Dick Clark: The Man Who Changed TV

Clark's influence endures today with such stars as Ryan Seacrest.

Without Dick Clark, there would be no Ryan Seacrest. Hell, without “America’s Oldest Teenager” there would be no “TRL,” and maybe no MTV.

Clark, who died at age 82 on Wednesday (April 18) after suffering a heart attack, never sang a note or released an album. He wasn’t the inventor of a dance craze or a label boss or even a particularly hip guy. What he was, though, was a visionary.

And as much as any hotshot who played a guitar, figured out how to mix two turntables and a microphone, wiggled his hips or invented the next big sound in music, Clark was instrumental in making pop music pop.

Photos: The life and career of Dick Clark

He brought rock and roll into America’s living rooms in the 1950s, just as the sound of young America was upsetting parents, confounding the staid radio programmers of the day and encouraging teenagers to shake, rattle and roll. Though he dressed like a martini-swilling ad executive and was adamant about keeping a strict tie-and-jacket dress code on his long-running signature show, “American Bandstand,” Clark lived by one simple credo when it came to judging music: “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”

Most importantly, when he took over “Bandstand” and went national in 1957, Clark put teenagers on TV at a time when the most popular shows were aimed at their parents’ generation, including “Gunsmoke,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Danny Thomas Show” and “General Electric Theater.” He let them see themselves on TV, which seems like no big deal to today’s YouTube-ified teens, but was a revelation for the first generation to grow up in front of the tube.

An MTV VP recalls his first job in television, working for the late Dick Clark.

With one of the longest runs in TV history (1957-1989), “Bandstand” became a crucial stop on any major artist’s promotional rounds. And with good reason: The show drew an audience of more than 20 million at its peak, half of whom were reportedly adults. Among the acts that lip-synced their hits on the program and got their first major exposure over the years: Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, Chuck Berry, the Doors, Pink Floyd, Prince, Kurtis Blow, Cher, Devo, LL Cool J, INXS, Bon Jovi, Run-DMC, Madonna and the Talking Heads.

Clark would chat the artists up and, even as the years went on and the styles changed from the buttoned-down 1950s to the freewheeling 1960s, disco-dancing 1970s and new-wave 1980s and the show’s influence waned, Clark’s enthusiasm for the hits of the day was unwavering. The times changed, but Clark appeared ageless, his full head of hair and boyish smile as much a staple of the show as the enthusiastic dancing of its real stars: the audience.

Though controversy would later rise over Clark’s claims that he integrated the show in 1957 (as well as a nearly career-derailing brush with the payola scandals of the 1950s), what is indisputable is that Clark offered a forum for both black and white artists at a time when there were few. The sight of black and white kids dancing together also inspired one of TV’s other enduring music programs, “Soul Train,” whose recently deceased leading light, Don Cornelius , was sometimes referred to as the “black Dick Clark.”

Ryan Seacrest, Snoop Dogg and more celebs mourn Dick Clark.

Clark didn’t just spin the hits, though. He created the template for the modern multitasking media mogul, a mantle picked up by his heir apparent, the unflappable Ryan Seacrest. He helped produce or executive-produce more than 7,500 hours of programming, from the Golden Globes, American Music Awards and Academy of Country Music Awards, to mind-numbing prime-time fluff like “TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes.” He often boasted that his was not the road less taken, but the cheesy, crowded freeway packed with bored couch potatoes just looking for a fun diversion, which he was happy to provide.

Clark taught television execs that teenagers had the power to push the cultural needle and that they were having a huge impact on music, movies, fashion and, yes, even politics. More importantly, “Bandstand” helped pave the way for the Top 40 radio format and helped move rock and roll into the movies and beyond.

Clark eventually moved into game shows, TV movies and children’s programming under his Dick Clark Productions banner. And if you want to know why Seacrest seems like he’s everywhere these days — from “American Idol” to “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” numerous awards shows and executive-producing multiple Kardashian shows and other TV — it’s because he studied at the knee of his icon and has patterned his multifaceted career on the man who laid the foundation. With holdings that included everything from themed restaurants to a theater in Branson, Missouri, it’s not a stretch to say that Clark’s influence reached into the modern realms of hip-hop and pop, where moguls from Diddy to Jay-Z, Justin Bieber and Rihanna have diversified by dipping their toes into the worlds of perfume, beverages, advertising agencies and cosmetics.

Nobody truly stays forever young, but Clark proved that you can stay forever young at heart.

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