Dick Clark dead at 82: How the ‘American Bandstand’ host helped bring black music into the mainstream

OPINION - Today, when black artists readily rise to pop acclaim, it's difficult to understand Dick Clark's pioneering significance in making this the norm...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

“Dick Clark bridged a color gap at a time when there should not have been one, giving musical life to black artists that may not have had a chance. He gave music freedom — equal opportunity,” Stevie Wonder said in a statement following the news that the legendary host of American Bandstand had died at age 82, after suffering a major heart attack. Today, when black artists readily rise to pop acclaim, it’s difficult to understand Dick Clark’s pioneering significance in making this the norm.

But make no mistake, The Five Heartbeats was far from fiction in recounting how white artists would routinely take songs originally recorded by black artists as their own and sail to the top of the charts. Pat Boone had a thriving career refashioning such hits as Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” for white audiences.

Because black artists had virtually no outlets to reach white teenagers, in particular, their music was largely limited to black audiences. Very few black artists even played to white audiences.

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From the onset of his career, which began in earnest when he became the sole host of the Philadelphia show Bandstand in 1956, Dick Clark included black artists as guests. Chubby Checker, the man whose version of “The Twist” is deeply ingrained in American pop culture, was one of his earliest guests.

“Being on Bandstand was like getting a Nobel Prize,” Checker told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “From 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 5:30, nobody was on the street. They were watching Bandstand. Can you imagine that?”

When the show went national, becoming American Bandstand in 1957 and broadcasting from Hollywood, Clark did not abandon this practice. The hit list of black artists who appeared on his show reads like a who’s who of black music history: Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, The Imperials, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, The Isley Brothers.

But Clark didn’t just expand racial boundaries in music from the confines of the East and West Coast. In 1958, Clark hosted the live broadcast of Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beechnut Show featuring Sam Cooke in Atlanta despite threats on his life by the Ku Klux Klan. Cooke’s performance of “Win Your Love For Me” in front of a live, integrated audience was a culturally significant moment for television and for live concerts, especially in the South.

His contribution to entrenching black artists into the musical landscape of the nation can’t be overstated. “Dick Clark was a pioneer, he was a music star maker,” Diana Ross shared in a statement, “I will always appreciate what he did for me and for popular music. He presented Motown and The Supremes on tour with the Caravan of Stars and on American Bandstand where I got my start.”Motown founder and one of Clark’s longtime friends Berry Gordy acknowledged that “he helped bring Motown into living rooms across America.”

His challenge to Soul Train with Soul Unlimited in 1973 was short-lived and unsuccessful, mainly because it was not true to his brand. Clark thrived at exposing African-American music to a white audience. Catering to an African-American one was not his strength; that was Don Cornelius’s terrain.

Long before “diversity” became a goal for many in this country, Dick Clark actively practiced his version of it. In 1973, during the first broadcast of the long-running American Music Awards, a more fan-inclusive awards show he created at the behest of ABC to challenge the Grammys, Roberta Flack was the first artist to receive an award, and Smokey Robinson was one of the hosts. To this day, fallen legends Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston are still among the show’s biggest winners.

Clark followed that pattern in almost everything that he did. His popular Pyramid game show included Nipsey Russell early on and his iconic New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, which got its start at the end of 1972 on NBC before later landing on ABC, included a performance by Al Green. In keeping with Clark’s ability to stay on top of music trends, Nicki Minaj, Gym Class Heroes, LMFAO and Will.i.Am were among the many artists who helped bring in 2012 for the New Year staple.

“No matter what cultural phenomenon was happening, he always embraced it,” Russell Simmons noted.

And while well-known TV, radio & digital media personality Jawn Murray’s tweet, “Without Dick Clark’s #AmericanBandstand there’d be no “Soul Train,” “Yo! MTV Raps,” “TRL,” “106 & Park,” “Solid Gold” or “Dance Party USA!”” is very true, Dick Clark did more than help change the way we consumed music in the age of television.

At the heart of it all, Dick Clark helped bring us all a little closer together. That he would pass in the same year as Don Cornelius is a cap on an era that will never be duplicated in television or American popular culture history.

He was very much, as another longtime friend and legend Quincy Jones tweeted, “A pioneer who’s [sic] mark on American culture will be felt forever.” [maybe I shouldn’t have include the “by us all”]

Without Dick Clark championing good music, regardless of who made it, there’s no telling where black music would be today.

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha