Rockin’ Facts About Dick Clark, America’s Oldest Teenager

March 17, 2023 | Stef Waring

Rockin’ Facts About Dick Clark, America’s Oldest Teenager

Fresh-faced and charming, Dick Clark was a fixture of American TV from the late 1950s until his 2012 passing. As host of American Bandstand, he introduced rock’n’roll to a whole generation of impressionable teenagers and helped launch the careers of many famous musicians. But behind his boyish grin was a man involved in the shadier side of the music business—including the 1960 Payola scandal.

Dick Clark Facts

1. He Chose His Career At A Young Age

Most of us dabble in a few things before deciding on our career, but Clark knew what he wanted when he saw it. Born in 1929 as Richard Wagstaff Clark, Dick Clark grew up an average student in Mount Vernon, New York—until he encountered radio and immediately knew what he wanted to do with his life. In 1945, he began working at WRUN in Utica, NY.

However, while it was an exciting beginning, it came at an incredibly tragic time.

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2. His Brother Passed In The Battle Of The Bulge

A death in the family is always a tragedy and for Clark, more than most. Right around the time he started working in radio, Clark got the news of his brother Brandon's’s passing unexpectedly: In the form of condolences from his apartment building superintendent. Devastated doesn’t even begin to describe Clark’s reaction to the passing of the older brother he adored and looked up to.

Fortunately, Clark could throw himself into his newfound passion.

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3. He Was A Nepo Baby

Most people have to start at the bottom and work their way up, but Clark got a boost. Clark began his entertainment career in the mailroom, but he quickly took over for the weatherman, then became the official announcer during station breaks. Of course, his uncle owned the station and his father managed it, so he might have had a slight advantage there.

Either way, he already had some experience in radio when he attended Syracuse University to minor in radio and major in advertising.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

4. His Career Began To Climb

A little luck gave Clark his first break. By 1952, Clark had settled in Pennsylvania, started officially calling himself Dick Clark, and worked for the radio station WFIL. WFIL’s sister TV station hosted a program called Bob Horn’s Bandstand. Sound familiar?

Clark hosted the radio version of Bandstand on WFIL, filling in for Horn when Horn was on vacation. But Horn had his own issues and when the station dismissed him, Clark was ready and able to step up. It wouldn't be long before Dick Clark was a household name.

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5. He Was A Hit With The Teenage Audience

Teenagers know everything—or at least think they do—and they loved Dick Clark. But more importantly, Clark was also a hit with their parents, who were afraid that this newfangled rock and roll music would lead their kids down dark paths. But Dick Clark was good-looking and charming, and he had such a fatherly relationship with the live teenage dancers, so surely the music he was promoting couldn’t be that bad.

In the beginning, Bandstand had a simple format: Clark played records while teenagers recruited from across Philadelphia danced to the music. Audiences at home happily tuned in to watch their peers groove. But Clark wanted more, and he was determined to get it.

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6. He Convinced ABC To Distribute The Program Nationally

In Hollywood, trendsetters can make or break the career of a new artist, and Clark was a major trendsetter. In August 1956, the new version of Bandstand, renamed American Bandstand, debuted to a national audience. And it was a massive hit, launching Clark into stardom and cementing his position as a man who could create superstars. We might not have some of the excellent musicians we know today if not for Dick Clark—especially those artists of color.

But though Clark positioned himself as a champion of civil rights, there were those who disagreed.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

7. He Championed Desegregation—Or Did He?

This was the 1950s. America was still a segregated country where white meant right. Clark always maintained that he was a pioneer in the civil rights movement, promoting both Black and white musical acts, as well as bringing Black teenagers in to dance with the white teenagers. But it seems he was hiding the truth. According to a 2012 book by Scripps College professor Matthew Delmont, American Bandstand never really seemed to have Black teens on the show.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

8. He Went Where The Money Was

Was Dick Clark prejudiced? Probably not. He was just a businessman, living in an era where Black people on television—especially anywhere near white teenagers—was simply unthinkable. Many cities and homeowners were still pushing back against Black people moving into their neighborhoods, let alone featuring on a popular television show.

There wasn’t an official policy—but somehow the studio was always full when Black teens wanted to come in.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

9. Musical Acts Were An Exception

Rock and roll boomed in the late 50s and early 60s, and Black artists were at the forefront. Teenagers all over America loved this new genre. Clark featured upcoming artists of color like Chuck Berry and The Miracles. As the civil rights movement ramped up into the 60s, artists of color continued to become more prominent.

