by Len Lear
This week is the fourth anniversary of the death of Dick Clark on April 18, 2012, at the age of 82. When I noticed at item about this anniversary in a music publication, I could not help but recall the three times I danced on “American Bandstand” in 1957 and, even more so, the two times I blew Dick Clark’s mind with my comments on “Record Review.”
I was a senior at Central High School in 1957, and I don’t want to sound elitist, but most of the kids at our all-boys, all-academic school probably looked down their noses at the kids on “American Bandstand.” Maybe we were really jealous because, let’s face it, some of these kids might not have been too bright, even monosyllabic, but they were celebrities whose faces and names were known by teenagers all over the country. Some even had fan clubs and received bags of letters on a regular basis. (Some of today’s teenagers might not believe it, but back in the prehistoric 1950s some people actually wrote letters by hand — with a ballpoint pen!)
I remember thinking to myself, “Those kids think they’re so cool, but I’ll bet anything they don’t know the first thing about geometry or the French Revolution. What will they be able to do in the real world where dancing just doesn’t cut it?” (Many of the Philly rowhouse “stars” did in fact crash and burn after “American Bandstand” moved to the west coast in 1962 because they really were not prepared to do anything with their lives except dance on TV. And there’s not much call for that unless you’re a movie, TV, sports or musical has-been on “Dancing with the Stars.”)
In any event, one day I was kidding around with a friend from Central, Rick Kurz, who lived on Lynnebrook Lane in Chestnut Hill (I lived near Broad and Olney), when I said, “Why don’t we go there and see if we can get on ‘Bandstand?’” (The show took place at the WFIL-TV studio at 46th and Market Streets.)
Rick was tall, about 6-foot-3, and very handsome but quite shy, and he balked at my suggestion. “Look, man,” I replied, “you are a great-looking guy, so the girls will flock around you, and then I’ll take over with my personality. And with all due modesty, I am a hell of a jitterbugger.”
Some of our fellow classmates kept ribbing Rick until he finally agreed (reluctantly) to go with me to “American Bandstand,” so one day we got on the Broad Street Subway after school and then the Market Street El and finally arrived at the end of a long line of wannabes at 46th and Market. “There is no way we will get in there,” I thought, but eventually we did get in and found ourselves actually sitting in the stands as Dick Clark came out and explained that we all had to behave ourselves because we would be seen by millions of people.
It took me about 30 minutes to get up the steel to ask a girl to dance, and I tried my best to act cool and not look into the camera as if millions of people were not watching me. I don’t think I said one word to the girl, who was wearing a Catholic school outfit and was definitely a good jitterbugger, except “Thank you.”
Then we got to see Paul Anka sing his hit song, “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” which I did not like much in 1957 and still don’t. Anka, who was really short and was just a teenager himself, exchanged a few innocuous comments with Dick Clark, and the girls went crazy.
A little while later, Clark announced that he wanted volunteers for “Record Review,” a regular feature in which three kids from the stands would listen to new records and then evaluate them. I waved my arms as if I were one of those guys who guide airplanes down the runway, and by some bizarre happenstance, I was actually picked to be on Record Review.
Well, after listening to this record that sounded like a cat fight, the other two kids uttered the usual cliches: “It got a good beat. You could dance to it. I’ll give it a 98.” Then came my turn. “Well, Dick, the lyrics are trite and redundant. The melody, if you can call it that, is not at all rhythmic or harmonious and is lacking in even a scintilla of originality. What’s the lowest mark I can give it, Dick?”
Clark stared at me as if I had two heads, hesitated and slowly answered in an uncharacteristically low voice that “you can score from 65 to 100,” so I said, “OK, Dick, I’ll give it a 65.” The other two “reviewers” as well as most other kids in the room looked as if they were surrounded by a pile of month-old fish, and for the rest of the show I was basically a leper. I think that even my friend, Rick, tried to pretend he did not know me.
However, in the months to come, Rick and I went back twice and got on the air both times. And believe it or not, I got on “Record Review” one more time. (I obviously have missed my calling in life since then.) This time wasn’t quite so shocking. The song we “reviewed” was again mediocre, and I think I gave it a 74, but my scathing comments this time did not elicit such a hostile reaction, despite the fact that I expressed them in English.
I wondered at the time what Dick Clark, obviously a smart guy, really felt about the “got a good beat; you could dance to it” mantra he had to listen to day after day and the silly comments he was forced to make every day to millions of people about the “teen culture.” (By the way, I loved the music of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Clyde McPhatter, the Flamingos, the Drifters, the Clovers, etc., and I had a huge collection of 45-RPM rock ‘n’ roll records from the ’50s, which my mother threw away, of course, when I was away at college “because they were nothing but dust-collectors.”)
Anyway, although he looked like he wanted to, Dick Clark never did call the police and tell them to take me away in handcuffs, and for that I am eternally grateful.