I know exactly where I was one year ago today. Well, exact might be too exact a word, since I was somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, on board the Celebrity Reflection as a guest lecturer. It was Wednesday, April 18, and at 10 a.m. ship time, I gave my second lecture of the cruise, on American Bandstand. The lecture was based on a book I had written a decade earlier with Dick Clark about the iconic series he hosted from the 1950s to the end of the 1980s.
After that morning session, I chatted with some of the passengers who had attended my lecture. Then it was time for lunch, and after that, I walked around the ship talking with more passengers. Finally, I returned to my cabin.
I turned on the TV -- we were able to watch a few cable channels as we crossed the Atlantic -- tuned in to MSNBC and about a minute later, I heard Martin Bashir say, “We have breaking news from Hollywood. Dick Clark has died.”
It was a surreal moment, both stunning and sad. I was thousands of miles away from my home in Los Angeles, but I knew what impact Dick’s passing would have on the people I worked with at Dick Clark Productions, the many alumni of that company, the hundreds of recording artists who had worked with Dick over the decades, as well as his personal friends, and family. And of course, millions of Americans who never met Dick but felt like they knew him.
For the next few hours I remained in my cabin, glued to the news as memories flooded back. Two years into my first job out of college, I met Dick. I was a publicist at NBC in Burbank and was assigned to the second broadcast of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, since that annual special aired on the Peacock network for its first two years on the air. Five years would pass before I would really get to know the man, as the publicist on Dick Clark’s Live Wednesday, a weekly variety series that ran for 13 episodes in the fall of 1978.
I thought that was the end of my working relationship with Dick, but I was wrong. After 12 years at NBC, I moved to London for a year. Returning to America, I committed to a writing career and found myself working in the radio department at DCP, writing a weekly radio countdown hosted by Dick. From there it was a move into television writing starting with ABC-TV’s three-hour live coverage of Live Aid.
A year later, I walked into Dick’s office in Burbank with a copy of my first book, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, and said I thought it would make a great television special. It tells you a lot about Dick that as a neophyte writer and a fairly new employee at his company, I was welcome to drop in spontaneously and have a serious discussion about turning my book into a show. Dick’s reaction? He asked how fast I wanted it to happen and I said, “Fast.” He picked up the phone and called the President of the company and told him to make a deal with me. The special was called America Picks the Number One Hits and it aired on ABC.
A lot of people walked through the doors of DCP in Burbank and moved on to other work in the industry. I kept writing for the company, eventually working on the American Music Awards and New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. In 1996, Dick asked me to write the American Bandstand book with him. We spent the summer doing interviews and I was able to ask him all the questions I had wanted answers to for years.
Through that process, I came to understand Dick’s role in rock and roll more clearly than ever. It’s hard to understand today how despised this new music was in certain quarters, and the forces that were out to kill the “devil’s music.” Without Dick Clark, we might have all grown up listening to Mantovani instead of the Beatles (with no disrespect to Mantovani; It just would have been a different world). He defended rock 'n' roll to Congress and his “squeaky-clean” image made rock more acceptable to parents who were afraid their offspring would become juvenile delinquents.
There were other things you learned if you worked at Dick Clark Productions. One was to always respect the talent. I think it was because Dick was on-air talent himself that he imparted that credo to all of us. But there was so much more, because Dick just had an inherent sense of right and wrong when it came to broadcasting. He knew what worked and what didn’t work. He knew if I wrote something good and when my words needed to be rewritten.
I once wrote that Dick was a “regular guy” and was questioned by a editor how that could be. But that’s what he was. Broadcasting was his job but he didn’t consider that his work made him better than anyone else. Larry Klein, a producer and one of Dick’s closest friends, would go somewhere to eat with Dick and if there was a line, the restaurant owner would invite Dick to skip the line. But Dick would refuse, waiting his turn like everyone else.
The day after my lecture on American Bandstand, I was scheduled to speak on another topic. There was no time to alert the passengers but I made a last-minute decision to postpone the scheduled speech. Instead, I spent the hour paying tribute to Dick Clark and answering audience questions.
I didn’t know that ringing in 2012 would be the last time I would work with Dick on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve or that when he and his wife Kari and their assistant Amy took me out for my birthday in January 2012, that would be the last time I would see him.
One year after his passing, I have attended his memorial in Malibu and a gathering of company employees from different decades at a park in Malibu. I was part of the team that paid tribute to Dick as we welcomed 2013 on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Along with his family and friends, I have grieved his loss and I still think of him all the time and miss him. I’m grateful for his friendship and love and for everything I learned from him over the years. Growing up as a viewer of American Bandstand and a fan of rock and roll, I never imagined that he would touch my life in such a personal way. Dick, for everything, I thank you.
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