Keith RichardsWikipedia

10. He Had Early Competition

In the entertainment industry, competition for the audience’s attention is fierce. American Bandstand wasn’t the only variety show airing during the afternoon time slot. In Baltimore, MD, local radio DJ Buddy Deane had his own show, The Buddy Deane Show. So began a heated rivalry between Deane and Clark that affected many of the musical artists of the day.

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11. He Banned Deane’s Performers

Show business is full of big personalities, big egos, and petty rivalries. When WJZ-TV, which owned The Buddy Deane Show, refused to air American Bandstand, Clark took it as a personal affront—and he wanted revenge. Acting in retaliation, Clark banned any performers that debuted on The Buddy Deane Show—but not performers that were on American Bandstand first. Mentioning Deane to Clark only invited Clark’s wrath, and performers quickly learned to keep their mouths shut.

But their rivalry didn’t last long.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

12. He Reigned Supreme By 1964

The fight for civil rights heated up through the 60s, but the insistence on segregation affected even the entertainment world. Despite the competition between Deane and Clark, American Bandstand eventually won out—when The Buddy Deane Show was canceled due to its parent station’s official refusal to integrate Black and white dancers. The path was clear for Dick Clark to take American Bandstand even further.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

13. He Moved The Show

Keeping up with the changes in music was Clark’s bread and butter—the thing that kept him relevant. In 1964, Clark moved American Bandstand from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, taking advantage of the rise of surf rock. These groups—including The Beach Boys—were mostly based out of California, for obvious reasons. During this time period, Dick Clark was on top of the world, especially with the switch from just playing records to having live performers.

Even criticism couldn’t stop him.

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14. He Turned Himself Into A Media Mogul

American Bandstand wasn’t the only variety show of its time, but with Clark at its helm, it was the only one that wasn’t anti-rock music. Plenty of criticism came Clark’s way from religious types, politicians, and even non-rock artists like Frank Sinatra—but that didn’t stop Clark. And many of the musical acts that debuted on his show have now been entered into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The popularity of American Bandstand allowed Clark to create a media empire, including other variety shows, an awards show, and even a diner. He was also the CEO of Dick Clark Productions. Most of what he touched turned to gold—but he had a few misfires.

Lana Turner factsPicryl

15. He Briefly Dabbled In Soul Music

Taking advantage of civil unrest isn’t a good look. In 1973, Clark created a variety show focused on soul music: Soul Unlimited, hosted by Buster Jones. A more controversial version of Don Cornelius’s Soul Train, the show was decidedly not a hit with its African-American target audience—allegedly because, well, Dick Clark was a white man. He also feuded with Don Cornelius and Jesse Jackson over the creation of the show.

Soul Unlimited limped through a few episodes before it was unceremoniously canceled—but it wasn’t Clark’s only brush with scandal.

Aretha Franklin FactsGetty Images

16. He Had To Defend Himself Against Payola Accusations

Soul Unlimited wasn’t Clark’s only source of controversy—or even the biggest. That honor goes to the infamous payola scandal of 1960. For those who aren’t familiar, payola is a highly illegal practice where a commercial radio station accepts money to play certain artists or records…without disclosing the payment. The tax man really doesn’t like it when you don’t declare income.

Clark made an awful lot of money during the time period under investigation, and it led the government to come sniffing.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

17. He Believed In His Heart That He Didn’t Take Payola

Payola was such a big deal that it destroyed careers, no matter how popular the individual charged. For his part, Clark testified to a skeptical House panel on April 29, 1960. He acknowledged his outside interests related to the music industry but claimed that he had never "agreed to play a record or have an artist perform in return for a payment in cash or any other consideration". But radio and television tend to be "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" industries, so formal agreement wasn’t actually necessary.

And Dick Clark knew it.

Haunted HouseUnsplash

18. He Received Gifts

Appearances might be deceiving, but the gifts Clark received were certainly suspicious. An unnamed record manufacturer gave Clark and his first wife a ring, a fur wrap, and a necklace—valued at roughly $4,400. Clark also accepted a 25% share in royalties from a song called “Butterfly”, written and recorded by Bernie Lowe, a friend of his. This resulted in another $7,000.

And that didn’t even include the companies he had an interest in.

