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American Bandstand became a powerful symbol of American teenage culture with its nearly four-decade look at the ever-changing tastes of the country’s youth.
Featuring guest artists who lip-synced to their latest tunes, and a teenage audience whose members danced for the cameras, the show launched a conga line of dance crazes, fashion and hair trends, and sent the latest teen slang expressions echoing from coast to coast.
From its beginning as a local Philadelphia telecast called, simply, Bandstand in 1952, to its 1957 national debut on ABC as American Bandstand, and on throughout its run, the show was known for treating teenagers with deference.
Congenial host Dick Clark did not pontificate or preach; he instead let the kids and the music do the communicating.
The antithesis of courageous rock ‘n’ roll proponents like fiery Alan Freed, Clark has been accused of homogenizing rock ‘n’ roll.
Music historians have pointed out that he had a financial interest in some of the show’s acts, but Clark has countered that the show reflected popular taste.
Indeed, American Bandstand enjoys a reputation not only as a musical and cultural timeline but as a fondly remembered part of adolescence for many if not most Americans.
Though Clark’s name is synonymous with that of American Bandstand, the show originated with Philadelphia disc jockey Bob Horn and the radio show Bob Horn’s Bandstand.
It was in October of 1952 that Horn and his Bandstand moved to Philadelphia’s WFIL-TV as a live afternoon series. Against a painted canvas backdrop of a record store, the studio audience clustered on pine bleachers to watch lip-syncing artists such as pop singers Joni James and Frankie Laine. The show also featured dance and record-rating segments.
Singer Gene Pitney once estimated that a single American Bandstand appearance could lead to next-day sales of 20,000 to 40,000 records. After nearly giving up on her career, Connie Francis had her first number one hit when Clark touted Who’s Sorry Now?
When Jerry Lee Lewis appeared on the show in April 1958 to perform Breathless, viewers learned they could own the record by mailing in fifty cents and five wrappers from Beech-Nut gum, a leading sponsor. Within three days, tens of thousands of gum wrappers were mailed in.
Clark himself was the force behind the 1958 Number One hit At the Hop. Danny and the Juniors had originally recorded a demo called Do the Bop, which referred to one of the show’s dance fads. Clark suggested that lyrics be changed to “At the Hop.” It was also Clark who triggered Chubby Checker‘s enormous 1960 hit, The Twist.
Credited with revolutionising popular dance, The Twist was written and first recorded by the raucous rhythm and blues group Hank Ballard and the Midnighters as the flip side to their 1958 tune Teardrops on Your Letter. After seeing the dance performed on his show in the summer of 1960, Clark approached the local Cameo Records and suggested a new recording.
The Twist was but one of many dance fads popularised by American Bandstand. Others included the Strand, the Stroll, the Duck, the Calypso, the Fly, the Loco-Motion, the Watusi, the Limbo, the Bristol Stomp, the Mashed Potato, the Hully Gully, the Bird, and the Smurf.
It wasn’t just the dances that garnered the spotlight; some of the dancing “regulars” became celebrities in their own right, complete with fan mail, their own fan clubs, and coverage in the teen fan magazines. The show’s most popular dance team of Bob Clayton and Justine Carrelli even cut their own record.
In the 1970s, American Bandstand exploited a new roll call of teen idols, including Bobby Sherman, David Cassidy, and John Travolta. The series also reached into its vaults for a highly rated twentieth-anniversary late night special. Still later in the decade, the show’s dance floor was revitalised by disco.
The following decade saw the abandonment of the dress code. But spandex and plunging necklines, and guests as disparate as Madonna, Bon Jovi, Prince, and the Stray Cats, could not offset changing technology. MTV debuted on 1 August 1981; four years later, it spawned the sister network, VH-1, which was aimed at viewers ages twenty-five to forty-nine, a demographic group who had left American Bandstand behind.
There was also competition from music-video-oriented series, such as NBC’s Friday Night Videos. Finally, after thirty-seven years of catering to and reflecting teenage taste, American Bandstand came to an end in October 1987. Through syndication, The New American Bandstand ran through September 1989.
But the beat goes on. Dick Clark Productions continues to exploit the American Bandstand moniker with tie-ins including a chain of theme restaurants. And the show continues in reruns. In fact, VH-1, which contributed to the original show’s demise, has been an outlet for The Best of American Bandstand.
Befitting a symbol of Americana, the show’s podium, over which Clark used to preside, is on display in the Smithsonian Institution; the show itself was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as TV’s longest-running variety programme.