INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Dick Clark and Me

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By GUY AOKI

In a previous column, I talked about working on the “American Top 40” radio show as a production assistant, then researcher and mixing producer.

I was there between 1984 and 1988, but after retyping the writers’ scripts and seeing how producer Don Bustany shaped them into the final versions, I realized I knew how to write for radio. So around the middle of 1985, I began sending out sample scripts to different radio syndication companies. All but one executive said I was a good writer, but no one had a job for me.

Every December as I returned to Hilo, Hawaii, for my annual Christmas break, I promised my best friend from junior high, Dwight Suzuki, that by the following Christmas, I would be writing my own radio show.  I pledged that four years in a row.

Finally, I got lucky. In January 1989, Pam Miller Algar took a chance and hired me to write “Countdown America with Dick Clark,” a syndicated radio show of the 30 biggest adult contemporary hits of the week.

It wasn’t easy. The staff of “American Top 40” included two writers (including one who also did interviews with recording artists), a writer/producer, a statistician, someone who got the records needed for the show, two researchers, and about three production assistants. We had a producer, but I had to do everything else myself.

Dick had hosted the show since 1986, but it had never been even nominated for a Billboard Magazine Radio Award. For the first two years, the magazine failed to notice the changes I’d instigated by building up real stories, doing better interviews, not throwing in random tidbits just to fill space, and teaching the producer how to better mix the show (he used to overlap the end of Dick’s talking with the beginning of an artist’s singing).

But in 1992, after we finished recording another show, Pam gathered me, the producer and engineers, poured champagne into glasses and revealed to Dick that “Countdown America” had won the award for “Best Nationally Distributed Program-Adult” for 1991.

Dick reacted with surprise: “Wait, you mean this sh*t he writes won an award?!…” I smiled, a bit embarrassed. “No, no! I’m joking! I’m joking!” he said, smiling. “Congratulations!”

After believing for years that I could do it if only someone gave me a chance, I was finally proving it. I had a career. By this time, I was looking to buy a townhouse. Thank goodness. Thank Pam Miller Algar and Dick Clark.

The columnist and Dick Clark posing for a Hawaii Tribune Herald story in March 1990.

When a big fan of the show visited from the Midwest and sat in on a recording session with his beaming parents, I thought it was cool for them to see that the person behind Dick’s words was a fourth-generation Japanese American.

Once when I wrote a story that Dick felt painted an artist in a harsh light, he said, “Let me offer you a bit of advice, Guy: If you want to last long in this business, don’t criticize people.” I knew I couldn’t heed it as I’d already started MANAA. Oh well…

In the summer of 1998, I was one of the invited guests to Dick and Kari’s anniversary party at their Malibu beach home. It was amazing to see people like Herb Alpert, Phyllis Diller, Steve Allen, Casey Kasem, Mick Fleetwood, and Lionel Richie all in one room.

That’s where I met Jay Leno. I thanked him for being one of the few comedians to not base jokes about Judge Lance Ito on his ethnicity. “Aw, nah, nah,” he agreed in his whiny voice, “dere’s no need for dat!” It’s a shame that these days, he insists on doing jokes about Chinese and Korean people eating dog.

In late 1999/early 2000, the NAACP, Latino, Asian American, and Native American groups pressured the television networks to sign memorandums of understanding (MOUs) to create programs to hire more minority writers, producers, directors, and actors. In early 2000, NBC invited all of their writers and producers to a diversity seminar where the coalition chairs aired their grievances. Dick was there as well.  Knowing that, when I stood in the auditorium of 300 to talk about what we’d like to see and address some of the problems in the industry, my voice went to a higher pitch. Thankfully, it was the last time I was nervous speaking in front of a group.

I was frustrated that the chairs didn’t go to the next step: Suggesting how the networks could do better. A few days later, outside the dick clark productions building, Dick agreed, telling me, “I think most of us want to do the right thing, Guy. But we don’t know how! Tell us how to do it!”

I’ve often written about my infamous 2001 confrontation with Sarah Silverman on “Politically Incorrect.” After I berated her for using “chinks” in a joke on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” she went on Bill Maher’s show to slam me, and no one bothered to invite me to defend myself. It was only after the president of ABC got involved that the program’s producers were forced to take me on as a guest so I could confront Silverman on what she’d said the month before.

The only problem was, they only offered one day: Aug. 21, a Tuesday. I had to arrive at the CBS studios by 5 p.m., which was usually when I had to record my radio show (in 1994, it became a Top 20 countdown called “The U.S. Music Survey”).

