Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

For many baby boomers – members of that much-touted generation who came of age in the fifties and sixties – rock ‘n’ roll provided a defining point in their adolescent lives. Few will ever forget the first time they jitterbugged to Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets, or took to the dance floor with The Twist by Chubby Checker. Many cherish the memory of listening to Johnny Mathis, the unchallenged king of romance, whose silky smooth voice wooed them and their first love with Chances Are. It was music made largely for and by teenagers of the post-World War II era and it reshaped, rewrote, and revised the landscape of popular music.

A unique blend of rhythm and blues, country and western, and pop music, rock ‘n’ roll was a reaction against the ballads, dance numbers, and novelty tunes of the post war years and quickly became more than a new style of music. It was an attitude, a way of walking and talking and dancing, a celebration of being young – as well as a spirited, but harmless, rebellion against the conven­tions of parents, schools, and authority in general. Predictably, rock ‘n’ roll was initially attacked by politicians and con­servative religious leaders who presumed it encouraged juvenile delinquency, pre­marital sex, drug use, and anti-authoritar­ian protest.

Television, which was rapidly replacing radio as the center of family entertain­ment, helped to give rock ‘n’ roll greater credibility with white, middle-class America. Bandstand, a daily after-school television series featuring ordinary teenagers dancing to the latest hit records, paved the way to respectability. Produced at Philadelphia station WFIL-TV from 1952 until 1964, when the show moved to California, American Bandstand was the flash point in the creation of the new music as well as the adolescent culture which embraced it. Dick Clark became the show’s permanent host on Monday, July 9, 1956, and, a year later American Bandstand made its national television debut, changing the course of music, dance, and broadcast history for­ever.

Dick Clark seemed an unlikely candidate to lead a rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Before hosting Bandstand (renamed American Bandstand when it went nation­al on Monday, August 5, 1957), the twen­ty-six-year-old disc jockey wasn’t particu­larly familiar with the controversial new music. Radio stations in Utica, New York, and later in Philadelphia where he worked, hadn’t allowed him to play rock on his shows, insisting that he stick to the jazz, pop, and swing music of an ear­lier generation. Nor did his boyish good looks and wholesome image square with the sexual innuendo of rock ‘n’ roll music. Nevertheless, Clark quickly became the quintessential spokesman for the new teen culture. Youthful, non­threatening, and telegenic, he pitched everything from rock music to products such as shampoo and acne medication, and developed a special ability to relate with teenagers. Like the kids who danced on his show, he was also well-dressed and well-behaved. The music and dance were made presentable. Cigarettes, alco­hol, and drugs were prohibited, which was critical to the success of the new music.

Despite the show’s conservative tone and Clark’s all-American appearance, American Bandstand in January 1960 came under the scrutiny of a congres­sional investigation during the payola scandal that shook the music industry. Clark and his top-rated program not only survived the attack, but seemed to prosper because of it. American Bandstand‘s ratings soared. Even parents began watching the show as it launched the promising careers of clean-cut Philadelphia artists such as Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, the Orlons, and many more. Hundreds of local teenagers lined Market Street, hoping to gain entry into WFIL­-TV’s Studio B so they could stroll and bob their way into the limelight, if only for a brief moment. But American Bandstand did more than provide the average, every­day teenager with his or her shining moment in the spotlight.

Beginning in 1957, the show helped Philadelphia navigate the difficult straits of racial integration. Its dance floor was open to both black and white teenagers. It presented all kinds of music, including rhythm and blues. And it often featured black rhythm and blues artists Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, the Bobbettes, and the Five Satins. Clark never saw himself as a civil rights activist, but he realized that integrating the show was “the right thing to do,” and he did it with the distinctive style and grace that characterizes his own way of life.

All good things must come to an end, unfortunately, and so, too, did American Bandstand. In 1989, the longest running variety series in the history of television made its final appearance. The show lives on in reruns and the name can be recognized in a national chain of restau­rants. But the real legacy is its music, which for thirty-seven years connected with the minds and hearts of a nation – ­music that spawned a new era in America’s popular culture.

On Tuesday, August 5, 1997, Dick Clark returned to Philadelphia to cele­brate the fortieth anniversary of American Bandstand‘s debut on national television. Joined by Governor Tom Ridge, Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Chairman Janet S. Klein, of Rydal, and a host of recording artists from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, Clark unveiled a state historical marker honoring the television dance show at 46th and Market Streets, the site of the old WFIL-TV studios. In an interview given that day especially for Pennsylvania Heritage, Dick Clark discussed his early years on American Bandstand and the unique contribution Philadelphia made to the history of rock and roll.

Before hosting American Bandstand, you worked as a radio disc jockey in Utica, New York, and in Philadelphia at WFIL-AM. What inspired your passion for music?

