Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dick Clark and Pittsburgh

The recently departed Dick Clark was arguably America's best known rock 'n' roll DJ in the sixties, with "American Bandstand" being the can't miss music show of the era. Its features - "The Spotlight Dance," "Rate-A-Record" ("I give it an eight, Dick. Good dance beat...") and "Top 10 Countdown" - were copied by local dance shows around the country.

The Philly guy didn't just push East Coast acts and music, though. He had his finger in Pittsburgh's musical pie, too.

He had a lot in common with Pittsburgh's radio jocks of that era. Clark appreciated and promoted both "race" and rock music before it was cool, pushed local players whenever he could, and loved putting together huge cards for his concert acts

He wrote in his 1976 "Rock, Roll & Remember" autobiography that while a WFIL DJ, he came to the City in 1954 for a short incognito visit to listen and learn from WCAE jock Jay Michael. Clark heard him playing the R&B records of the time, ignored by many stations of that era but de rigueur here, and adapted the sound to his show. Clark, like the Pittsburgh spinners, would be among the pioneers who broke the color barrier in music, according to Pat DiCesare in Scott Mervis' recent Post Gazette article.

He also helped spark Pittsburgh's popular "Shower of Stars" concerts, as DiCesare related to KDKA's Larry Richert. He didn't do as a promoter, but a competitor. Imitation being the most sincere form of flattery, Pittsburgh impresario Tim Tormey put together his local version of Dick Clark's "Caravan of Stars." He even beat out the World's Oldest Teenager for the rights to a Gene Pitney barnstormer.

Clark was so impressed that soon thereafter he hired Tormey as his East Coast rep for Clark Productions, then based in LA.

And speaking of Caravans, Clark did have a couple of local acts tour with his show, which ran until the late sixties. The initial tour in 1959 snapped up The Skyliners, who headlined his first 66-stop Caravan of Stars and reigned as local heroes in the September concert at the Syria Mosque. Other area acts to perform on Clark's Caravan were Chuck Jackson and Lou Christie.

His long-running TV show did a little better job of representing the region. Tony Butala (with the Lettermen), Lou Christie, Perry Como, Jill Corey, The Del Vikings, Diamond Reo, Billy Eckstine, The Four Coins, Tommy Hunt (with The Flamingos), The Jaggerz, adopted son Tommy James, Henry Mancini, The Marcels, The Skyliners, The Tempos, Bobby Vinton, The Vogues, Adam Wade and Wild Cherry appeared on ABC during the program's decades-long run.

Doesn't sound like a lot for 33 seasons of TV, but there were a couple of good reasons for that. First, Clark took very good care of his Philly folk in the early years. Then he moved his operations to Los Angeles in 1964, putting quite a bit of distance between himself and the Pittsburgh Sound. And finally, the City scene went dry during the British Invasion, sticking to its jazz fusion, bluesy vocal roots while the charts went electric and Motown.

All in all, Clark showed a lot more love to Pittsburgh than our current Philadelphia contemporaries, the Flyers, have.


Anonymous said...

I was a partner with Dick Clark for fifteen years in the United Stations/Unistar radio networks. Dick was a rare combination of talent and businessman, perhaps the best. He did more to bring rock and roll into the mainstream than anyone; his personality and approach made it acceptable. The best comparison I've heard is like introducing someone to Mexican food; start them off with the mild stuff first and they'll soon gravitate toward the spicy.

Ron Ieraci said...

Anon - thanks; that's about the best synopsis of Dick Clark that I've seen.