The History of "American Bandstand"

Dick Clark

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

After premiering on October 7, 1952 on Philadelphia public television station WFIL-TV, "American Bandstand" (originally "Bandstand") went on to become one of the most influential television movements of the 1950s through the 1980s. Even if you already know that ABC's American Bandstand was the MTV before MTV (or even the YouTube before YouTube), the extent of its influence, when taken all at once, is still phenomenal. Featuring doo-wop, teen idols, psychedelic rock, disco, and even hip-hop, Dick Clark and his show were there for all of it. But it took some luck and some guts to get it on the air in the first place.

A Rocky Start

In early October 1952, a dance show hosted by Bob Horn premiered on Philadelphia's WFIL-TV, taking from the popular "ballroom" live radio show format and pointing a camera at it. Originally titled "Bandstand," the first episode on October 7 featured New York transplant and former announcer Dick Clark playing records as the first-ever video DJ.

The show aired weekly, receiving limited popularity in Philadelphia. Four years later on July 9, 1956, Horn was arrested for driving under the influence just as his station was in the middle of an ongoing exposé on drunk driving. Clark was immediately asked to assume full-time hosting duties.

Over the course of the following year, Clark pitched the program to WFIL-TV's parent company ABC as a cheap and easy way to appeal to the youth demographic, which third-ranking ABC desperately wanted to target. He convinced them to use his show to fill their coveted afternoon slot and a national sensation was born.

National Premiere

On August 5, 1957, ABC aired the first national broadcast of "American Bandstand," still filmed live in Philadelphia, from 3:30 to 4:00 p.m. (EST). It became an immediate ratings smash and two days later Paul Anka became the first performer to make his national debut during a television appearance singing his new song "Diana."

By October 7, 1957, the show's popularity was already so high that ABC decided to add an additional half-hour and move "American Bandstand" to Monday night prime time. Clark tried to insist that his main audience—"housewives and teenagers"—were busy doing other things at that time of the night, but the producers ignored him. The show flopped resoundingly and the show was moved back to its early daytime slot.

Throughout the rest of the 1950s, "American Bandstand" featured a number of famous acts including the debut of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel (November 22, 1957), Jerry Lee Lewis (March 18, 1958), and Dion and the Belmonts (August 7, 1958). Famously, Buddy Holly made his last television appearance on the program, miming "It's So Easy" and "Heartbeat" on August 7, 1958, just months before the tragic plane crash that ended his life. By February 1958, daily viewership had already reached 8,400,000, making "American Bandstand" ABC's top-rated television program. By the end of the 1950s, it became the most popular daytime show on any network.

Dance Crazes of the Sixties

Even in the late Fifties, Clark and his show were inspiring teenagers and housewives to dance, but it wasn't until August 6, 1960 that the show scored its first "dance craze." When scheduled guest Hank Ballard and the Midnighters failed to show up to perform their hit R&B song "The Twist," Clark convinced friend Chubby Checker to go into the studio quickly and cut a soundalike version in half an hour. Demonstrating the dance on the show, Checker was rewarded with an instant hit, setting off a dance craze that would last the better part of two years.

Throughout those first years of the Sixties, a number of famous acts made their debuts on the program. In 1960 alone Ike and Tina Turner, Gary "U.S." Bonds, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles performed for the first time on television. In 1961, Gladys Knight and the Pips made their debut on the program, bringing with them a movement of doo-wop to the United States. The show continued to be a hit, occasionally premiering a new genre or soon-to-be legends like Aretha Franklin (August 1962) and a 12-year-old Stevie Wonder (July 1963).

On September 7, 1963, "American Bandstand" ceased its daily program and became a weekly Saturday show. By February of the following year, Clark moved the show from Philadelphia to ABC Studios in Los Angeles. Over the next seven years, the show maintained its popularity, debuting many international and domestic artists like Sonny and Cher in June 1965 and Neil Diamond in June 1966 who would later go on to further fame. It even brought movements to the U.S. like featuring pop-soul vocal group The 5th Dimension in June 1966 and British legends The Doors in July 1967. Two months later, "American Bandstand" broadcast in color for the first time, ushering in a new era of television that would continue into the Seventies.

The Seventies and Eighties

Over the course of the following decades, "American Bandstand" continued to use its success to propel newcomers and old staples to great commercial success. On February 21, 1970, The Jackson 5 performed "I Want You Back", debuted "ABC" on the show, and Micheal Jackson was interviewed on TV for the first time. A year later, Michael Jackson performed solo for the first time, singing "Rockin' Robin" on "Bandstand." On their "20th anniversary" in 1973, the show aired a special featuring Little Richard, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Three Dog Night, Johnny Mathis, Annette Funicello, and Cheech and Chong—mixing the old hits they helped create with new acts that were yet to see fame.

American Bandstand's 25th Anniversary Special aired on February 4, 1977, featuring Chuck Berry, Seals and Crofts, Gregg Allman, Junior Walker, Johnny Rivers, the Pointer Sisters, Charlie Daniels, Doc Severinsen, Les McCann, Donald Byrd, Chuck Mangione, most of Booker T. and the MGs, and his first now-famous "all-star" rock jam where all of the night's musical stars got together to jam on Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven."

With the late 1970s came the end of disco, featuring a special disco show co-hosted by Donna Summer to celebrate the release of her new film "Thank God It's Friday." In 1979, Clark developed a series of moves for the audience perform to the Village People's premiere of their hit "YMCA," birthing yet another dance craze (which annoyingly persists in elementary schools across the U.S. even today).

Prince (1980), The Talking Heads (1979), Public Image Ltd. (1980), Janet Jackson (1982), and Wham! (1983) all made their debuts on "American Bandstand," but the most famous interview came when Madonna made her television debut on January 14, 1984, wherein she was famously quoted for telling Clark that her ambition is "to rule the world."

Legacy and Impact

American Bandstand featured a sampling of almost every genre in American music pop culture, bringing national attention to racial integration, dance crazes, and new hit sensations. The original American Bandstand studio located at 4548 Market Street in Philadelphia, PA was entered into the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and in 1982 Dick Clark donated the original podium to the Smithsonian Institute, where it still resides.

The show came to a tragic end shortly after Clark refused ABC's request to trim the show back from its hour-long format, forcing him to move the program to the USA Network, handing the reins over to newcomer David Hirsch. The last broadcast aired just six months later on October 7, 1989, ending a 32-year run.