American Bandstand

In his hit song “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958) (, Chuck Berry gave a shout out to a rock & roll dance show originating out of Philadelphia, Pa – “Cause they’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand in Philadelphia Pa.” This was an indication of the fact that nothing reflected Fifties teen age culture more than American Bandstand. “Bandstand,” as it was originally known, was produced out of Philadelphia starting in 1952. Its original host was Bob Horn. It was an afternoon after-school dance show where teenagers from local high schools danced to pop music in front of TV cameras. It had a regional audience, taking in the area from southeast Pennsylvania, Delaware, northeast Maryland and southern New Jersey. Teenagers would run home from high school to watch the show. There were 20 million regular weekday viewers. The TV station received 50 thousand fan letters a week about Bandstand. (TFC, 149.)

In the early Fifties, Bandstand featured music primarily from white pop singers, such as Joni James, Georgia Gibbs, Frankie Laine, Connie Boswell, and Helen O’Connell. In an era before black rhythm and blues crossed over to mainstream white audiences, and ‘Rock & Roll’ was not yet a household term, this selection of artists reflected what most radio stations played. Bandstand would grow from a local show to a regional show with national influence, making it one of the most important television venues for artists and producers looking to reach a large audience. With its regional and national influence, Bandstand was at the leading edge of the emerging relationship among television, radio, and the music industry. Bandstand was not the only local television show to create a niche in this changing media landscape, and by 1956 nearly fifty markets had television dance shows similar to Bandstand. Bandstand, however, was the most influential of these locally televised music shows.

The high school kids, who wanted to get into the show, dressed to conform to the show’s rather strict dress code (jackets and ties for the males and skirts or dresses for the females). They lined up outside the TV studio in order to be admitted to the show. There were always many more people than the capacity of the studio could accommodate. Bandstand’s producers wanted to make the show’s representation of Philadelphia teenagers safe for television advertisers and viewers, so they decided to achieve this goal by not allowing black teenagers to enter the studio. Thus, the dancers were mostly Irish and Italian teens from the neighborhoods surrounding the studio. These discriminatory policies made Bandstand a target of protests by the black teenagers who were excluded from the show.

Black teenagers contested Bandstand’s racially discriminatory admissions policies on several occasions. When black teens attempted to gain admission to the studio, they frequently dealt with violence from white teens. In their attempts to challenge Bandstand’s racially discriminatory admissions policies, black teens faced verbal and physical harassment that further marked Bandstand as a site restricted to white teenagers. Available pictures of the show from 1955 and after reveal that the show remained segregated. While black viewers saw many of the top black recording artists on Bandstand, they almost never saw any black teenagers among the show’s dancers or studio audience.

The R & B breakthrough on Bandstand came in the summer of 1954 with the release of “Sh-Boom” by the Chords, a black vocal harmony group from New York. Following the common practice of radio stations at the time, Bob Horn initially played a copy of the song by the Crew Cuts, a white group that often covered black R & B songs. The show’s mostly white regulars complained that the Crew Cuts’ song was not the real version and persuaded Horn to test the Chords’ version on the show’s rate-a-record segment. After the Chords’ record received a very high rating from the audience, Horn agreed to play the original. The introduction of R & B and Rock & Roll progressed slowly on Bandstand, and R & B artists like the Chords and the Red Tops, continued to share airplay with white crooners like Tony Bennett and Vic Damone. By late 1955 and 1956 though, the show’s playlist was influenced by the rise in prominence of R & B and Rock & Roll, and included not only white singers like Bill Haley and His Comets and Elvis Presley, but also black performers like Little Richard and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

Bob Horn got into some legal trouble that resulted in his dismissal from the show. He was replaced by Dick Clark, another DJ at Horn’s radio station. The twenty-six-year-old Clark debuted on Bandstand on July 9, 1956. Clark’s handsome, boy-next-door looks and on-screen charisma became synonymous with American pop culture, and his eternally youthful persona made him a celebrity in his own right. American Bandstand replaced Bandstand on August 5, 1957, when the show started to be broadcast nationally on 48 stations of ABC’s affiliated network. By September, 1956, the number of affiliates carrying the show had increased from forty-eight to sixty, and ABC added American Bandstand to its schedule on a permanent basis. By February 1958, daily viewership 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.

American Bandstand helped make America more receptive to Rock & Roll. “From the time it hit the national airwaves in 1957,” observes rock historian Hank Bordowitz, “Bandstand changed the perception and dissemination of popular music.” The show helped make Rock & Roll more acceptable to many adults by bringing the music and the dancing kids into their homes every afternoon, with Clark providing the responsible, clean-cut adult supervision. (“Whose Music, Whose Dances? Whose Culture? Race and American Bandstand: American Bandstand: West Philadelphia’s Seven-Year Wonder 1957-1964, John L. Puckett,

Regular features of the show included the “rate the record” segment. The host played new pop records, and the high school kids rated the songs with inane comments such as “It has a good beat,” “I like it; it’s easy to dance to.” Having a song played on American Bandstand exposed viewers to a wider range of music than did Top 40 radio. Guest artists would appear to sing their songs; although they would not actually sing, they would “lip-synch” to the records. Most guest singers were interviewed by Dick Clark after their songs were played. A song that got good reviews by the American Bandstand teens would usually get a big boost on the ratings charts. A talented local pop group that appeared on American Bandstand was Danny and the Juniors, four white teenagers who attended John Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia. Their popularity rose meteorically after they “sang” “At the Hop” on the show ( The song became “one of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll records of all time.”