Linda Darnell FactsGetty Images

19. He Made Quick Money

Record companies should simply be in the business of promoting music, but not all of them are squeaky clean. Most under scrutiny during Clark’s testimony? Philadelphia-based Jamie Records. Clark invested $125 in the company—and two years later, had made a profit of $31,700. But is making a quick profit incontrovertible proof of payola? Clark testified that it wasn’t—and he’d dropped his interest in Jamie Records and 32 other endeavors as soon as the payola inquiries began.

But the House had more dirt on him than that.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

20. He Might Have Played Certain Records More

Clark did concede in his testimony that he might have subconsciously played records from companies he had an interest in. This followed some scandalous figures from the House subcommittee that showed Clark played those certain records twice as often as music from companies he didn’t have an interest in.

But Clark maintained his innocence and claimed that he didn’t play established artists because, frankly, his teenage audience didn’t care about them. He walked a razor’s edge, but he managed to come away unscathed.

JFK Assassination factsWikipedia

21. He Escaped With His Job—And His Reputation

Some names—like (in)famous DJ Alan Freed—are synonymous with payola, to the point that they never had a career in radio again. Clark wasn’t one of them; his name was cleared. Selling off his personal shares in any related companies probably helped with that, as did Clark’s clean-cut appearance and wholesome reputation. He was able to continue creating shows and expanding his empire, but behind the scenes, he was dealing with a mess in his personal life.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

22. His First Marriage Collapsed

When you’re always chasing the next big thing, you can easily forget about the ones you leave at home…and Clark was no exception. He married his childhood sweetheart, Barbara Mallery, in 1952, shortly before his popularity exploded. They had a son together—also named Richard—but Barbara was essentially a single mother with Clark so often on the road.

It's little surprise their marriage fell apart—but Clark didn't wait long before diving right back in.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

23. She Was His Secretary

Countless novels and movies have scandalized audiences with tales of the boss who fell in love with his secretary. For Clark, it really happened: a year after his divorce from Barbara, he married former secretary Loretta Martin. This union produced two more children—Duane and Cindy—but it wasn’t the happily-ever-after Clark hoped for. Their marriage lasted under a decade before Loretta realized Clark was more interested in the money he was making than his second family.

Clark’s second divorce wasn’t the end of his love life, however.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

24. His Third Time's The Charm

When you’re a busy entertainer, it’s hard to meet women—at least ones who aren’t just interested in money and fame. Enter Kari Wigton, Clark’s third and final wife. They met through Dick Clark Productions in 1968, but despite moving in together in 1970, they didn’t actually tie the knot until seven years later.

Clark learned what not to do from his previous marriages, but Kari’s laidback personality and even temper certainly helped. Where he was a mercurial entertainer, she was a calm voice of reason. Their partnership worked: they were married for 35 years before Clark passed.

If it wasn’t for Kari, maybe Clark wouldn’t have been such a long-running superstar.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

25. His First Show Was A Dud

American Bandstand was just one side of Clark’s meteoric rise to fame. Modern audiences know him best for his TV shows, but he maintained a presence on radio until his unfortunate stroke in 2004. Not all of these shows did well, however.

In 1963, Clark started a radio program called, naturally, The Dick Clark Radio Show. Look, the guy was a charismatic presenter and host, not a Shakespearean-level writer. But though TV audiences adored Clark, radio audiences responded with a collective "meh." Unable to get more than a handful of stations interested, Clark gave up the show within a year. Not all was lost, though, and his dogged determination helped him strike paydirt.

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26. He Found Simple Titles Were Best

When you find a winning format, you stick with it. Clark dabbled in countdown shows for the rest of his career, but his longest-running radio show began in 1982. It was called Dick Clark’s Rock, Roll, and Remember, also the title of his 1976 autobiography. Each episode featured rock’n’roll oldies, which at the time was music from the 50s and 60s.

From there, Clark went from hit to hit.

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27. He Created The Top Ten Format

Everyone knows the top ten format; it’s used for everything from music to TV shows to electronics. From 1958 to 1960, Clark hosted The Dick Clark Show every Saturday night. Again: creative names were not his strong point. During the shows, musical guests lip-synced to their records, but the real excitement came at the end of the half-hour, when Clark revealed the top ten records of each previous week.