I swallowed hard. I hated doing it, but I had no choice. For the first and only time, I went down to Kari’s office and asked that she change his schedule to accommodate me (she’d worked as his secretary and scheduler since the mid ’70s). She later told me, “Dick and I think you’d be great on that show!” I owe them my thanks for allowing me to make that taping.

The day after it aired, I was roaming the bottom floor and bumped into Dick, who’d just come out of a meeting with people in his office. “By the way,” he said quietly, “you were very good last night. You were the only one who made any sense!” By that point, I was nine years into being a media watchdog and was quite secure on any position I took. I didn’t seek out anyone to validate my beliefs. Still, it sure felt great to have Dick Clark — who was known to be politically moderate — on my side.

A few years after that, I walked downstairs and saw Dick coming into the lobby with his publicist, Paul Shefrin, and Brian Lowry, who had just interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times. Since the reporter had previously sought my opinion for another story, I introduced myself. In a serious way, Dick struggled to find the right words. He told Lowry, yes, I was a rabble-rouser, “but… he’s… he’s OK!” I couldn’t help but smile that Dick Clark felt the need to defend me and reassure Lowry.

In the fall of 2002, I was scheduled to interview Kenny G at his Malibu home. I was told Dick and Kari knew where it was, so I asked her for directions. At the next recording session for the “Survey,” Dick asked, “So how did you and Kenny G make out?” I put up my hand as if testifying in court. “Kenny G and I did not make out!” He gave me a look as if to say, “Very droll, Guy,” and slowly clarified, “I meant, how did the interview go?” “He didn’t remember me from the last time I interviewed him, so it went all downhill from there.” He gave up and laughed.

When Johnny Cash died on Sept. 12, 2003, my friend Sam Chu Lin called me, saying he’d gotten Dick to agree to go on camera and talk about the legendary singer. When I walked toward the entrance of the building, Sam was just finishing up with Dick. “So,” he asked me with a wide grin on his face, “how’s Dick Clark as a boss?” As if testifying under pressure in court to give the right response, I said, “Dick Clark’s the best boss I’ve had in 14 1/2 years!” A look of confusion came over Dick’s face. “You’ve worked here for 14 1/2 YEARS?!”

Sam kept egging us on. “So how’s Guy as a writer? Must be pretty good if he’s lasted here for so long.” “Nah,” I interrupted, trying to save Dick from having to make an obligatory compliment. “I just got him used to mediocrity!” Dick burst out laughing and gave me a hug.

When you nickname someone “the world’s oldest teenager,” you make him very conscious of his age. Consequently, Dick never wanted to be around the office when his show business friends would call to wish him a happy birthday. So he and Kari always took vacations in the last week of November. But for some reason, on Nov. 30, 2004, he had to stay put, and it fell on a Tuesday, so Dick had to record our radio show. I walked into his recording booth with a smile and my right arm stretched out to shake his hand.

“Don’t say it! Don’t say it!” he pleaded, turning away, “I don’t wanna hear it!” “I wasn’t going to say anything!” I responded innocently. “I just felt like… shaking your hand!” We shook hands. He gave me one of the warmest smiles. After the taping was over, I continued to not mention the b-word. Instead, I said, “So Dick, have… a great day!” He laughed, probably muttered something under his breath, and left. It was the last radio show of mine he ever did.

Eight days later, he had his stroke. We continued “The U.S. Music Survey” with guest hosts, finally settling on KOST FM’s Mark Wallengren, who did a great job. Dick never came back into the office again.

Months later, only a handful of producers were allowed to see him at a separate house in Burbank. Most of our affiliates stuck with us, hoping Dick would be back, but when it came time to sign the contracts again in November of 2005, enough of them declined.  The powers-that-be decided to cancel my radio show and shut down the radio department (although a producer continued to refresh Dick’s oldies radio show with new music).

Five weeks short of 17 years, my last day at the company was Dec. 16, 2005. I wasn’t able to see how badly the stroke had affected him until — like millions of fans — I tuned in to “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” two weeks later. My draw dropped as I watched him slur his words. “Oh my God. Oh my God. It’s bad! It’s bad!”

I heard from many people saying they’d rather not see Dick like this, that he should’ve just retired. But I pointed out that Dick probably used his on-camera target date as motivation to get better. For most, it was reassuring to see him once again welcoming in the new year. I know it was for me.

After he made his appearance, it seemed as if it was no longer a big deal to see Dick.  Everyone in my old department had stopped by the Burbank house to talk to him several times. They were surprised I hadn’t. I didn’t want to go back until I had something under my belt. I wasn’t yet able to sell my David Cassidy radio show (I never would). But in July of 2006, my sister came out to L.A. with her two daughters, and she wanted to meet Casey Kasem and Dick Clark.

