Ozzie & Harriet made TV safe for Dick Clark, 'American Bandstand'
Dick Clark, who died Wednesday at age 82, is widely -- and legitimately -- lauded as the man who made rock 'n’ roll safe for mainstream America with the clean-cut image of “American Bandstand” upon its national premiere in 1957.
But four months before “Bandstand” made the jump from its previous status as a popular local show out of Philadelphia, a watershed moment in the generational divide between rock 'n’ roll-loving teens and their fretful parents took place on, of all places, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”
On April 10, 1957, then-16-year-old Ricky Nelson, the youngest member of the popular clan introduced each week as “America’s favorite family,” showcased his love for the music that was sending adults around the country into conniptions in the wake of controversial appearances by Elvis Presley, whose pelvic gyrations were viewed as lewd by hordes of grown-ups.
Ed Sullivan’s endorsement of Presley as “a real decent, fine boy” in 1956 helped calm some fears, but many in positions of authority remained wary, or outright hostile, after watching Presley on his first national appearance in January 1956 on “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show,” then subsequently on “The Steve Allen Show” and then “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
After those shows, rock and TV remained a fitful marriage at best. When the music surfaced on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” however, the landscape changed dramatically.
The Nelsons were as wholesome as could be. Millions of Americans, first on radio, then on television, heard and watched Ozzie and Harriet’s handsome young sons, David and Ricky, grow up before their eyes.
Ricky’s passion for rock 'n’ roll was no mere plot device. Outside the show, like scads of other teens, he was lapping up the hits of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and rock’s other originators.
On the “Ricky the Drummer” episode that predated “American Bandstand” going national, Ozzie Nelson, the show’s creative mastermind and director, let his son sing Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’ ” on the show, a song he had just recorded, reportedly to impress a date who was more enthralled with hearing Presley on his car radio than by being out with one of the stars of a hit national TV show.
The performance by “the irrepressible Ricky” that night not only showed him to be a convincing and charismatic performer, but Ozzie Nelson also made sure to include shots of the effect his son was having on doe-eyed teenage girls looking on adoringly from the dance floor.
Perhaps more crucially, he had the camera cut to the wings to show himself and Harriet looking on, beaming smiles of approval.
That moment certainly couldn’t have been lost on execs meeting Clark at ABC-TV -- the same network that had Ozzie and Harriet -- when he came to them with a kinescope of his “American Bandstand” show in hopes they might green-light it for the programming opening they had that summer. The equally wholesome-looking Clark made an excellent chaperon as America became more comfortable looking in on the dance parties its children were enjoying.
Ricky’s recording of “I’m Walkin' ” became an instant hit -- some accounts say it sold 500,000 copies the first week after the show aired, some put the figure as high as 1 million. In any event, the record entered the Billboard’s Top 100 sales chart within three weeks, peaking at No. 4 and spending 17 weeks in all on that chart -- quickly demonstrating the power of television to expose new music by young recording artists.
Ricky Nelson followed with an even bigger hit, “A Teenager’s Romance,” which shot to No. 2, also before “American Bandstand” premiered on Aug. 5 that year.
Ricky was quickly dubbed a “teen idol” by Life magazine, in what is widely cited as the first use of the term as the focal point of popular culture in the 1950s was rapidly shifting away from adults toward adolescents and their music and fashion.
Suddenly, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” had a breakout pop star on its hands, and the youngest Nelson continued to introduce new songs every few weeks on the show.
Some sponsors balked: Kodak reportedly threatened to pull its advertising if the show continued to include rock 'n' roll music. Ozzie’s response: “Well then, don’t be our sponsor.”
At one point in 1958, in a script written by Ozzie that took on the still-burning question -- “Is it the devil’s music?” -- Ricky asks Harriet, “Mom, what do you think of rock 'n’ roll?”
Her reply contained a hint of the widespread parental confusion over a style of music that wasn’t theirs, but she confessed that she could see how it was a natural way for teenagers to express themselves, concluding enthusiastically, “I’m not going to knock it, I’ll tell you that much!”
That pronouncement deflated the controversy swirling around rock 'n' roll in a big way. Ricky Nelson, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, became one of the most successful recording artists of the late '50s and early '60s -- he charted 18 Top 10 hits from 1957 through 1963, when the British Invasion prompted a new batch of teenagers to forget about him and so many other early American rockers.
But by that point, rock 'n' roll was deeply integrated into the culture, and while meeting the Beatles and other new stars by way of television was still exciting, it was rarely as shocking or controversial as it had been a few years earlier.
If Dick Clark and “American Bandstand” made rock music safe for America, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” deserves credit for making the world of television safe for “American Bandstand.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo from 1954 of the Nelson family en route to a vacation in Europe. Credit: Associated Press.