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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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The Rise and Decline of American Bandstand’s Influence on Popular Music

When Clark and American Bandstand came to national television, they benefited from and contributed to the restructuring of key media industries. In the early 1950s, the record and radio industries started to decentralize, and a number of small record labels and local radio stations emerged.[i] When Clark took over Bandstand in 1956, hit records were made on a city by city (or market by market) basis. Major record companies and large independent labels in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles had local promotion men whose job was to get their records played on local radio in smaller markets. Cincinnati’s independent King Records, for example, had a network of thirty-three branch offices across the country.[ii] Record companies would track which records were “breaking” (getting airplay and selling well) in different cities, and these popular records would then be pushed across the country. Record companies considered Philadelphia a “break-out” market that could influence national distribution, but records that were hits on smaller independent labels in cities like Cleveland or Minneapolis could also shape Philadelphia’s playlist.

When ABC started broadcasting American Bandstand nationally in 1957, the show reshaped this city by city method of song promotion. Whereas recording artists and record promoters formerly needed to make numerous appearances at local radio stations and concerts across the county to increase record sales, daily airplay on American Bandstand or a single guest appearance could instantly help move a record up the charts.[iii] The power of American Bandstand as a distribution channel and promotional vehicle of new music was not lost on record companies. Eager to get their artists booked on the show, record distributors often reimbursed the program for the appearance fee paid to the artist. Describing this kickback system in a 1988 interview, Clark recounted, “Artists would come on the show, and the record company would allegedly pay them for their performance [to satisfy union requirements]. We’d pay for maybe half the people who came on, and when our money ran out, we’d say ‘We’ll book them and you’ll pay them.’ It wasn’t illegal, nor was it immoral.”[iv] While these reimbursements fell on the right side of the law, record companies also frequently gave disc jockeys money, gifts, or song-writing credits in exchange for playing certain records. These business practices, called “payola,” were an outgrowth of song-plugging, a music business tradition that dated to Tin Pan Alley publishing companies in the early twentieth century. While not new, payola emerged as a major scandal in 1959 when the congressional investigation into rigged television quiz shows turned its attention to the music business.[v]

The rise in popularity of teen music, such as rock and roll and R&B, fueled the payola scandal. The politicians involved in the investigation hoped to impress their constituents during an election year by uncovering corruption in the music business. Encouraging these politicians to investigate teen music was the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), which was in a struggle against rival song/performance-licensing agent Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). To strengthen its case, the ASCAP songwriters hired Vance Packard, media critic and author of Hidden Persuaders, who argued that “the rock and roll, hillbilly, and Latin American movements were largely engineered, manipulated for the interests of BMI, and…that the public was manipulated into liking rock and roll.”[vi] The unpredictability of the market for rock and roll and R&B records was also a theme in contemporary press coverage of the new teen music. “The rock ‘n’ roll business is crazy,” Life reported just before the payola scandal. “Anyone—anyone—can record and press 5,000 records for $1,200. So there now are more than 1,500 little pop records companies who press almost any song or sound that comes along and hope the lightening will strike.” This article went on to quote a record executive who lamented: “Anyone who thinks he can pick what the kids’ll want next, his orientation is in Cloudsville.”[vii] One of the payola subcommittee’s tasks, then, was to clarify how the record industry worked. These politicians, however, struggled to distinguish among the various financial investments and incentives that connected record companies, deejays, and playlists.

Clark was the only disc jockey with a national audience, and the subcommittee was especially interested in his business endeavors. The hearings revealed that Clark had an interest in thirty-three music-related companies and that he owned copyrights to 160 songs, 143 of which he received as gifts. Music industry witnesses called by the subcommittee testified to giving Clark copyrights to songs or paying him consulting fees to receive more spins on American Bandstand. Defending himself from these allegations, Clark told the subcommittee, “I have never taken payola…I followed normal business practices under the ground rules that then existed.”[viii] Here and throughout the hearings, Clark adopted a narrow definition of payola as an explicit agreement to play a particular record in return for a specified payment. Robert Lishman, chief counsel for the house subcommittee, argued that this definition was “phrased in such careful legal draftsmanship as to let him do the substance of the wrong and avoid the consequence.”[ix] To convince the subcommittee that American Bandstand did not artificially manipulate the popularity of records, Clark paid Computech, a New York data processing firm, to conduct a study of the number of times American Bandstand played each record. The firm then compared the “popularity scores” for the Clark-affiliated records to those that were not linked. Not surprisingly, the report concluded that Clark did not favor records in which he had an interest. In his 1976 autobiography, Clark recalled Computech as a successful diversion. “I spent $6,000 creating the biggest red herring I could find,” he recalled, “something that would shift the Subcommittee’s attention away from my scalp.”[x] This misdirection prevented the subcommittee from noting, as historian John Jackson has calculated, that over half of the records produced by Clark-affiliated companies were played on American Bandstand, including many that never appeared on Billboard’s top 100. While the subcommittee focused on American Bandstand’s ability to make any record into a hit, it failed to see that records in which Clark had a financial interest received an inordinately high percentage of spins relative to competitors.[xi]

