Dick Clark: Shrewd salesman masquerading as inoffensive frontman

Clark, who died of a heart attack Wednesday morning at the age of 82, really set the tone for hucksterism in the music and TV business - the cheery, boy-next-door persona who made big money through little-known tie-ins with record labels, pressing plants, music publishers, artist management firms, and of course the networks. Reviewing a Dick Clark biography, entertainment writer Fred Goodman said that the "American Bandstand" host of "had so many angles he was round." The book, "American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock 'n' Roll Empire" by John A. Jackson, covered many of those angles, including the payola messiness: From the review:

Like [Alan] Freed, Clark was a target of a special subcommittee in the House of Representatives investigating payola, which called him to testify in April 1960. Unlike Freed, who freely admitted that payola was a way of life in the record business and that he had engaged in it, Clark proved a slippery witness and steadfastly maintained he had never engaged in payola despite taking many, many gifts from record companies -- including enough valuable song copyrights to stock a significant music publishing company. When the smoke cleared, Freed, rock-and-roll's most daring and influential advocate in an era when the music was still largely dominated by black performers and viewed with alarm by many adults, was finished. Clark, whose advocacy of white teen idols like Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Paul Anka helped cement the impression that he was interested in plying a somewhat tamer and less threatening product, was just getting started. In 1986 he made Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, and by the mid-90's his Dick Clark Productions boasted 500 employees.


While openly skeptical of Clark's protestations that his business holdings and friendships did not affect programming decisions, Jackson does not ignore Clark's charm and skill as a businessman. It is particularly revealing that Duane Eddy, a guitarist who appeared frequently on ''American Bandstand,'' did not initially realize that Clark had a piece of his management and that the two men remained lifelong friends -- with Clark naming his second son Duane -- even after Eddy concluded that Clark had sometimes shortchanged him. Similarly, while showing that Clark played it safe by moving more slowly to integrate the program's audience than he liked to claim, Jackson makes it clear that Clark did not discriminate against black performers and took a mildly progressive stance with his own touring concert show when it would have been easier to play along with the Jim Crow rules that prevailed on much of the American concert circuit.

Dick Clark Productions went well beyond those early days of "American Bandstand." His company did teen dance shows, prime-time programming, specials, games shows, made for TV movies, and even feature films. Towards the end of his life, his was known mostly for the annual "New Year's Rockin' Eve" show that he had to give up because of a debilitating stroke. From USA Today

The Mount Vernon, N.Y.-born Clark began his career in 1945 working as a teenager in the mailroom of WRUN-AM in Utica, N.Y., a station owned by his uncle and run by his father. He worked his way up to weatherman and newsman. At Mount Vernon's A.B. Davis High School in 1947, Clark was voted "Most Likely to Sell the Brooklyn Bridge." After getting his business administration degree from Syracuse University in 1951, clean-cut Clark used his stint in radio to move into a newscasting job at WKTV in Utica. But it was in 1952, when he went to work for WFIL radio and television in Philadelphia, that his career really began to take off. That summer WFIL decided to follow the new trend of having radio announcers play records over the air. Shortly after, the station decided to try the trend on TV.

More by Mark Lacter:
American-US Air settlement with DOJ includes small tweak at LAX
Socal housing market going nowhere fast
Amazon keeps pushing for faster L.A. delivery
Another rugged quarter for Tribune Co. papers
How does Stanford compete with the big boys?
Those awful infographics that promise to explain and only distort
Best to low-ball today's employment report
Further fallout from airport shootings
Crazy opening for Twitter*
Should Twitter be valued at $18 billion?
Recent Obituaries stories:
Wanda Coleman, poet was 67 *
Raul Ramirez, major Bay Area journalist was 67
Bill Eppridge, photographer of iconic RFK image was 75
Les Plesko, Venice novelist was 59
Ray Dolby, sound pioneer was 80 (video)

New at LA Observed
On the Media Page
Go to Media

On the Politics Page
Go to Politics
Arts and culture

Sign up for daily email from LA Observed

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
The multi-talented Mark Lacter
LA Observed on Twitter and Facebook