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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As ailing showbiz mogul Dick Clark prepares to celebrate his 80th birthday in November, a new documentary threatens to tarnish his image by recounting his controversial beginnings.
"Wages of Spin," a project that took independent filmmaker Shawn Swords almost four years to make, focuses on Clark's early days in the 1950s as the host of "American Bandstand," the iconic TV show in which teenagers danced to songs lip-synced by some of the biggest pop stars of the day.
The show, which was must-see TV for millions of youngsters every week day between 1957 and 1963, gave artists a national platform that was unavailable elsewhere. It accordingly made Clark one of the most powerful figures in the music industry since the wholesome TV star decided who appeared on the show.
A congressional probe in 1960 revealed that Clark had interests in dozens of companies that could profit from "American Bandstand," including labels, record-pressing plants, and a talent-management firm.
He denied taking "payola" -- kickbacks in exchange for airplay. But the probe learned that he has been assigned the copyrights to at least 143 compositions, including such monster hits as "Sixteen Candles" and "At the Hop." Such songs received preferential treatment on the show. Payola was not illegal then, and is barely regulated today.
Moreover, Clark demanded that the young performers turn over to his own company the union-mandated fees that they received for their appearances, saying that the low-budget show could not afford to make such payouts.
"He's definitely an alpha villain," Swords said in a recent interview. "I'm not saying this man was consummately malevolent, just his business practices and the depth of his avarice and self-enrichment. I really think the man's place in pop music history needs to be re-evaluated."
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, he is probably best known as the host of TV game shows and of the annual "Dick Clark Rockin' New Year's Eve" special. He also produced various awards shows, like the American Music Awards.
"American Bandstand" ran in various forms for 37 years, becoming the longest-running musical-variety program.
The documentary features interviews with pop stars, "Bandstand" dancers, associates and industry experts, many of whom profess mixed emotions about Clark. They owed him their careers, but at a very high cost.
It also shows newsreel footage from the congressional investigation. Clark impressed the star-struck lawmakers, who failed to come up with any damaging evidence against him, and they let him off with slap on the wrist. He was required to divest his music-industry holdings, and he used the funds to set up a publicly traded film and TV production company that he sold in 2002 for $140 million.
"This is a kingdom that was built on ill-gotten gains," Swords said.
Clark appears at the end of the film, via an archival clip in which he tersely denies that he ever took any money to play records, but "every single way you can think of, I made money from that show."
Swords said he had no qualms about making a documentary about a man who has rarely been seen in public since suffering what was described as "a minor stroke" in 2004. While it would have been good to get fresh commentary from him, Swords did not want Clark's ailment to make him appear sympathetic.
"And the other thing is, I don't think he would be candid," Swords added. "He's always been evasive when questioned about his involvement with payola. He's not going to tell you the truth about what happened."
A spokesman for Clark declined to comment.
Swords does evoke sympathy for one of Clark's victims, rockabilly guitarist Charlie Gracie, who enjoyed a big hit in 1957 with the song "Butterfly." Gracie sued his Cameo Records label to recover unpaid royalties, and subsequently found himself blacklisted from "American Bandstand" and radio stations.
It emerged that Clark had a financial arrangement with Cameo, the documentary said, which had paid him $14,000 for unspecified services related to "Butterfly." Gracie, subsequently revered by the likes of Graham Nash, George Harrison and Paul McCartney, slipped into obscurity.
"It's a pretty loathsome industry, the record industry," Swords said. "It always has been."
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith