He showed us how to dance, what music to listen to, and gave us something to do on New Year's Eve.
For generations of Americans, Dick Clark was more than just a TV host; he was the person who helped shape key memories in our lives.
In judging Clark's accomplishments, some might use his giant television empire as the benchmark: He made millions of dollars as a television entrepreneur, showing far more business savvy than you'd expect from someone with a slightly derisive nickname, "America's oldest living teenager." Game shows, award shows, bloopers, the American Music Awards — hours of television were filled by Dick Clark Productions, and Ryan Seacrest's career follows Clark's blueprint.
But for most Americans, their memories of Clark are personal. He came to them in their living room with "American Bandstand," counting down the hits, introducing the latest dance moves and hair styles, and chatting up the pop act of the hour who would stop by lip-synch their new songs.
Or they would join him on New Year's Eve, a friendly face for the dateless, or those who just wanted to stay away from the crowd. His other television institution, "New Year's Rockin' Eve," is still going strong at age 40. Lady Gaga was the star of Clark's last New Year's show this winter.
"American Bandstand" was a simple idea blessed with perfect timing. Television was new in the early 1950s, and a Philadelphia station began showing a version of a teen dance party in the afternoon. Clark, a DJ in the city, took over as host in 1956.
It soon went national. One of the country's biggest generations, the post-World War II baby boom, was heading into their teen years, itching to dance to this new sound of rock 'n' roll.
Clark spun the hits, as the camera panned to kids trying out the freshest dance moves. It was a required stop for the day's hitmakers, and exposure on "American Bandstand" could send a song soaring up the charts. He'd ask an audience member to listen to a couple of brand-new songs each week and rate their hit potential, launching the immortal phrase: "It's got a good beat, and you can dance to it."
The show moved to Saturday afternoons in 1963, and continued to wield great influence. Chubby Checker's "Twist" dance craze owed much to the teens shown gyrating on "Bandstand."
The music changed, but "Bandstand" kept an open mind. Clark was a big fan of Michael Jackson and his family. Later video clips showed him awkwardly interviewing members of Talking Heads about their cerebral punk sound. In the early 1980s, former Sex Pistol John Lydon brought his new band P.I.L. to "Bandstand" and they wreaked havoc, bringing the audience onstage and not even pretending to play their instruments or sing along to their music.
Maybe they were trying to "punk" Dick Clark, as a later generation might say, but don't miss the bigger point: They showed up to be on his show.
MTV eventually killed "Bandstand"; people didn't need a once-a-week appointment to see people dance to songs on TV when they could watch music videos at any hour. The show's influence didn't disappear: MTV's "Total Request Live," big in the boy band era, was simply "Bandstand" for another generation (with a much shorter shelf life).
But Clark still remained a presence in most people's lives, albeit on a more occasional basis, with his "New Year's Rockin' Eve." When it arrived in the early 1970s, it represented a generational change. Television had stuck by bandleader Guy Lombardo for New Year's long after his shelf life was over, and viewers needed something new.
Clark's party brought all of the fun, but none of the cold winds or spilled champagne. He showed the ball drop in Times Square and let people watch excited celebrants from the warmth of their living rooms, but of course, with a musical soundtrack. Al Green, Helen Reddy and Three Dog Night performed at the first "New Year's Rockin' Eve."
It remains the most popular New Year's Eve program to this day.
Even after a severe stroke affected Clark's ability to speak clearly and Seacrest joined him as co-host, Clark still made it a point to show up every year at Times Square, tenderly kissing his wife to celebrate another year. The show never remained frozen in time, either. Clark always brought on the hottest stars; Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey and Justin Bieber were among his more recent revelers.
It's a holiday tradition that will live on without him, but forever defined by him.