How dare Dick Clark die? He wasn’t supposed to die. He had no right to die.
When we baby boomers were young, that’s what we’d say, “Dick Clark will never die. He never ages. He’ll stay young forever.”
That youth-obsessed delusion was our Peter-Pan goal once upon a time: never grow old, never die. That was then when the world was brand-new, energetic, brimming with hopes and promises; this is now when the world is old, wrinkled, on its last legs. Then, carefree-happy and naive; now, older, sadder, wiser maybe.
Those were the days of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” that daily rite of American teenagers, a ritual almost as sacred as a church service. Every day after school in the late 1950s and early 1960s we kids watched Bandstand on our blurry black-and-white TV. We thrived on rock ‘n’ roll and pop tunes. We even liked those nerdy novelty songs, so popular back then, like “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” which Brian Hyland sang once on Bandstand.
Those were the days before our musical tastes developed, before the genius of the Beatles, Dylan, the Stones and other giants in the 1960s’ musical Renaissance set new stratospheric pop-song standards. It was a shame, in a way, because there were so many talented singers/songwriters (Roy Orbison, to name just one) who became unfairly eclipsed by the blinding brilliance of those upstart trailblazers.
Back then, in the mid- to late-1950s and early 1960s, it really was a simpler, more stable world. Oh sure, we sometimes worried about being bombed into oblivion by a sneak nuclear attack from Russia, but other than that it was a fun, happy time. I call them my happy-summer Watermelon Years. Dick Clark and American Bandstand typified that breezy, easy teen time. The dancers on his show sported ducktails and pompadours. You could almost smell the Brylcreem and hairspray. The guys, some with Buddy Holly-style glasses, wore penny loafers, slacks and sports coats. The gals, a few with sparkly pointy-framed glasses and pony-tails, others with flipped-up hair, wore black-and-white saddle shoes with white anklets. They danced like whirling dervishes in puffy skirts with bushy can-can slips underneath, and some of their skirts had poodle appliques on them. Clark would interview them, asking them their opinions of new songs played.
They’d rate the songs for such factors as “melody” and “beat” and how danceable the songs were.
If you tuned in now to one of those late 50s’ shows, you’d think you were making contact with a geeky rite beamed in from an alien planet. But it didn’t seem geeky then. It was “hip,” it was “cool.”
From those happy Bandstand years, I still vividly remember seeing and hearing Bobby Vee singing “Devil or Angel,” Brian Hyland singing “Sealed with a Kiss,” Freddy Cannon singing “Palisades Park” Dusty Springfield singing “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and Petula Clark singing “Downtown.” One of my favorite memories is of Little Stevie Wonder, as he was known back then, singing his first hit at the age of 12 – a song called “Fingertips,” which was filled with shifting bongo rhythms and a wild harmonica solo. (I still have the 45 rpm of that song). I was riveted by Wonder’s performance one Bandstand day when I was living that summer of ‘63 in Huntsville, Ala.
Another favorite Bandstand memory is of Van Morrison singing “Brown-Eyed Girl.” He looked like a scruffy troll with his mess of hair and his goofy paisley brown-and-orange shirt. He appeared to be a bit slurry and blurry around the edges as if he’d just smoked something “funny” before the show. He probably did. Great song, great singer.
In those early days, we thought of Dick Clark as the pied-piper of teenagers. And thanks to him, he helped make pop tunes and rock ‘n’ roll an undying staple of American culture. It was such a good time. Sadly, we’ll never see its like again.