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Dick Clark: race, class, and the payola scandal of 1959

Dick Clark: 1929-2012 (source: Wikipedia)

American Bandstand‘s Dick Clark has died, and the season of online commemorations for him has more or less receded. As a television watching toddler in the early 1960s, I never glommed onto the program. I was just a little too young, and so its huge significance as the first TV rock-and-roll show went past me. The New York Times obituary acknowledges Clark’s place in the civil rights era, especially when a spin off called the “Dick Clark Show” premiered in Atlanta, Georgia:

“Both black and white teenagers were in the audience — ” the obit observes, “amounting to one of the first racially integrated rock concerts — and with National Guard troops present, it weathered threats from the Ku Klux Klan. The nighttime show lasted only until 1960.”

Ditto, notes the Museum of Broadcast Communications:

Once Clark took over the helm of Bandstand in 1956, he insisted on racially integrating the show, since much of the music was performed by black recording artists. When the show moved to the network schedule, it maintained its racially mixed image, thus providing American television broadcasting with its most visible ongoing image of ethnic diversity until the 1970s.

But re-reading Marc Fisher’s great account of Clark’s travails in the radio payola scandal of 1959, what stands out for me is the impresario’s survival of that ordeal by virtue of his carefully constructed image as a bastion of white middle class innocence. In

Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation, Fisher contends that outrage over radio hosts taking money to play records coincided with “public grousing about deejays leading America’s children astray.”

In the hot seat

Just before Congress cracked down on the practice, top 40 pioneer Todd Storz held a legendary deejay convention at the American Hotel in Miami Beach. 500 hosts attended the event, which Fisher describes: “Hired women were instructed to make themselves available to any deejay, with one proviso: at the height of the man’s arousal, the prostitutes were to extract a promise that the jock would play the latest record being pushed by a particular company.”

This wouldn’t do, declared the Federal Trade Commission and a House Committee on Legislative Oversight. To the Committee was brought one Norman Prescott, full of phony remorse for his payola laced career at Boston’s WBZ-AM. In fact, Prescott had been forced to testify by the FBI. His staged confession opened the flood gates of contrived contrition. And eventually the trail of palm grease led to Dick Clark.

But although the committee, “dearly wanted to put Clark . . . in the hot seat,” they just couldn’t get their mitts on him. They loudly observed that Clark played the Crests’ at first  obscure song “Sixteen Candles” two times over two months, then, as it moved up the charts, bought the rights to the tune. Now it appeared regularly on Bandstand and went to number two in sales across the country.

He and the original owner “split the profits on the song,” Fisher writes, “and it made Clark’s company nearly $10,000.” But none of this bruised “young America’s sweetheart,” the author observes:

Clark divested himself of his interests in record companies and swore to the committee that while he had accepted a color TV, a ring, and a fur stole for his wife, he had never taken money from promoters. Clark’s company, Click, took fees from record companies for artists’ appearances on Bandstand, and some on the committee called those fees “kickbacks,” but the money was passed along to the performers and the charge never gained traction. ABC successfully defused the committee’s wrath by admitting that Clark’s producer, Anthony Mammarella, had taken money from record companies. By forcing Mammarella to resign, ABC created a scapegoat and laid the groundwork for a defense of their star performer.

One last shot

And so nothing happened to Clark, as opposed to his coarser white counterpart, the raucous rock promoter Alan Freed. Freed took a suspended sentence on commercial bribery charges and was fired by ABC. Then the Internal Revenue Service confiscated his house. He “drifted to stations in Los Angeles and Miami but fell deeper into alcoholism and died in 1965,” Fisher writes, at the age of forty-three.

As for New York radio deejay and black civil rights activist Hal Jackson, Manhattan’s district attorney arrested him before a gaggle of photographers. Radio station WLIB fired him. Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell protested, but to no avail.

“With no job and no money, Jackson could only watch as his life fell apart,” Fisher explains. “It hardly matter that his face still stared down from billboards onto the West Side Highway.” Even after the government dropped its charges against him, Jackson made his living driving a cab and taking menial jobs, until the payola scandal subsided.

Fisher makes the case, at least for me, that as dubious as payola was, outrage over the practice had as much to do with public anxiety over rock as it did over bribery. Clark survived the ordeal by virtue of a carefully constructed image that eluded public worries about race, youth, sexuality, and class.

The payola war of 1959 represented “one last shot at stuffing the genie back into the bottle,” Fisher explains. That last salvo failed, but it helped to be a genie without a drinking problem, an Italian last name, or a radio job in Harlem.

Further reading

Marc Fisher, Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation (Random House, 2007).

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3 Responses to Dick Clark: race, class, and the payola scandal of 1959

  1. Zack Stiegler April 22, 2012 at 8:43 am #

    Barlow’s excellent history of black radio (Voice Over) complicates the racial angle a bit. According to his account, it wasn’t until 1960 that AB featured black artists and dancers. In fact, the first black artist to appear was Chubby Checker whose label (Cameo-Parkway) Clark had a stake in as well. Similar to the account of “Sixteen Candles,” Clark played “The Twist” week after week, helping it to soar on the charts, all the time receiving kickbacks from the label.

    At least in this example, it seems Clark pushed for integration on the program when it became convenient/beneficial for him. Of course, that’s the history of much black music in America.

  2. Paul Payton April 22, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    While I can’t comment on AB (didn’t watch it), I was glued to the TV set for Clark’s Saturday night shows, and they did have black artists on prior to 1960. Specifically, I remember The Danleers (“One Summer Night”) which I also remembe TV Guide listing as a singular artist, one Dan Leer! But yes, they WERE there; I saw them with my own near-sighted eyes.

  3. John T May 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    Do you realize how ridiculous this all seems by today’s standards? Today, all of these things are owned by giant integrated multinational conglomerates, who do little more than use their multidimensional propaganda machines to increase their overall bottom line. They may no longer have to pay, but who needs to? They own it all. Today’s entertainment environment is the most corrupt it has ever been.

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