Her birthday present was meeting Dick. For the first time, he explained to me the details of his stroke. After a year and a half of rumors and theories, I was finally hearing it from the man himself. “The doctor said I’d never be able to use my right arm again,” he told me. Then he lifted it to show me it was no big deal. I encouraged him to not dwell on what he could no longer do, but to appreciate how far he’d come.

“I don’t know if you know this,” I volunteered, “but from time to time, some past employees would come back to visit dick clark productions and they’d say, ‘Appreciate how it is here. It’s like a family. It’s not that way outside! It’s so corporate!’ So thank you for creating an environment that felt like home to so many people for so many years.” Again, he gave me that warm smile.

In 2009 when I got the idea to use past interviews I’d conducted to write a book about ’70s artists who were big but never got respect from rock critics (The Osmonds, the Carpenters, the Bee Gees, etc.), Dick gave me permission to use some of the old interviews I’d done for his company. In November of 2010, I nervously asked Kari if he could write the foreword. “Well, you know, we get a lot of requests to do forewords for books,” she told me. “And we usually say we’ll wait until the book’s done. But you know, it’s you, Guy!… So we’ll do it.”

On June 27, 2010, the Daytime Emmys paid tribute to Dick Clark’s contributions to the genre. After a variety of performers sang the “American Bandstand” theme, Ryan Seacrest talked about co-hosting the New Year’s Eve show with him: “It was said I’d be Dick’s eventual successor. Believe me, if I live to be 300, I could never fill your shoes. I personally want to thank you for what you’ve done for our industry, for music, and for me. I’m proud to be your friend and I love you, Dick…. Ladies and gentlemen, Dick Clark!”

The crowd gave a long and sustained standing ovation. Dick began sobbing, covered his eyes and bowed his head. I called him up two days later. “Oh Dick,” I said, “I cried along with you.” He told me he was just overwhelmed and got emotional. “It’s OK to show people you’re human! You’ve given so much joy to people over the years. I’m just so glad you got to see a little bit of that love given back to you.”

At some point, he lamented the difficulty he had in walking. “You know what, Dick? Other people can walk. But they don’t have your mind.” “That’s right. That’s right,” he nodded in agreement. He’d started The Dick Clark Company (he’d sold dick clark productions in 2002) and was still trying to develop television shows. “You’re just a great idea away from having success again.”

Guy Aoki and Dick Clark at Clakr's Malibu offices, May 13, 2011.

The last time I saw Dick Clark was on May 13 of last year. I went to his office in Malibu to interview him for the book and ask him for his perspectives on ’70s music. I was looking forward to including many of his comments in the disco chapter. Most people assumed his favorite kind of music was R&B or early rock ‘n’ roll. And it was… until acts like KC and the Sunshine Band and Donna Summer came along. “So,” I asked, “what was it about disco that made you like it so much?”

“It was just fun!” he replied. “The tempo! The beat!” He laughed, realizing he was sounding like those teenagers who played “Rate a Record” on “Bandstand” and, when asked why they liked a new single, always seemed to answer, “I like the beat!” “I liked the beat,” he continued.  “It was easy to dance to!  It was just happy music.”

Dick Clark was a fighter. He spent every day in some form of physical therapy trying to get better.  He never gave up. So on April 18 when a friend told me he’d died of a massive heart attack, it felt especially cruel: All that work and what a slap in the face.

I hope one of the shows his company was working on makes air. To see “The Dick Clark Company” logo would be a beautiful way of extending his life and legacy.

I numbly watched the many tributes on television. A woman on the streets of Boston exclaimed, “I always thought he’d live forever!” I almost lost it.

Thank you, Dick Clark. If there’s an afterlife, you’re now freed from a body that failed you and able to talk as easily as before. As you used to sign off:  For now — and forever — so long.

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Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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3 Comments

  1. Matthew Ota on

    I also have a connection to Dick Clark. Back in 2006 I was the artist that designed the new signage for DC Production’s lobby

  2. At the end, it’s the humanity that sustains us and this you have done so eloquently and respectfully in honoring and dignifying Dick Clark. Thank you. Your love for this man flowed throughout your stories.

  3. Doug Inouye on

    Hi Guy,
    Really enjoyed your column on your work and friendship with Dick Clark. I’m in my mid-fifties so I grew up with American Bandstand and Mr. Clark was always part of our Saturday afternoon youth culture. Thanks for sharing your story (it must have taken awhile to write such a lengthy and detailed column.) I’m glad to hear Mr. Clark was a kind, generous gentleman and employer too. Keep up the advocacy work and I will continue to enjoy your writings in the Rafu Shimpo.
    A Northern Cal Reader,
    Doug Inouye
    San Francisco