Faces in the Crowd: Alan Freed - The King of Rock n' Roll

"Let's Face it...rock n' roll is bigger than all of us." - Alan Freed 

 

“Ahwoooooo!”  Across the Midwestern night, the airwaves carry the rowdy voice of disc jockey Alan Freed on the “Moondog Rock n’ Roll Party” show on Cleveland’s WJW Radio.    The song, Blues For Moondog, plays in the background as he bangs on a thick telephone book while keeping time to the music.  “Ahwooooo!  Arrrwoooo!”   Throughout the show, while uttering an assortment of barks, moans and howls, Freed nips at an ever present bottle of Scotch as he spins the latest rhythm & blues sounds, keeping up a steady patter of disc jockey jive that matches the intensity of the records he’s playing.  It’s 1953 and to the teenagers of America, Alan Freed is God. 

“Say, who was Alan Freed anyway?”  Alan Freed was the first disc jockey to become a national on-the-air personality.  His popularity was a result of his teenage listening audience identifying with his passion for the rhythm & blues music he featured on his Moondog show.  While his major claim to fame is that he is credited with coining the phrase “rock n’ roll”, it should be noted that this phrase appears in many rhythm & blues records that predate Freed’s discovery of the good old bump & grind.  Freed claimed that the term, “rock n’ roll”, emerged in an effort to “avoid the stigma of the old classifications”; a statement that reflected the fact that he was spinning the music of popular rhythm & blues (i.e. black) artists who recorded for wildcat independent record labels on his show while trying to get the concept of their music across to a predominantly white audience. 

 

 

In 1952, Freed was working as a disc jockey on an evening classical music program for WJW in Cleveland, Ohio.  Charlie Gillet, in his excellent book, Sound of The City, describes Freed’s visit:  “Freed was amazed at the excited reaction of the youths who danced energetically as they listened to music that Freed had previously considered alien to their culture.”  In short order, Freed convinced WJW to follow his classical music program with a new show called “Moondog’s Rock n’ Roll Party” which would be hosted by himself in the persona of (gasp!) Moondog.  The listener response among local teenagers was overwhelming as Freed began the unique practice of bringing black music to a widespread mainstream radio audience.  Freed’s popularity eventually found him producing local concerts featuring some of the acts whose music he played on the Moondog show; Billy Ward & the Dominoes, The Clovers, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry, among others. 

"One night during Freed’s program, a local record store owner by the name of Leo Mintz called to invite Freed to visit his downtown record shop so that he could see the effect that the “wild new music” was having on many of the white middle class kids who frequented the store.  "By chance, Alan Freed and Leo Mintz, 'a very heavy drinker,' happened to be drinking in a Euclid Avenue watering hole called Mullins.  Mintz owned the Record Rendezvous, a large phonograph record shop at 300 Prospect Avenue, near Cleveland's black inner-city ghetto.  A few beers led to idle conversation and several more drinks led the two to discover a common interest other than alcohol -- radio, music, and phonograph records....Thanks to Cleveland's almost 130,000 blacks, Mintz's Record Rendezvous boasted a steady sale of 'race records, or rhythm and blues records, as they were commonly called by 1951.  the myth enshrouding Freed's introduction to rhythm and blues holds that in April 1951 Leo Mintz noticed a growing number of white teenagers frequenting his store, browsing through the rhythm and blues record section, and listening to such black stars as Charles Brown, Fats Domino, Amos Milburn, and Ruth Brown.  Taken aback by the unusual sight of white youths perusing the heretofore all-black section of his record store, Mintz allegedly summoned his disc jockey friend, Alan Freed, to see the sight himself.  The myth took shape with Freed Saying he was 'amazed' at the sight before his eyes...If there was a noticeable number of white teenagers haunting Mintz's Record Rendezvous in 1951, what became of them after that?  Freed's aborted Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena eight months later drew a virtually all-black audience.  Freed himself before he consciously set out during his heyday in the late 1950's to 'revise' his past, admitted in a more candid moment that during his first years as Moondog his radio program 'at first attracted an audience that was nearly all Negro."  (Big Beat Heat, John A. Jackson, Shirmer Books 1991)

 

In March 1952, Freed staged a concert in Cleveland that held 10,000 seats and 30,000 kids showed up hoping to get tickets.  These concerts, widely known as “Moondog Balls” among Freed’s avid fans, were startling in the fact that the shows themselves show no regard for the barriers of racial prejudice that had, up until that time, kept popular black music artists from performing before a racially mixed audience. 