The high school dancers on American Bandstand created dances that were copied around the country, such as The Stroll, The Mashed Potatoes, The Chalypso, and The Hand-Jive. Teens from coast to coast were seeing and copying the way the kids in Philadelphia danced, and that regional style soon became a national dance style. In the late Fifties, the same thing would happen with Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” which became a national craze. Everyone was dancing the Twist, even adults.

As for the origins of the dances that American Bandstand’s white dancers introduced to the nation’s teens, the music historian John A. Jackson writes:

Although the show’s core of white dancers introduced new steps on TV that they had purportedly devised, by and large those steps originated in Philadelphia’s black communities. What Bandstand, and later American Bandstand, actually did was to act as a filter to make those black dances acceptable to white society. . .. American Bandstand regulars did pass off black-inspired dances as their own creations. In doing so, most of them did not think they were stealing from their black counterparts. “But we were,” said Joe Fusco, a regular dancer on Clark’s show who admitted that it “wasn’t fair, really, when you think about it,” that whites received all the credit for originating the dances featured on American Bandstand.

(John A. Jackson, American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 208, 209.)

As a reflection of the popularity of the show, the regular dancers became celebrities to the show’s viewers and teen magazine readers. The favorite dancers (Kenny, Justine, Bunny, Frankie) had fan clubs of their own. ‘Teen magazine, for example, told readers they were “swamped with requests to do a story on the kids from Bandstand” and subsequently featured six cover stories on American Bandstand between 1958 and 1960, with profiles of current and former Bandstand regulars like Pat Molittieri, Kenny Rossi, and Arlene Sullivan. Teen also published two eighty-page special issues for teens to read more about the show’s dancers.

American Bandstand not only influenced the musical and dancing styles of American teens, it also had a significant impact on the clothing styles of the 20 million annual viewers. The TV audience saw the Philly kids dancing each week. They noted how they looked while they were dancing, what styles looked the best while dancing or going out on a date. One teen regular on the show, looking back from later years stated “After “American Bandstand” became popular we copied Arlene and the other Philadelphia girls in wearing flared felt skirts–called “Poodle” skirts because of the embroidered appliqué.” Manufacturers noted the Bandstand styles and geared their commercials to the teen market.

American Bandstand wrapped up its run in Philadelphia in 1964. In February 1964, American Bandstand made its debut in Los Angeles, where it would broadcast weekly until 1989.

“Bandstand Boogie” – Barry Manilow (1975) (the song can be found in the first 2:16 of the video)

We’re goin’ hoppin’, we’re goin’ hoppin’ today
Where things are poppin’ the Philadelphia way
We’re gonna drop in on all the music they play
On the bandstand (bandstand)
We’re goin’ swingin’, we’re gonna swing in the crowd
And we’ll be clingin’ and floatin’ high as a cloud
The phones are ringin’, my mom and dad are so proud
I’m on bandstand (bandstand)
And I’ll jump and hey, I may even show ’em my handstand
Because I’m on, because I’m on the American bandstand
When we dance real slow I’ll show all the guys in the grandstand
What a swinger I am, I am on American bandstand
We’re goin’ hoppin’, we’re goin’ hoppin’ today
Where things are poppin’ the Philadelphia way
We’re gonna drop in on all the music they play
On the bandstand (bandstand)
Bandstand, bandstand, bandstand
Bandstand, bandstand, bandstand
Hey I’m makin’ my mark, gee, this joint is jumpin’
They made such a fuss just to see us arrive
Hey it’s Mr.Dick Clark, what a place you’ve got here
Swell spot, the music’s hot here, best in the east
Give it at least a seventy five
Now for all you Joe’s, here goes my American handstand
Because I’m on, because I’m on the American bandstand
As we dance real slow, I’m showin’ the guys on the grandstand
That I like my girl but I love American bandstand
The singers’ croonin’, he ain’t the greatest but gee
My baby’s swoonin’ in front of all of TV
So if you tune in, you’ll see my baby and me
On the bandstand (bandstand)
And now we’re hoppin’ and we’ll be hoppin’ all day
Where things are poppin’ the Philadelphia way
And you can drop in on all the music they play
On the bandstand
And we’ll rock and roll and stroll on American
Lindy hop and slop, it’s American
Tune in, I’m on, turn on, I’m in, I’m on
Today, bandstand