How American Bandstand Changed American Culture: Revisit Scenes from the Iconic Music Show

In a Pon­ti­ac adver­tise­ment that aired just before the 1969 episode of Amer­i­can Band­stand above, the year’s mod­els are tout­ed as “break­away cars” — vehi­cles for escape with­out rebel­lion. The ad shows a hand­ful of get­aways, all end­ing at the deal­er­ship, presided over by a bland sales­man who smiles and nods his approval. It’s an appo­site choice for the pro­gram that fol­lows — a show which, for 37 years, gave Amer­i­can audi­ences safe teenage rebel­lion in the whole­some con­tain­er of Dick Clark’s fic­tion­al 50s record shop.

As the episode opens, the cam­era pans around the bod­ies of teenage dancers, as if they were this year’s newest mod­els, then lands on the smil­ing, square-jawed Clark, the seem­ing­ly age­less host who gave approval to the pro­ceed­ings for the folks back home. What was he sell­ing?

View­ers could con­sume the lat­est dance trends and pop hits in their liv­ing rooms, then jour­ney to the local record shop — just like the one on set! The show’s reach was huge, and most every artist who made an appear­ance crossed over into main­stream suc­cess.

Amer­i­can Band­stand began its life in 1952 on a local ABC affil­i­ate sta­tion in Philadel­phia. Then it was called Band­standand its hosts were radio per­son­al­i­ty Bob Horn and for­mer ad sales­man Lee Stew­art, whom, it was thought, “could bring some of his clients on board as adver­tis­ers,” as Steve Cohen writes at the Cul­tur­al Crit­ic. “Stew­art had no charis­ma and even­tu­al­ly was dropped from the pro­gram.” Horn con­tin­ued until 1956, when he was fired from the show after a drunk-dri­ving arrest. The show’s whole­some image belied sor­did begin­nings.

Clark joined at the young age of 26 to replace Horn, the hard-drink­ing, chain-smok­ing 40-year-old. Estab­lish­ing an easy rap­port with the show’s young dancers, who came from the local West Philadel­phia Neigh­bor­hood, Clark helped return Band­stand to respectabil­i­ty, then pushed for it to go nation­al, which it did in 1957, “beam­ing images of clean-cut, aver­age teenagers,” notes, “danc­ing to the not-so-clean-cut Jer­ry Lee Lewis’ ‘Whole Lot­ta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ to 67 ABC affil­i­ates across the nation.” (A gross­ly iron­ic musi­cal choice.)

Renamed Amer­i­can Band­stand, the new­ly nation­al pro­gram fea­tured a num­ber of new ele­ments that became part of its trade­mark, includ­ing the high school gym-like bleach­ers and the famous seg­ment in which teenage stu­dio guests rat­ed the newest records on a scale from 25 to 98 and offered such crit­i­cisms as “It’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.” But the heart of Amer­i­can Band­stand always remained the sound of the day’s most pop­u­lar music com­bined with the sight of the show’s unpol­ished teen “reg­u­lars” danc­ing and show­ing off the lat­est fash­ions in cloth­ing and hair­styles.

Four years after becom­ing the show’s host, Clark became a mil­lion­aire at age 30. Hauled before Con­gress in 1960 to answer pay­ola charges, he admit­ted to tak­ing a few bribes, promised to divest, and skat­ed away on charm while a busi­ness part­ner con­fessed and resigned. At the time, he described him­self as “hav­ing an inter­est in 33 busi­ness­es,” Becky Krys­tal writes at The Wash­ing­ton Post, “rang­ing from music pub­lish­ers to, as The New York Times report­ed, an oper­a­tion that made and sold a stuffed kit­ten for sale on Amer­i­can Band­stand called the Plat­ter-Puss.” His busi­ness mod­el was decades ahead of the indus­try.

“A man with an unerr­ing sense of what Amer­i­cans want­ed to hear and see,” Krys­tal writes (or a sense of who to ask), Clark “achieved his great­est renown for an abil­i­ty to con­nect with the taste of the post-World War II baby-boom gen­er­a­tion. By the show’s 30th anniver­sary, almost 600,000 teenagers and 10,000 per­form­ers had appeared on the pro­gram. Among those to make ear­ly nation­al appear­ances includ­ed Bud­dy Hol­ly, James Brown, Ike and Tina Turn­er, and Simon and Gar­funkel. Dance crazes such as the Twist and the Watusi could be traced to the ‘Band­stand’ stu­dio.”

Amer­i­can Band­stand did­n’t only dis­sem­i­nate pop cul­ture to the mass­es; it also has been cred­it­ed with help­ing to inte­grate Amer­i­can cul­ture with its inte­grat­ed for­mat. It’s a claim large­ly spread, his crit­ics allege, by Clark him­self. Amer­i­can Stud­ies pro­fes­sor Matthew Del­mont argues that, while the show sold an image of inte­gra­tion, allow­ing a few Black kids from the large­ly inte­grat­ed West Philly neigh­bor­hood to appear, it also employed dis­crim­i­na­to­ry tac­tics to exclude the major­i­ty of Black stu­dents who want­ed to dance.

Clark may have bowed to the pres­sure of the times, but he was a con­sum­mate sales­man who nev­er lost a chance to make a buck. As Del­mont says, he began tout­ing the show’s his­to­ry of inte­gra­tion when Amer­i­can Band­stand faced stiff com­pe­ti­tion in the 70s from upstart rival Soul Train,a show that taught a new, post-boomer, post-Civ­il Rights gen­er­a­tion of kids how to dance, and whose smooth-voiced cre­ator-host Don Cor­nelius made the square-jawed Clark look like a total square. See many more clips and edit­ed episodes of Amer­i­can Band­stand from 1963–1970, before Soul Train con­sid­er­ably upped the ante for dance shows every­where, on YouTube here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

John Lydon & Pub­lic Image Ltd. Sow Chaos on Amer­i­can Band­stand: The Show’s Best and Worst Moment (1980)

Talk­ing Heads’ First TV Appear­ance Was on Amer­i­can Band­stand, and It Was a Lit­tle Awk­ward (1979)

Dick Clark Intro­duces Jef­fer­son Air­plane & the Sounds of Psy­che­del­ic San Fran­cis­co to Amer­i­ca: Yes Par­ents, You Should Be Afraid (1967)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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