"As the crowd outside the arena swelled to frightful proportions, those nearest the building realized the entrance doors had been closed.  Order began to break down, and at 9:30 pm, 'the lid blew off' as the mob of more than six thousand frustrated yet determined youths assaulted the arena in a human wave.  They knocked down four panel doors, swept past the astonished, undermanned police, and noisily swarmed inside as ticket holders and ushers scattered for their lives...By 11:30 the fire department and the police gave up trying to restore order in the overcrowded, supercharged arena.  The house lights were turned up.  Police Captain William Zimmerman called off the dance, and the police stood by as the now-subdued crowd 'slowly and reluctantly filed out.'  The next morning, most of the city's residents got word of the events of the previous night at the arena when the Cleveland Plain Dealer printed the front-page headline MOONDOG BALL IS HALTED AS 6,000 CRASH ARENA GATE." (Big Beat Heat, John A. Jackson, Shirmer Books 1991)

 

New York City was Freed’s next stop.  In 1954, WINS (yes, the same station today that is – gasp! - known as “all news radio”) signed Freed to a lucrative $75,000 a year contract.  Within a few short months, WINS was catapulted to the top of the AM radio market.  Freed’s concert productions continued at the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn with even greater success than the shows he staged in Cleveland. 

 

This period of Freed’s career proved to be a quagmire of big bucks and showbiz savvy.  He was involved in several quickie rock music films such as Rock Around The Clock which featured Bill Haley & The Comets, and Don’t Knock The Rock, which featured this riveting storyline:  “Alan Dale stars as Arnie Haines, a rock and roll star who returns to his hometown to rest up for the summer only to find that rock and roll has been banned there by disapproving adults. With the help of disc jockey Alan Freed and film headliners Bill Haley & His Comets, they set out to prove that the music isn't as bad as adults think.” 

 

Freed moved on to such lucrative novelties as putting a band together for Coral Records to make albums “suitable for teenage parties.”  Shortly after this, Freed’s name appeared as a co-author on such seminal rock classics as Maybellene and Nadine, both by Chuck Berry, who refused to comment as to  whether or not Freed helped to write these classic rock songs. 

"...the most popular song for which Freed received co-writing credit was 'Maybelline'.  In May 1955, part-time cosmetologist and would-be recording artist Chuck Berry was directed by blues singer Muddy Waters (himself a Chess artist) to the Chess offices at 4720 Cottage Grove on Chicago's South Side.  Berry carried with him a homemade tape recording containing four songs he had recently recorded.  Berry had high hopes for a slow blues he had written called 'Wee Wee Hours', but Leonard and Phil Chess had enough traditional blues artists on their roster.  They were searching for more 'current' material, something that would lend itself to the rock & roll mold and would appeal to young white record buyers.  Chess was more interested in a lively number on Berry's tape called 'Ida Red', a song Berry called 'a joke' and put it on the tape as 'filler'.  When the singer, recently rejected by Vee Jay and Mercury Records, was told to come up with a new title, Berry obliged.  The final version of 'Maybellene' was recorded on May 21, 1955....What happened after that is uncertain...The most plausible account of how Freed's name came to appear on 'Maybellene' was offered by Berry's biographer Howard A. DeWitt.  DeWitt maintains that Russ Fratto, a Chicago record distributor and the Chess Brothers landlord, as well as a friend of Freed's, was present at the 'Maybellene' recording session and was so impressed with the song's final version that he called Freed and the two 'discussed Chuck's talents', before Leonard Chess flew to New York to talk with Freed...By the time the Leonard Chess returned to Chicago, Freed had called a dozen times saying ' it was his biggest record ever'.  In any event, when 'Maybellene' was released, Fratto, Freed and Berry were listed as co-writers of the song...Berry maintained that because of his 'rookiness' in the music business he was 'totally ignorant' of the intricacies of songwriting and publishing royalties.  It was not until the singer received his first royalty statement for "Maybellene' that Berry discovered Frato and Freed 'had written the song with me'.  Confronted by Berry, Leonard Chess told the singer that the song 'would get more attention' bearing Fratto's and Freed's names."  (Big Beat Heat, John A. Jackson, Shirmer Books 1991)

