Philly Fifties: Rock 'n Radio

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

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I remember "Bandstand" before it was "American..." It started in 1952, when Walter Annenberg, whose Triangle Publications owned the WFIL radio and television stations, suggested an afternoon TV dance party. The hosting job went to a dour fellow named Bob Horn, who had been running the "Bandstand" show on WFIL radio. On Oct. 7, after a two-week summer tryout, "Bob Horn's Bandstand" had its TV premiere. Originating from the station's West Philadelphia studio, it featured kids from the three local high schools. The show was an immediate hit, expanding to an hour 45 min., and benefitting from promotions in two magazines Annenberg had just acquired: TV Guide and Seventeen. Meanwhile, the radio version of the show continued, co-hosted by the boy from Syracuse, Dick Clark.

Horn was no glad-hander; he reminded me of two other saturnine gents of the day, Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn. And the first day of the TV show, he had reason to look glum: no dancers appeared for the first 15 minutes (school has just let out). Then two girls showed up. By Day 3 a thousand teens were trying to get in. Two years later, the show was a smash; it introduced dance crazes like the Bunny Hop, and Horn had received an award from TV Guide. The dancers were taking the spotlight, and Horn showed that, after all, he had a rapport with the kids.

Too much, it turned out. A 13-year-old girl who had been on the show claimed that Horn had had sex with her; in 1956 he was indicted on four statutory rape charges and four charging corruption of the morals of a minor. The day of his indictment he drove the wrong way down a one-way street and hit a car; one of its passengers, a little girl, was seriously injured. He had been arrested for drunken driving before and here was again found to have been intoxicated. Horn was fired from "Bandstand," moved to Houston, got a radio job under the name Bob Adams and soon lost it. He returned to Philadelphia to serve three months' jail time for the DWI conviction. In 1966 he died of a heart attack. He was just 50. (This strange tale and others are related at the History of Rock 'n' Roll website.) In the lore of Philly kids — not a sentimental lot — Horn was memorialized with a joke. What's Bob Horn's license plate? RU-13.

Clark walked into, and deftly out of, his own scandal, when in 1959 the House Oversight Committee investigated payola, the record industry's system of bribing disc jockeys and program managers in return for airplay. It ended the career of Alan Freed, the man credited with applying the black sexual term rock-and-roll to jump music. (By the way, that's a lie; the phrase goes back much earlier than Freed. In the 1941 film "Swing for Your Supper" young Dorothy Dandridge sings of her musical education: "They made me rock 'n roll ... brought me up on good ol' rhythmatic.") Freed had been his own worst witness, confronting the committee, contradicting himself under oath. Clark — who had become a millionaire by investing in 33 music-related businesses and by being "given" the royalty rights to 143 songs, many of which he promoted on "Bandstand" — was much smoother.

In his testimony, Clark paraded the same agreeable cool that had pacified so many South Philly punks. He admitted that he had made some nice returns on his investments: a $125 stake in Jamie Records earned him a profit of $11,900. He acknowledged that he owned a startling 27% investment in records he had played on "Bandstand." He didn't say any of this was kosher; he just said it wasn't against the law. As he noted later in "Rock, Roll & Remember," his autobiography: "A record company could give a disc jockey $100,000, a list of records with how often to play each one, and it wasn't illegal." He informed the committee that he had divested himself of all outside interests. More important, he was courteous and efficient throughout. At the end, Chairman Orrin Harris called him "A fine young man." (Well, he looked clean.) And Clark went back to work, spinning discs. All the way to the bank.

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