A "Bandstand" Blitz
Las Cruces rock-and-roll fan Stan Blitz wants to set the record straight about the early days of "American Bandstand."
by Jeff Berg
"Music is your only friend, until the end."
— Jim Morrison
That might be true for most people, but not when one speaks of music promoter/author Stan Blitz, who hosts a weekly radio program on Las Cruces' KSNM.
Blitz, a Philadelphia native who arrived in Las Cruces via Albuquerque and Scottsdale, Ariz., smiles when he notes, "I have a lady friend here." He is the kind of friend you would want on your side.
Bob Horn was the "Bandstand" man before Dick Clark.
On a local level, Blitz points out that he is associated with the Fireballs, the first band from New Mexico to ever have a number-one rock and roll hit, "Sugar Shack," which topped the charts in 1963. It was recorded at the famous Norman Petty Studios in Clovis, where Buddy Holly also did a lot of work. The Fireballs still perform, and are considering a Las Cruces date in the near future.
But it's not really clear if Blitz ever was a good friend of one-time disk jockey and television personality Bob Horn. What Blitz has done, in any case, is try to give credit where credit is due — credit he feels has long been denied to the late Mr. Horn. He's written a book, Bandstand: The Untold Story, to set the record straight about Horn's role in the early years of what became "American Bandstand."
Never heard of Bob Horn? That's not unlikely, unless you dig deep into the records of rock and roll history — in particular, way back when, when rock was young, the 1950s.
The story starts in Philadelphia, even further back, in the late 1930s, when Horn was just making a name for himself as a local DJ on regional radio stations. And please note, in case you are a younger reader, that this was back in the days when DJs had influence on what music was played, knowledge of what they were playing and who the artist was, and personalities that didn't require a R- or X-rated sense of humor. (Wow, I must be getting old myself!)
As many DJs did back in the day, Horn bounced around somewhat, including a brief stint in LA as a newscaster. His return to Philadelphia brought him back to what he loved best, sharing music with the minions, hosting numerous dances and getting back on the air as a DJ.
A radio show called "Bob Horn's Bandstand" morphed from this and similar versions of other shows that were geared for adult listeners. Horn's show, which played from 1949 through part of 1952, was for and about teenagers. At the time, the item that most changed our culture until the advent of the home computer, the television, was just getting started.
In October 1952, WFIL-TV premiered the television version of "Bob Horn's Bandstand." The show consisted mostly of film clips of dancing and dancers, vaguely similar to today's music videos. But the quality and content were poor and the show was a failure. It was pulled and reworked, and the format was similar to that of another show that was just finding its legs (pun intended), "The 950 Club" — no relation to "The 700 Club" of current fame.
"It was the last in the ratings on ABC," Blitz says. "But then they made the crossover into rock and roll and started inviting high school kids to dance live on the show. There were five high schools within 10 minutes of the studio."
When the show came back on the air, its first live guest was jazz icon, Dizzy Gillespie.
The revamped show was an almost immediate hit. Horn, with co-host Lee Stewart, worked to expand the length of the show, which already ran each weekday. At one time, Horn did a two-hour show, five days a week, something unheard of in the early days of live television.
"Horn was parallel to (comedian) Lenny Bruce," Blitz laments. "He was 20 years ahead of his time." He adds, "He was more powerful than Alan Freed." Freed was THE DJ back then, referred to as the king of "rock and roll," a term he is credited with inventing.
But then things began to change. The host most folks associate with the "Bandstand" show, Dick Clark, then a young DJ in Philadelphia, was hired as Horn was pushed out.
Blitz notes that the younger Clark knew nothing about the music that he played, as opposed to Horn's detailed knowledge of the new genre known as rock and roll. But Blitz adds,"I have nothing against Clark. I've never met him, and he declined to talk to me about the book."
ABC changed the show's title to "American Bandstand" and broadcast it nationally, an opportunity that Horn never received. It was popular for years, and ran weekly until 1989.
But Dick Clark did become the icon that Blitz feels Horn should have been, and is certainly a millionaire many times over. Clark is now 81 and still hosts another show he is famous for, "New Year's Rockin' Eve," in spite of suffering a stroke several years ago.
According to Blitz, a conspiracy was mounted against Horn by, among others, the powerful media mogul, Walter Annenberg, the owner of Triangle Publications. The company then owned WFIL, the daily Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, The Daily Racing Form, and soon would also publish TV Guide, the one-time giant of television magazines. As is made clear in Blitz' ultra-detailed book about this tale of intrigue and double-cross, numerous bigwigs of Annenberg's organization seemed to have a vendetta of some kind toward Horn, and made several different attempts to force him out.
Perhaps it was also a wisp of ageism, as the station might have decided that Horn, by this time in his 40s, needed to get the boot. And indeed he did depart, after much pressure and other corporate events that have the air of skullduggery. As Blitz points out in his book, Horn became lost in history, sunk by upper management and personal scandals including tax evasion, a DUI and a resulting accident. Worst of all, Horn was charged with statutory rape, but Blitz firmly believes those charges were trumped up.
Eventually Horn was cleared of the sex charges, but the DUI stood and he was punished for that.
"He did have a tax bill, but nothing like what was reported in the news," Blitz adds. Blitz says that the amount of unpaid taxes that the IRS supposedly harangued Horn for was $350,000. "What it really was was $9,000. He received a Cadillac as a gift, and neglected to pay the taxes on the car."
Horn later left Philadelphia, settling in Houston, where he again got into the radio business and also operated an advertising agency. But all of the scandal and controversy brought on by his former associates in Philadelphia took a lot out of him. Horn died in Houston in 1966, after a heart attack that was brought on by heatstroke.
But if Blitz has his way, a lot of things will change for Horn's legacy. Horn is remembered fondly by many others, and Blitz is working to get him entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — which is in Cleveland, of all places, much to Blitz' chagrin.
"It should be in Philadelphia," he argues with purpose, as he notes that Philly is where a great amount of the history of rock took place.
"I never bought the story about Bob Horn being railroaded out of Philadelphia," Blitz concludes, "and I'm just a man of principle who wants for people to know the truth."
For a copy of Bandstand: The Untold Story, by Stan Blitz with John Protchard, send $24.95 to Stan Blitz, 704 Lenox, Las Cruces, NM 88005. It is also available at COAS Books in Las Cruces. His radio program is broadcast on KSNM-AM 570 in Las Cruces from 10 a.m.-noon each Saturday.