Before Clark came around, such programs as Your Hit Parade present the popular songs of the day. However, these programs were neither targeted or geared towards the growing baby boomer market. It's a nice song, but people really can't dance to How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?, and such was the way of the world. Once American Bandstand made its debut across the country, we got two big cultural shifts in one blow.
First, the teens got both validation of their music and were introduced to a wide variety of pop/rock sounds and artists. At a time when there were only a few television stations, AB was the place to make a music debut. You wanted the latest dance or the newest song or artist, you referred to AB. From Chuck Berry to Madonna, Ritchie Valens to the Beach Boys, Donna Summer to John Mellencamp (then billed as Johnny Cougar), the Jackson Five to Prince: they all made if not their debut their greatest exposure on the Bandstand. Clark never talked down to the teens, he never behaved as though he was better or smarter than either his audience or his guests. Rather, he appeared to be totally sincere and interested in what they were interested in.
Second, and perhaps more important, the parents saw that there really was nothing to fear from this new music. The teens on the show weren't wild-eyed sex-crazed drugged-out monsters. They were regular kids, just like their sons and daughters. American Bandstand became the place where adults and their children could enjoy something together without worrying about something either would object to. Even now, the American Bandstand theme is, if not as well-known today as it was in its heyday, still recognizable.
Something Clark said is both endless fascinating and completely accurate. Whenever he was asked what was the most influential or important song in rock, he answered, "The Twist". Not Like A Rolling Stone, not Let It Be, not Break On Through, not Paint It Black, not Respect, not I Will Survive, not Reflections, not London Calling. He always said, The Twist. Why The Twist? As he said, it was the first song both adults and teens could admit to dance to. The cultural divide was broken...thanks Chubby.
We can't forget his New Year's Rockin' Eve. His New Year's Eve special became cultural landmarks, where even if you had plans (and were fortunate enough to remember them afterwards), you felt that the party wasn't complete without him counting down to a new year. I think the optimism New Year's brings was perfect for Clark, someone who was optimistic: about music, about life.
Even after the stroke that made him clearly impaired, he still went forward, more slowly, visibly damaged, for the first time showing him approaching his real age (if anything, his perpetual youthful appearance added to the "eternal teen" persona). It was a bit sad to see him take a diminished role on New Year's Rockin' Eve specials (and seeing Ryan Seacrest didn't make it any better...sorry Ryan, but you're nowhere near Dick Clark), but it's a credit to his optimism and work ethic that he kept at it as long as he was able to.
I think ultimately the legacy of Dick Clark is that he was highly instrumental in bringing rock 'n roll to the general American (and world) audience. Clark showed that this music was wonderful, not dangerous. Clark introduced artists and dances that impacted popular culture (people still dance the Twist at weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras), and no New Year's appeared complete without Clark counting down. Clark possessed a joie de vivre that made it almost natural that a man in his fifties, sixties, and even seventies look like he was barely out of college. Without Dick Clark, the music scene would have been highly different.
The soundtrack of at least two generations had Dick Clark as its DJ.