By Jerry Waxman
Dance programs on radio were nothing new in 1957. They had been around in one form or another since the dance marathons of the Depression years. Swing bands used to do remote national hookups into living rooms across the country and the kids used to dance at their house parties until all hours. This was best illustrated in the movie The Benny Goodman Story where the band is mobbed in California by hordes of teenagers. They had no way of knowing at that time that there was an audience in the west. Frank Sinatra’s time with the Dorsey orchestra was well spent gathering him a multitude of fans that went crazy over him in public. His 1942 dates at the Paramount are legend with bobbysoxers screaming, swooning and dancing in the aisles during the show. Radio dance programs were standard stuff by the late 30’s.
In Philadelphia radio station WPEN had two hosts, Joe Grady and Ed Hurst who used to broadcast from the downtown studio on Walnut Street. There was a dance floor in the studio and they used to invite teen agers from local schools to come and dance during their program. The year was 1946 and they were successful for many years. Of course, the music they played was in transition from swing, through Bebop, into R&B and finally Rock and Roll. It was a slow transition because the popular bands were Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnett, The Dorseys, Goodman, Kay Kyser and Sammy Kaye. The big vocalists were Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole Dinah Shore and two newcomers named Doris Day and Tony Bennett. Things were changing, however and groups like Louis Jordan, Three Cats and a Fiddle and Louis Prima were starting to make names for themselves, with music that wasn’t quite what the public was used to. Still, the kids loved it and loved to dance to it. The big breakthrough came in 1951 when Guitarist Les Paul and his wife, Mary Ford turned the music world upside down with their multi-track overdubbed recording of How High the Moon, a ten year old jazz staple that blew everybody away, and everyone young and old loved it. Les Paul became the high priest of the solid body electric guitar and even in death he still holds the title. The first revolution in pop music was over-the stage was set for the second one.
Grady and Hurst moved to television in 1952 but they didn’t get onto any of the network stations in the area. They were operating out of an independent in Wilmington Delaware, while at the same time WFIL TV, the ABC affiliate was experimenting with some live afternoon programming. Producer Tony Mammarella brought in Bob Horn to host a music program of mainly what today would be music videos. Horn didn’t like the idea and asked Mammarella if he could copy what Grady and Hurst were doing on radio. Mammarella agreed and history was born. Horn hosted the show for four years, and it was an important four years because Bandstand helped WFIL get on its feet and brought in nice revenues. Horn, however was not destined to last. He was involved with a prostitution ring and was brought up on morals charges over those four years. The final straw was when he was arrested for drunk driving. Mammarella hosted the show for a while until he could find a suitable replacement.
During the years between 1950 through 1956 the industry was again changing. Ray Charles was setting the South on fire along with Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Country artist Patsy Cline was making her mark. In New York the music factories in the Brill Building were starting to crank out hit after hit. Disc Jockey Alan Freed coined the term “Rock and Roll” and started staging singing groups in a series of concerts, playing black music for white kids. Disc Jockeys in major cities on independent stations started playing the records and drew avid audiences. Bill Doggett’s Honky Tonk blew the charts away. The tune was so long that they had to split it into two sides. Part two was the one that got air time. In Philadelphia we had local DJ’s Georgie Woods, Hy Litt, Jocko Henderson and Joe Niagara playing the new music and we had jobbed in the “Hound Dog Man” out of Buffalo, N.Y. Local impresario Bob Marcucci was training Frankie Avalon and Fabian for future stardom. Philly also produced James Darren and Bobby Rydell along with great groups like Danny and the Juniors, the Dovells and in my opinion, one of the two best DooWop groups of all time, Lee Andrews and the Hearts. School officials, politicians, angry parents, the church and civic groups all railed against the new music saying that it would be the downfall of society as we know it (we’ve heard these words before), it was the devil’s music and using racial and ethnic epithets that are too horrible to mention here.
“Then Fate's a thing without a head. A puzzle never understood, and man proceeds where he is led, unguaranteed of bad or good.”
Enter Dick Clark. It wasn’t as though Mammarella had to go through a nationwide search or anything. Dick Clark was already at WFIL. Clark was a seasoned radio host from upstate New York who had joined WFIL in 1952. He was young (27), boyishly handsome, soft spoken and charming. Just the sort of young man that Jim and Margaret Anderson would want Betty to date. He was the host on an afternoon pop music show that had not yet embraced R&R, although he was the first mainstream jockey on a commercial station to play Ray Charles (Hallelujah I Just Love Her So). The other network stations hadn’t come around yet. If Benny Goodman made big band swing jazz acceptable, then Dick Clark is the man who civilized Rock and Roll. He was the face of the new generation and we were all part of it. Clark had previously guest hosted American Bandstand on those occasions when Horn was unavailable, so he fit right in. The moment that Clark took over viewership increased exponentially and more kids from more schools were going to the studios every day. After a few months Clark was instrumental in convincing ABC to take the program national, and history was made.
Bandstand went national in August, 1957. We entered 10th grade in September, 1957, and Sputnik was launched in October, 1957. These events are not unconnected. Public education was blamed for the failure of our schools to produce better students. It wasn’t true then just as the conservative attacks on public education is not true now. Many critics pointed to the leisure activities of teenagers as a part of the problem. Dick Clark helped smooth away those contentions, although in doing so he also lowered the artistic bar a few points. Rock and Roll was going to be around for a long time and even some of our parents started singing the novelty stuff like Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, Beep and Please, Mr. Custer. When Philadelphian Chubby Checker covered Hank Ballard’s The Twist the adults and the kids went wild. Ballard’s music at the time was considered to be too raw for air play. Looking back on those years the social revolutions of the mid 50’s, Brown v Board of Ed, school desegregation, HUAC witch hunts, all gave rise to the revolution in teen age style, voice, attitudes and music that set the stage for the protest movement of the 60’s. The seeds and maturity of that revolution came into our living rooms every weekday with Dick Clark at the helm.
Clark took it all in stride. He was savvy enough to capitalize on the success of Bandstand yet he never gave the appearance of being egotistical; he always came across as a gentleman and he was genuinely concerned about the people he was with. I outgrew Bandstand after 1960, but I never outgrew Dick Clark. He is a role model for all of us.