So if you’ve ever watched, listened to, or read some sort of Top Ten list…thank (or blame) Dick Clark. But for all his successes, his scandals continued to plague him.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

28. He Remained Sensitive About The Payola Scandal

Payola haunts DJs and other radio personalities even today. Though Clark escaped the payola hearings with his reputation intact, he never really forgot the danger to his career and reputation. In an interview with a Rolling Stone reporter in 1973, he described the hearing in some colorful language that he soon came to regret.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

29. He Was A Little Inconvenienced

After testifying before the House, Clark told the reporter, he was approached by the subcommittee chairman, Oren Harris. Harris called Clark a "bright young man" and stated that he hoped Clark hadn’t been inconvenienced.

As Clark put it: “Inconvenienced? Heck, they took my right testicle and almost my left”!

And that wasn’t the only thing he said in that interview that he regretted later.

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30. He Really Spoke His Mind

The magazine behind that 1973 interview didn’t look kindly on Dick Clark. Both Rolling Stone and the reporter judged Clark for needing to be involved in just about anything entertainment-related. And when asked exactly why this was, Clark responded in a way that didn’t match his wholesome air: He stated that the problem was the reporter was a liberal and Clark was an entertainment hustler.

Try saying that on American Bandstand.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

31. He Was Haunted By His Comments

Ever put something out there on the internet that later came back to bite you? While Clark never officially complained, he did note to that same reporter—years later—that the ready access to information on the internet meant that comment never really went away. This article even proves it: the internet never forgets.

The internet also hasn’t forgotten he was once a spokesman for a company with some shady business practices.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

32. He Was The Face Of American Family Publishers

The letters claimed anyone could be a winner—and many elderly Americans thought they were. American Family Publishers sold magazine subscriptions and ran sweepstakes similar to Publishers Clearing House. In fact, they were direct competitors. But AFP played fast and loose with their marketing, resulting in lawsuits for misleading customers—and Clark was named in at least one suit, State of Florida et al. v. American Family Publishers et al. 

As their spokesperson, Clark was definitely in danger of losing his trustworthy reputation.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

33. He Was Quietly Let Go

Being connected to AFP and its predatory practices might have spelled the end for Dick Clark, but fortunately, AFP obeyed court orders to change their tactics. Then they declared bankruptcy anyway and fired everyone, including Clark. Clark remained mostly untarnished, but his star was beginning to dim.

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34. His Popular New Year’s Eve Countdown Still Runs Today

A live countdown to the second the old year changes to the new year is a staple of TV—and Clark was at the forefront of the modern format. Clark created Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 1971, taking advantage of his teenage audience to create a show that was younger and more hip than the big band stylings of his competitor, Guy Lombardo. And it worked.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

35. He Felt Guy Lombardo Was Outdated

Before the rise of TV, radio was the big thing and entertainers knew how to use it. Guy Lombardo began his New Year’s special as a big band remote on radio in 1928, moving to television in 1956. He also popularized the use of “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight. You may not recognize the title, but trust me: you’ve heard the song. But Clark felt that Lombardo’s style was outdated. He decided the format needed a shakeup.

George Sand factsPixabay

36. The First Few Specials Were A Little Uneven

Even professionals have to take baby steps with new endeavors, and the first few New Year’s specials were still finding their groove. Dick Clark didn’t even assume the host role until 1975. But it was the musical guests who were the real draw anyway, featuring the biggest bands of the day—which helped catapult New Year’s Rockin’ Eve to its continuing status as the most-watched New Year’s Eve special in America.

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37. Guy Lombardo’s Passing Helped Its Popularity

When Lombardo passed, his big band special lost most of its audience—and Clark’s special was there to give viewers something else to watch. By its sixth year, New Year’s Rockin’ Eve dominated the airwaves. It was so popular, in fact, that in 1990, ABC shifted the start of Monday Night Football an hour earlier just so New Year’s Rockin’ Eve could start on time. Only an entertainment juggernaut like Dick Clark could affect football games and get away with it.

Best Football Players FactsWikimedia Commons

38. He Had A Stroke In 2004

Medical issues are an unfortunate fact of age and Clark’s luck ran out in December of 2004, when he had a minor stroke. He was unable to resume hosting duties for the New Year’s special that year, which was instead hosted by Regis Philbin. As a result of the stroke, Clark lost one aspect of what had made him so famous in the first place: his cool, calm announcer’s voice. For the remainder of his life, his speech was slow and he had trouble articulating himself—quite a handicap for a man who had made his mark with radio and television.

