stay in the same hotels. It was a revelation. We'd run into posters like, "Don't Play Negro Music", "Don't Buy Negro Records". It was a very bizarre experience. And if you are a young person, it's gonna make an indelible impression on you.

Q: On those package tours, did you always like the concept of multiple performers on a bill? Many acts, a few hits, and that sort of production?

A: I preferred multiple acts because I always had a short attention span. A plate full of a variety of things. I know that is offensive to an artist, I know there are artists that can command your attention for two hours. My personal preference is I'd rather have shorter bits and anticipate coming back for more at a later time.

Q:I couldn't help but ask you about Sonny Bono. Around the time of his funeral, you were quoted about his determination.

A: Yes... I think it was his greatest asset. I've said for years, in a business that is a competitive one, young kids have said, "How do I get or make a break in the music business?" I've said, "Have bulldog determination". Artistic people very often wait for the lightning to hit. Sonny made the lightning come to him. There's something to learn from that. Put yourself in the right place at the right time. Be in the right city. Get to the right person. Hang in there. You have to be aggressive, or otherwise it will be a miracle if someone walks into the nearest Holiday Inn and finds you in the lounge.

Q: I met Sonny Bono. I knew Nik Venet, who just died this week, and who signed the Beach Boys to Capitol after they recorded for Candix. And I interviewed Berry Gordy, Jr., and naturally met Ewart Abner, who also died this week, and who was president of Motown and, earlier, president of Vee Jay Records, who released The Beatles' first record in America. Abner was a character. My dad even had lunch with him once. I mean, Vee Jay delivered The Impressions, Jimmy Reed, and I know you have fond memories of him. All of these people were by-products of independent music.

A: Yes. Ewart's contributions were overlooked... Abner was one of the unsung heroes of music. He was one of the most extraordinarily imaginative, colorful, pacifistic men. He was there during the days of integration, helping to bring that about. He could bring people together. That was his great role. He could spot talent. (Earlier at Chance Records, he joined with Art Sheridan to feature two new groups, the Flamingos and the Moonglows.)

I mean, as late as a couple of weeks ago, before he passed, I was irate about something. We were working on a project together with Berry and some other people. And Abner was my point man for Berry. I was ready to throw in the towel. "I can't put up with this anymore..." He said, "Let me call you back". 20 minutes later he calls me back, "Let's talk about this now that you're over this". Isn't this really the logical way? He got me around to where I knew I'd get eventually. He was able to take me like a big brother and say, "Come on, let's get on with it". And he did that with everybody.

Q: I also feel the indie labels then — and still today, but talking about Vee Jay, and the Swan effort with The Beatles, Sam Phillips with Sun — also knew where the talent was.

A: The independent guys found it and jammed it right up in their face. It was a very vibrant business in the early days. It was probably faster moving and more fun, because you weren't layered. You didn't have to go through the business affairs department, the accounting department, the promo department. Your fate was usually in the hands of one or two people who ran the joint.

It hasn't happened that way in years except in the area of rap now, where it's street guys instead of the multi-national conglomerates that pull the strings.

Q: Why do people worship the "Bloopers" series? It's been on for years.

A: We never get tired of laughing at ourselves. We don't do anybody any harm. There's no damage. You don't have to extract somebody's embarrassment to make it work. So your insides just feel good. The only guarantee we make is that you'll have a lot of laughs and no one will get hurt. When it's famous people, or stodgy people, or people who have to adhere to a script and screw it up, you suddenly realize we are all human. It's a fun frolic. It works without any promotion.

Q: What are your feelings about the Internet and emerging new media communication and broadcast equipment?

A: Some of the technology may have taken over and may have outstripped the appetite of the general public. I'm not against progress. I don't want to sound like some old fogey hanging on to the past, but I don't know what we're going to do with all of these improvements. I don't know if we really need direct-to-automobile transmission of non-commercial radio, for which you'll have to pay. I'm really not sure where the music business is headed, what the role of the retailer will be, when you'll just be able to call up for something for your house which we don't even know yet. It's a chip of some sort that will memorize your music for you.

But again, I can talk to more people, and communicate better, through radio than I can on the Internet — for my purposes. I've been asked to spend time on the Internet. I don't want to demean it, but who am I talking to? A handful of people. Give me the same 20 minutes and let me talk to three radio stations and I'll reach more people than you'll reach in a whole year that have hit on that Internet website.

Q: Is any of this analogous to when "American Bandstand" went from a black and white program to color and maybe reached a wider audience?

A: It was the last show on ABC to go in color because we were low man on the totem pole. A daytime kids' show. What did they care? Probably one of the most colorful shows they ever had, but it didn't make the least bit of difference to the viewers.

It's like talking about High Definition Television, HDTV. Who wants to spend $8,000.00 on a new television set? They'll get the price down to $1,000.00 and everybody will eventually have HDTV. But right now it's a couple of freaks who'll buy it.

© Harvey Kubernik, 2004

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