I grew up loving music. As a child, I always used to listen to the radio. Radio, in those days, was much like television, full of dramas and comedies. When I got a little bit older, I listened to the all­-music stations. In high school I dated a girl who taught me to love jazz. Later on it grew into rhythm and blues. When I moved to Utica, New York, I learned about hillbilly music – it wasn’t even called country and western in those days – and when I came to Philadelphia I was highly influenced by the radio disc jockeys there. So my background was rather eclectic.

Will you briefly trace your early career in the music industry?

I was born [on November 30, 1929] in Bronxville, New York, and raised in Mount Vernon. After graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in business administration, I moved to Utica to work in radio and TV. From there, I became a radio disc jockey at WFIL-AM in Philadelphia and, a few years later, became the host of Bandstand. I guess I’m an unusual character for the radio and television business. I’ve only had four jobs during my lifetime. Most people you meet in the entertainment industry have had a dozen or more.

In your recent book on American Bandstand you seem to suggest that you were an unlikely candidate to succeed Bob Horn as host in 1956. Why did George Koehler, gen­eral manager of WFIL-TV, choose you?

When I became the permanent host of Bandstand, people said, “They waved a magic wand and made you the host.” Or, “You got it because your dad was in broadcasting, and knew the general manager at WFIL.” That was true, but by the same token, I’d already worked in the business nine years, starting in the mail room in a radio sta­tion in Utica, then worked in Utica and Syracuse, doing the weather, news, coun­try and western music programs, working my way up. While I may not have been current in terms of the latest rock music when I got the Bandstand job, my lack of familiarity was more a matter of following WFIL’s radio station policy to refrain from play­ing youth music than anything else. They didn’t want raucous kid stuff on what was essentially an adult radio sta­tion. So I adhered to that format. When I fell heir to Bandstand I had a crash course in what appealed to kids. It was­n’t really that shocking to me. For the most part it was rhythm and blues and country music, which were combining to become rock ‘n’ roll music. So it wasn’t a hard learn. Additionally, I was already hosting the radio version of Bandstand and, on occasion, served as a substitute host for Bob Horn, the original host, on the television program. I’d imagine, then, that George Koehler thought my back­ground was a logical segue to becoming the permanent host of the show.

Philadelphia holds a special place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll because American Bandstand launched the careers of many talented artists. Did these artists, collectively, represent music that could be called a “Philadelphia Style”?

Philadelphia has always been a cul­tural hot spot, where the music has, at various times, been classical, jazz, rhythm and blues, or rock ‘n’ roll. That moment of time you refer to is another time when Philadelphia had a claim to fame because all of those kids were growing up in the same neighborhood. We also had a television show that hap­pened to be seen nationwide. Even after American Bandstand left Philadelphia, the city was still considered by many to be one of the birthplaces of American music. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve always claimed Philadelphia as my adopted home.

When Bandstand debuted in 1952, it was an exclusively white program. A year after you became host, in 1957, you integrated the show with black dancers. Where there any reverberations?

Philadelphia, in those days, was the northernmost “southern” city in the country. Blacks and whites didn’t social­ize. That’s just the way it was. Then, in 1957, at the time we went national, pro­ducer Tony Mammarella and I conclud­ed, “The times they are a-changing,” and so we invited a few black kids on the show. It still wasn’t acceptable for them to dance with white kids, so the blacks just danced with each other. We were waiting for the explosion, but it never happened. The wonderful part about our decision to integrate then was that there were no repercussions, no reverbera­tions, no battles at all – it just happened right there on a television screen in front of millions of people. That was a giant step forward.

In what other ways did the program help Philadelphia, as well as the nation, in the process of integration?

We also introduced a lot of black musical talent to white America and I’d imagine that since the show was so high­ly visible and seen by so many millions of people, the idea of integration simply crept into society. There was no overt statement, no headline grabbing, no trumpets blaring – it just happened. And that was probably the best way for it to occur. I certainly didn’t think of myself as a hero or a civil rights activist for inte­grating the show; it was just the right thing to do.

How did the adolescent culture of the mid-1950s and early 1960s compare to today’s adolescents in terms of their music, their dance, and their lifestyle?

My early career on the show was a moment in time that will never happen again, a generation of kids embracing music that other generations hated. And this was the first TV generation. In fact, television and I were practically born the same day. So there was this unique com­ing together of ingredients. There was also a certain innocence about that gener­ation of kids. While they were chrono­logically the same age as today’s teens, the nineties adolescents are far more sophisticated, more knowledgeable, with more information available to them – good and bad – so that they’re older before their time. That’s not a happy commentary, but it’s the fact of the matter.

How did you make the music and dance presentable to adult America, which was highly skeptical about the influence of rock and roll on their teenage children?