Regis Philbin FactsShutterstock

39. He Came Back In 2005

Not everyone was happy about his return as host in 2005. Tom Shales of the Washington Post didn’t think that Clark was up to hosting—but Clark’s loyal fans supported his return, as did many stroke survivors who cheered his determination. It wasn’t easy for Clark; along with the speech impediment, he had to teach himself to walk again. So Dick Clark Productions brought in a co-host: Ryan Seacrest.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

40. He Took A Step Back

With Seacrest as co-host, Clark was able to step back and focus on announcing the countdown. But the lingering health issues from the stroke continued to cost him: He miscounted in the 2010 New Year’s countdown. It wasn’t the only controversy around the 2010 edition.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

41. They (Allegedly) Dropped A Controversial Performer

The rise of the internet means companies are warier about what they say, for fear of it coming back to bite them. So we don’t really know whether or not Adam Lambert was booked to perform that year—and whether he was quietly dropped after his controversial “For Your Entertainment” performance at the American Music Awards that November. Dick Clark Productions never actually commented on Lambert’s booking or lack thereof, but it definitely wouldn’t have been a good look if they’d still had him on the special.

Though he didn’t know it then, Clark’s remaining time was limited.

Worst Concerts Ever factsFlickr, Tatianka1986

42. His Last Countdown

If you have to go out, then at least go out on a high note. Clark’s last special before his passing was not only the 40th anniversary of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, but it garnered the highest ratings of the past twelve years. A two-hour retrospective aired before the official special, featuring the biggest and best of featured performers. Not a bad way to sign off after a 67-year career.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

43. He Passed From A Heart Attack

Dick Clark passed on April 18th, 2012, at the age of 82. His estate scattered his ashes over the Pacific Ocean. A legend in the entertainment industry had left the airwaves permanently—but his legacy lived on.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

44. The Eulogies Poured In

As Terry Pratchett said, a man can never truly die while his name is still spoken. Many people spoke of Clark after his passing, and still do today. Singers like Diana Ross praised him, and even President Barack Obama took a moment to speak about Clark’s impact as a producer and changemaker.

Diana Ross FactsGetty Images

45. His Shows Continue

While the fate of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve was temporarily up in the air, Dick Clark Productions soon confirmed that the special would be returning, with Seacrest continuing as the main host. While never quite hitting the heights it did while Clark was hosting, it’s still a staple of American TV—and it still carries Dick Clark’s name.

Paula Abdul FactsFlickr, Chief National Guard Bureau

46. She Had An Affair

Dick Clark's first marriage couldn't withstand the pressure of his rising fame. Although Clark and his wife had discussed prioritizing his career, given the demands of regularly hosting television and radio programs, it was easier said than done. Missing date nights, dinners, and even family holidays took its toll on his marriage. Suspicious, Clark hired a private investigator and discovered Barbara was having an affair, leading to their divorce.

Dick Clark FactsGetty Images

47. The Show Had Its Share Of Mishaps

Live shows are always a gamble, especially with an audience—and especially when that audience is in a festive mood. Clark had a few issues with being able to hear his director when the crowd was so loud, and on one memorable occasion, had to perform while there was a group of unclothed people in the background. But it was the 2016 special with Mariah Carey that really caused a problem.

Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest 2018.Getty Images

48. It Was A Bit Of A Disaster

The video of Mariah Carey’s performance at New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 2016 went viral for all the wrong reasons. Carey had multiple technical issues and was clearly disgruntled—plus, despite noticeably lip-syncing, she didn’t actually finish a full track. Her manager claimed that the show set Carey up to fail—but Dick Clark Productions wasn’t going to take the accusation lying down.

Mariah Carey FactsGetty Images

49. She Couldn’t Hear

Technical issues happen, but Carey already had a bit of a reputation as a diva. Carey stated that her performance issues were due to her mic pack not working, meaning that she couldn’t hear…well, anything. Between the crowd, the ambient noise, and all the chaos of a large live performance, Carey was unable to hear her backing track and didn’t know where she was in the song.

She blamed the show’s production team, claiming that they ignored her when she told them about her technical issues.

Mariah Carey factsGetty Images

50. They Claimed She Didn’t Rehearse

Dick Clark Productions was outraged at the claim that their production team was at fault, and responded with an accusation that Carey hadn’t bothered to rehearse before the live performance. Yikes. Of course, Carey and her manager denied this—and fortunately, the spat ended there, with Carey returning to the show for a much better performance in 2018. Sadly, Clark himself had already passed by this time.

Mariah Carey factsGetty Images

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17

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