Philly Fifties: Rock 'n Radio

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Dick Clark is surrounded by fans on his nationally televised dance show

They "seemed to inhabit another world," writes Ben Fong-Torres of the old Top 40 disc jockeys in "The Hits Just Keep on Coming," his history of rock radio. "They gave away cash and prizes on the air, and they presided over sock hops and 'Bandstand'-style shows on local television. They were like Dick Clark. Only they lived in your town."

Well, I'm from Philadelphia. I grew up in the '50s. We had some of the happenin'est DJs anywhere. And Dick Clark lived in my town.

You want to know if I was ON "American Bandstand"? No. I can't dance, don't ask me. I came from Northwest Philly, not South or West. And I've never been Italian. But I do remember seeing some of the kids from "Bandstand" occasionally on the elevated train near the show's West 46 Street studio. In real life they looked small, sallow, extravagantly Vaselined, with poofter pompadours and funny shoes. The rest of the country had Elvis lookalikes; we had Frankie Avalon clones. Of course, the kids had to be dolled up — they were in show business! And they acquired something like the young luster of Annette Funicello on another ABC afternoon attraction, "The Mickey Mouse Club." (Annette would have an apt, attractive fit with the Philly paisans.) The featured dancers on "Bandstand" received more mail than most Hollywood stars: 45,000 letters a week. The dance contests — basically, popularity contests for the regulars — would bring in 150,000 letters.

My taste in Philadelphia icons ran more to Grace Kelly. To many kids across the country, Kenny Rossi and Arlene Sullivan, Justine Carelli and Bob Clayton, Kathleen "Bunny" Gibson and Ed Kelly, Carmen MonteCarlo and Charlie Zamil were America's sweethearts, their lives followed as avidly as soap opera characters'. Another regular, Pat Molittieri, had advice columns in magazines like Seventeen. Frani Giordano was my wife's favorite when she was a lonely teen in upstate New York, weaving fantasies of adolescent romance into the dance patterns of people her age 300 miles away. Lou DeSera, Carmen Jimenez, Carole Scaldeferri, Rosemarie "Little Roe" DiCristo — do they sound like characters on "The Sopranos"? They were just ordinary kids, with extraordinary luck of being in Philadelphia at the moment the old town lit the fuse for the rock explosion.

And presiding like the nicest homeroom teacher was Dick Clark, just 26 when he took over the show. Calming, genial, sweet-faced and way cleverer than he appeared, Clark was the Ike of teens — a canny conduit to spread the social and sonic threat of rock 'n roll from kids' bedrooms into the nation's living rooms. Jerry Lee Lewis might come on, pound away at "Great Balls of Fire" and flip his head forward, letting his hair spill over his face like a thick blond veil. (I can still recall a delicious roiling in my stomach when I saw this.) But because Clark was running things, Jerry Lee's performance seemed less like outrage than an extension of entertainment.

He was, in the fullest sense of the word, a mediator — between the kids watching his show and the adults walking past, seeing this nonthreatening face and figuring everything was OK. He was prematurely middle-aged; it made sense that his show's title and theme song (Charles Alexandrine's "Bandstand Boogie," as played by Les Elgart) evoked an earlier, less dangerous musical era. He didn't talk with eccentric urgency, like so many of the radio DJs of the time — his only coinages were "IFIC" (from "Flavor-ific," to describe Beechnut Gum, sponsor of a Saturday night show he hosted for a few years) and "gesachtstehagen" (then, and now, undecipherable to me). You could say that Clark was to rock 'n roll what Pat Boone was to Little Richard: the nice white man who made the rough stuff palatable.

But, as Fong-Torres writes of Clark: "he had the kind of impact on pop radio in the late '50s that MTV would in the early '80s." Clark gave hundreds of rock stars their national TV debut. He played rock, ballads and gimmick tunes, like Tommy Facenda's "High School U.S.A.," which had at least 28 different regional versions, each with a few dozen school names. Clark made records and, by not playing them, broke them. To get him to play their songs, singers made new versions of their 45s: George Hamilton IV turned "A Rose and a Baby Ruth" (covered, much later, by Marilyn Manson!) to "A Rose and a Candy Bar" so as not to annoy the show's candy sponsors. John Zacherle's horror-novelty song "Dinner With Drac" was toned down for Clark; a record was then issued with the hard and soft versions. Chuck Berry didn't need prompting to insert, in his "Sweet Little Sixteen," the lines "Well, they'll be rockin' on ‘Bandstand,' Philadelphia, P.A."

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