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Dick Clark: how a tax-accountant look-alike changed American music

Dick Clark understood how to introduce African-American performers and their music to a post-civil rights society still fraught with racial tensions. Basically, Dick Clark brought rock 'n' roll to America's living rooms.

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Dick Clark is surrounded by fans during a television broadcast of 'American Bandstand' in 1957. Clark, the television host who helped bring rock 'n' roll into the mainstream, died Wednesday.

AP/File

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In recent years, Dick Clark had become best known perhaps as the familiar and welcoming face of the New Year’s Eve ball-dropping countdown ritual he introduced in 1972, which he hosted from New York's Times Square for more than four decades.

But the more singular and lasting legacy that makes him a forever-important figure in American culture is what he did for making rock 'n' roll palatable to cynical and even fearful audiences. He played a crucial role in integrating black music into the American mind-set, both audibly and visually.

Behind his eminently ease-producing persona was a entrepreneur who understood the racial nuances of the post-civil rights era and how to promote barrier-breaking behavior in ways that broadened taste and acceptance.

“Dick Clark’s most important contribution is that, through 'American Bandstand,' he assisted in giving rock 'n' roll a soft landing on planet earth and all of America,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for the Study of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “A lot of people felt very threatened by the rise of this music and its proponents, but here was a guy who looked more like your tax accountant than any of the people they feared … and that comforted a lot of people. He was like the Trojan Horse that snuck rock 'n' roll into American living rooms.”

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