The only thing I did intelligently in terms of survival was getting the kids to dress properly – the boys with jackets and ties, the girls in dresses or blouses and skirts – to keep alive what critics called “that lascivious, detested music.” As long as we presented it in a manner acceptable to adults, we could get it over the hump. Being polite was part of the game, to get people to look like they weren’t threatening or terrifying. Of course, I also referred to the kids as “ladies” and “gentlemen.” That kind of courtliness was simply a reflection of the way I was brought up.

Why did Justine Carelli and Bob Clayton, the quintessential American Bandstand dance couple of the fifties, appeal to teenage America?

Justine and Bob seemed like All­-American kids. They just had magic. Nobody ever knew whether or not they were in love or whether they were a cou­ple. But they danced well together and I guess everybody fantasized, “Wow! What a great couple.”

How would you describe your relation­ship with the show’s regulars?

I’d call it a good relationship. The reg­ulars were such an important part of my life, and we were together so much, for two or three hours a day. I realized that some of them got picked on a bit, by jeal­ous classmates, and that some of them had a hard time adjusting after they left the show. It was a rude awakening for many of the regulars to discover that they had to make their own way. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help in the transition at that point in my life because I was more of a big brother than a mature father figure, a reputation I later assumed. But life is full of changes, some of which are happy, some of them sad. I’m sorry that the show might have affected anybody adversely, but that’s life and we all get knocks along the way. We just have to pick ourselves up and keep going.

In what ways did the show change when it went national in 1957?

The producers at ABC sent people down to re-light the show and to build us a new set. We also had a little more rigid format; the show was more formal­ly planned. In the old days, we just had a list of records and commercials and shuffled the two. There were no substan­tial changes, other than changing the name from Bandstand to American Bandstand.

In January 1960, American Bandstand came under the scrutiny of a Congressional investigation. Why was the show investigated and what were the results?

In retrospect, it’s very easy to see the reasons for the investigation. Call it the more jaundiced view of later life, if you will, but I believe it all came down to politics. Politicians do a lot of things to get elected. They had investigated the quiz shows and found a scandal, made headlines, and got elected. Then they went after the music business, fortunately without the same success. They were prodded on by people whose traditions and economics were being threatened – old time songwriters, religious leaders, and parents, none of whom were too happy with the new music. So they all combined to get rid of rock ‘n’ roll. But, again, they didn’t succeed. The tidal wave was almost overwhelming, I’m real happy that we didn’t get buried. I was very fortunate that I survived personally. And I’m glad American Bandstand lived through it all because we helped keep the music alive. In fact, our ratings soared shortly after the investigation ended.

Why did American Bandstand change from a daily television show to a week­ly series appearing only on Saturday on ABC in September 1963? Had the rat­ings dropped?

No, the ratings hadn’t dropped. I’d imagine that the station managers at the affiliates got tired of watching kids. They’d have the show on in their offices and if they didn’t have the sound turned off on their sets and all they saw was gyrating teenagers for a couple of hours each day, it would get a little tedious for them. They eventually said that we could accomplish the same thing and make the same kind of money if we lim­ited the show to only one hour each week and give them back the additional time to sell other products. I think their motives were purely economic.

Was there any connection between the change to a weekly program and the show’s relocation to California the fol­lowing year?

Yes, there was. I personally had to find a way to keep my energy level high and to do other things. There wasn’t a great deal of television opportunity in Philadelphia – it was either in New York or Los Angeles. Like so many other peo­ple in the music industry, I discovered that California was where the action was, so I went there.

What does the future hold for Dick Clark? Will there be a revival of American Bandstand?

I’m already very busy these days. The Bandstand Grills are an extension of the show, so the icon lives on. We do eight to ten “Good Old Rock and Roll” stage shows annually. Dick Clark Productions is involved at the moment in twenty-five TV and film productions. As for a revival of American Bandstand, my fantasy is to come up with a thirty-minute version with some unusual gimmicks, to fit the short attention span of the nineties. Aside from that, I hope I stay in good health and keep on doing what I’m


For Further Reading

Clark, Dick, with Fred Bronson. American Bandstand. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.

Clark, Dick, and Richard Robinson. Rock, Roll & Remember. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.

Clarke, Donald, ed. The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Popular Music. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.

Jackson, John A. American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Shore, Michael, with Dick Clark. The History of American Bandstand. New York: Balantine, 1985.

Tischler, Barbara L. An American Music: The Search for an American Musical Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.


The author wishes to thank Janet and Lew Klein, of Rydal, for their assistance in arranging this interview and to Dick Clark for taking the time out of a demanding sched­ule to talk with Pennsylvania Heritage.


William C. Kashatus, Paoli, is a regular contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage. His most recent book is A Virtuous Education: William Penn’s Vision for Philadelphia Schools.