In addition to probing the connection between Clark’s financial interests and Bandstand’s playlist, the subcommittee expressed its animus to teenage music generally, asking Clark why he did not play more songs by “Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and other established stars, instead of building up unknown names.” Clark replied that Sinatra and the older generation of singers did not appeal to his teenage audience. [xii] In pointing to his teenage audience as a defense of his choice of records, Clark reiterated an argument he used earlier to dismiss critics of the show. “Unlike the legitimate theater, television doesn’t live or die by the critics,” he told the Saturday Evening Post in the first year of the payola investigations. “I’m not putting on my show for them. My only aim is to please the people at home who watch.”[xiii] Similarly, in March 1960, a month before he testified to the subcommittee, Clark told an interviewer: “I don’t set trends. I just find out what they are and exploit them…Like any businessman, the desires of my customers must come first.”[xiv] Presenting himself in the subcommittee hearings and popular press as the unbiased servant of the teen consumer market, Clark distanced himself from the charges of influence and reified the existence of the teen market as an entity to be served.

Despite the evidence presented in the hearings, Clark successfully deflected the subcommittee’s charges. Clark had to divest himself of his numerous financial interests in music publishing and record manufacturing firms, but the subcommittee only reprimanded him. Clark’s clean image and cool demeanor helped him weather the payola scandal, but more important, ABC president Leonard Goldenson and Walter Annenberg, both of whom had an investment in American Bandstand’s continued success, stood behind Clark during the hearings and helped rebuild his image afterward. When the payola scandal started to develop, ABC asked the network’s music-related employees to sign an affidavit stating that they had not received payola in any form and that they did not possess interests in any record companies. When American Bandstand producer Tony Mammarella received the affidavit, he admitted receiving monetary payments from several record companies and, opting to maintain these financial interests, resigned. Alan Freed, whose radio show broadcast on WABC in New York, refused to sign the affidavit for risk of perjuring himself by saying he had never taken payola. In contrast, ABC allowed Clark to draft and sign his own affidavit with a more narrow definition of payola than the affidavit circulated company-wide. As part of this negotiation with ABC, Clark agreed to divest himself of his numerous financial interests in music publishing and record manufacturing firms. ABC supported Clark’s statement of innocence and played up Mammarella’s payola confession. The network issued press releases before and after the hearings reiterating their support of Clark, and in his testimony, Goldenson defended his network’s star. TV Guide, which like Bandstand’s Philadelphia home WFIL was part of Walter Annenberg’s Triangle Publications, ran a story after the hearings titled “Guilty Only of Success,” which reported the outpouring of support for Clark from American Bandstand fans.

The payola investigations derailed the careers of several major disc jockeys, including Freed and Tommy Smalls, Jack Walker, and Hal Jackson in New York; “Jumpin” George Oxford in Oakland; Tom Clay in Detroit; and Joe Smith in Boston. These deejays, both black and white, lacked the high-profile support that Clark enjoyed. American Bandstand made Clark the only national deejay, and while this celebrity made Clark a target for the payola subcommittee, it also gave him more clout with ABC than other deejays had with their local stations.[xv]

While the payola investigation threatened Clark’s career, the scandal actually strengthened American Bandstand’s position in the pop music business in the early 1960s. After the payola scandal, disc jockeys held less power in selecting their own playlists, and in their place station program directors reduced the range of songs stations played. The tightening of playlists was abetted by the shift in radio ownership from individual local stations to chain owners who held station licenses in multiple markets. Entering the 1960s, these chain owners adopted a Top 40 radio strategy that called for stations to limit their programming to forty mainstream market pop singles, and to play the top ten songs in the heaviest rotation. While this Top 40 concept proved financially successful for the chain owners, it centralized and homogenized radio by catering to listeners’ current tastes and limiting the willingness of stations to play unknown music.[xvi]

American Bandstand contributed to, and thrived in, this atmosphere of sameness. The program featured a number of singers, signed to local record labels, who sounded very much alike. Bobby Rydell and Charlie Gracie on Cameo-Parkway, Fabian and Frankie Avalon on Chancellor, and Freddie Cannon on Swan all appeared regularly on American Bandstand and had hit records in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition to these Philadelphia label stars, Paul Anka (ABC-Paramount), Bobby Darin (Atlantic), and Johnny Tillotson (Cadence) also scored hit records with tame rock and roll songs in a crooning style.[xvii]

