There comes a point when people become so successful in their chosen profession that they rise to the status of living legend. And then, there are those few who transcend even that, and become something even more influential, almost like a force of nature. And then, above that, stood Richard Wagstaff “Dick” Clark.
In an era of YouTube, nonstop news coverage, cable television and on-demand entertainment, it is difficult to remember a time when a single person could have as much of a transformative influence on media and popular culture as Clark did. His professional achievements are, quite literally, too long to list in this column, and even to focus on his more notable ones would take up enough space to tax the endurance of even the most dedicated reader. Put most simply, he was a legendary television and radio personality, hosting landmark shows that defined popular entertainment as much as they dominated them, ratings-wise.
Clark might best be known for his run as the host of American Bandstand, from 1956 to 1989. The show is credited with bringing rock ‘n roll into the mainstream, created the first reality TV stars, and created the first American youth culture. His tenure on Pyramid made that the second-most successful quiz show in American TV history, second only to Jeopardy! He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1990, and was behind myriad radio programs, among the “Rock, Roll & Remember,” an oldies show which began in 1982, continues to this day and remains America’s longest-running radio show. His television appearances were legion, but none quite so impactful as his annual hosting of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, ingraining Clark himself as an integral part of the American celebration of New Year’s Eve.
For years, he was seemingly everywhere, on national television every day of the week, on radio, and producing endless television projects, wielding a skill for pitching TV projects that few could resist. He was fabulously wealthy, thanks to his 70% ownership of Dick Clark Productions, which he sold off in stages. Other successful business ventures only added to his fortune, but the prolific nature of his work seemed to indicate that his concern for money was something he left behind him years before, and by his later years, it was all about doing what he was best at, and doing what he loved.
For much of his life, Clark was renowned for his youthful appearance, earning him the nickname of “America’s Oldest Teenager.” His looks helped him win over the teen market during his early American Bandstand days, while simultaneously looking adult and respectable enough to win over skeptical adults in the audience. Clark retained his youthful vigor for decades, spurring constant jokes about his refusal to age. By the time he was in his 70s, Clark looked like he was in his 50s. That all changed in 2004, when a severe stroke seemingly turned him into an old man overnight.
Clark was left with seriously slurred speech, and that year was one of only two in which he did not host his own New Year’s Eve show. (The other was in 2000, when he was pre-empted by news coverage covering the millennium. Clark was still allowed to ring in the New Year as a correspondent, for which he won a Peabody.)
By 2005, Clark was back to hosting his New Year’s Eve show, but it wasn’t the same. He had difficulty speaking, and it was painfully clear, for viewers to see a man whose mortality suddenly became all too plain to see. Clark died on April 18, 2012 of a heart attack following a medical procedure. He was 82.
Much could be said about Clark’s last few uncomfortable television appearances, but the fact remains that he did the show because he simply never considered retiring. The thought of cashing out and living the rest of his life in work-free comfort must have been as alien a concept to him as a world without rock music. Just consider that he earned 72 producer credits and made more than 100 television appearances from 1994 to 2012, accomplishing more after he had turned 65 than most people do in their lifetimes. His was a life that celebrated all things American except for the dream of living out one’s sunset years quietly. He did what he loved, loved what he did, and he changed the world while doing it. With a record like that, it’s no wonder why he never stopped the music.