Like Clark, these white “teen idols” presented a sanitized version of rock and roll designed to sell records while avoiding the connections to race and sex that fueled opposition to rock and roll. Clark also had financial interests in many of these artists. Before he divested his formal recording interests during the payola hearings in early 1960, Clark had an interest in Swan, and was reported to have interests in Cameo and Chancellor. After divesting, Clark maintained close connections with the directors of these Philadelphia labels and negotiated exclusive performances of their artists on American Bandstand.[xviii]

Reflecting on the commercial dominance of the these artists, music historians Steve Chapple and Reebee Garofalo have called the period from 1958 to 1963 “the lull in rock,” in which “Philadelphia Schlock” filled the vacuum left by “hardline rock ‘n’ rollers” like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry.”[xix] Similarly, R&B historian and critic Peter Guralnick described this era as the “treacle period” in which “rock ‘n’ roll died.”[xx] While the promotional power of American Bandstand and the show’s primary audience of teenage girls certainly helped these teen idols sell lots of records, the program also offered a wider variety of music than was available on Top 40 radio. From 1958 through 1963, American Bandstand hosted R&B vocal groups like the Coasters, the Revels, the Drifters, and the Impressions; early girl groups like the Shirelles; rockabilly and country-influenced artists like Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, and Patsy Cline; and Motown artists such as Mary Wells and Smoky Robinson and the Miracles; as well as R&B and soul pioneers like James Brown and the Famous Flames, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin.[xxi] If American Bandstand helped push Philadelphia Schlock up the charts in this era, it also exposed viewers to a wider range of music than did Top 40 radio. Still, like Top 40 radio, American Bandstand showcased and marketed new records and neglected veteran R&B musicians who helped create rock and roll like, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, LaVern Baker, and Bo Diddley. The payola scandal contributed to this homogenization of popular music, and the predominance of teen idols on American Bandstand marked rock and roll and the youth consumer culture surrounding it as white.

American Bandstand lost much of its power as a new music venue in August 1963, when ABC moved the show from weekdays to Saturday afternoons. As the network affiliates began to tire of the format, the show lost its hold on the local markets that were central to its daily success. Clark later recalled that affiliated stations “got greedy and took the time back to put their own material on where they got 100 percent of the revenue…As two or three stations grab it off, you get less clearance, therefore you get less ratings, and it’s an endless cycle. You eventually get cancelled.”[xxii] Most often, stations turned to syndicated reruns of network sit-coms, westerns, or adventure series.[xxiii] In Philadelphia, for example, WFIL filled the weekday afternoon slot with Major Adams-Trailmaster and syndicated reruns of Wagon Train. Responding to ABC’s reduction of American Bandstand’s airtime, Clark increased his focus on other television opportunities. In late 1963, Clark’s desire to expand his television career led him to California to host a game show called, The Object Is. Although the show was short-lived, the move precipitated American Bandstand’s move from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. In February 1964, American Bandstand made its debut in Los Angeles, where it would broadcast weekly until 1989.[xxiv] Even after the show went off the air, Dick Clark worked to maintain American Bandstand’s commercial visibility through televised anniversary specials, books and music box sets, and the NBC drama American Dreams (2002-2005). American Bandstand’s successful seven-year run as a daily program in Philadelphia and its remarkable longevity made it part of the cultural memory of millions of viewers.

Much of this memory rests on the belief that American Bandstand united a generation of viewers across lines of race, class, and region. While Dick Clark insists that he integrated American Bandstand in 1957, this project offers new archival documents, newspaper articles, and oral histories that demonstrate that American Bandstand continued to discriminate against black teenagers until the show left Philadelphia for Hollywood in 1964. To understand the tension between Clark’s memories and the historical record, the next section examines how contemporary concerns may have influenced Clark’s memories of American Bandstand in different eras. When Soul Train started winning viewers away from American Bandstand in the 1970s, for example, Clark emphasized American Bandstand’s role as a champion of black performers. Clark’s memory of integrating the show also responded to music historians and critics who, writing in the wake of the civil rights movement, raised awareness of the frequent exploitation of black music artists by white producers. Writing in the 1990s and 2000s, Clark presented American Bandstand as part of the popular national history of the 1950s. Framed in this way, the supposed integration of American Bandstand becomes part of the national civil rights narrative. This approach evades the specific local history surrounding American Bandstand’s years in Philadelphia, as well as the anti-black racism, in Philadelphia and nationally, that motivated the show’s discrimination. American Bandstand is part of the civil rights story, but not in the way Clark suggests. Black teenagers contested American Bandstand’s segregation on several occasions, inspired by both the everyday discrimination they faced in Philadelphia and by national civil rights events like the Little Rock school integration crisis. Although they were not able to change the show’s policies, the efforts of these black teens make clear that American Bandstand’s studio remained a site of struggle over segregation through the early-1960s. Yet, these stories of the black teenagers who made American Bandstand a civil rights issue are erased in Clark’s popular histories of American Bandstand.

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