Shortly after this, Freed went so far as to actually attempt to copyright the phrase “Rock n’ Roll” on the basis that he was the first to ever use that term back in his Cleveland days.  "...Freed and a companion drank at P.J. Oriarty's, a local Manhattan saloon on Fifty-First street.  The two spoke of Freed's and WINS's intent to emphasize 'rock & roll'...Sometime between drinks they decided to copyright the phrase 'rock & roll'...Rhythm and blues, the music Alan Freed now called 'rock & roll' was entering a new era.  Whoever held the copyright on the phrase 'rock & roll' would stand to collect royalties each time the phrase was used."  (Big Beat Heat, John A. Jackson, Shirmer Books 1991)  

Many of the major record labels, fearing that they would have to pay for the rights to use the phrase, hired lawyers to prevent this from happening.  Faced with mounting legal bills, Freed was unsuccessful in his attempt to co-opt the legendary phrase that would go on to launch the crazed dreams of hundreds of garage bands. 

In the sanitized American culture of the 1950’s, Freed’s adventurous habit of programming black music for a white audience led some folks to label him “a nigger lover.”  Many felt that Freed had gone too far when he hosted a 1957 television show that featured black teen idol, Frankie Lymon, dancing with a white girl.  The show was subsequently cancelled by its sponsors.  Freed’s showbiz decline began in earnest when he produced a 1958 concert in Boston which erupted in violence.  There were numerous beatings and stabbings which brought about a widespread boycott of Freed and his shows among concert hall owners. 

 

In 1960, Freed’s career continued to unravel in the course of highly publicized congressional hearings conducted by the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight which were related to the practice of payola in the music business.  The practice of payola involved a situation in which the record companies would give disc jockeys certain types of gratuities, such as money, booze, drugs or women, in return for the disc jockey’s cooperation in giving certain songs or artists extensive airplay on their shows.  Freed wasn’t alone among those accused of dabbling in payola.  Dick Clark of American Bandstand fame, was also suspected of such bribery.  As it turned out, Clark was found innocent while Freed was indicted on 26 counts of commercial bribery which detailed his acceptance of $30,0000 from several record companies to plug their records on his show.  The hearings also raised questions as to whether or not Freed’s songwriting royalties from rock songs, like the aforementioned Chuck Berry tunes, were nothing but another form of payola. 

When most of the payola allegations surfaced, Freed was the number one DJ for WABC in New York.  Ironically, while Freed was on the air one afternoon, WABC fired him because he had refused to sign a document which detailed his participation in accepting bribes from various record labels.  At the time of his dismissal from WABC, Alan Freed was the most popular disc jockey in the United States. 

 

Jack Lynn (left) looks on as disk jockey Alan Freed is handed subpena by Detective Nick Barrett. (Daily News)

In December 1962, Freed entered a guilty plea to two counts of commercial bribery.  He received a suspended sentence and was fined $300.  Freed’s popularity began to fade from the ether of popular culture. 

 

By 1964, he was living in Palm Springs when he was indicted on charges of tax evasion.  The constant stream of legal problems and his being blackballed from the music business due to the payola scandal left him a penniless alcoholic.  Before his trial for tax evasion began, Freed was hospitalized at the Desert Hospital in Palm Springs for uremic poisoning and cirrhosis of the liver.  Freed died a broken man in January 1965.  Freed was laid to rest in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.  In March 2002, his ashes were moved to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Clevland, Ohio. 

Despite shuffling off his mortal coil at the age of 43, Freed's legend lived on without him.  In 1978, a highly fictionalized film biopic, American Hot Wax, was released.  The film included appearances by Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin Jay Hawkins and Chuck Berry.  In 1986, Freed was among the first inductees to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  In 1991, Freed was honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Perhaps the legacy he would have enjoy the most is the fact that over the years he has been mentioned by name in a variety of rock songs; Do You Remember Rock & Roll Radio (Ramones), Ballrooms of Mars (Marc Bolan), They Used to Call It Dope (Public Enemy), Done Too Soon (Neil Diamond), The Ballad of Dick Clark (Skp Battin, a member of The Byrds), Payola Blues (Neil Young) and The King of Rock n' Roll (Cashman & West). 

 

"The Moondog Coronation Ball was meaningful in the development of American popular music...Few whites knew of -- let alone were avid followers of -- rhythm and blues music when Freed became its standard-bearer in the early 1950's  The whites who did know of the music and who did take particular notice of Freed's huge arena gathering were the record manufacturers who owned and operated the scores of tiny record labels that recored and released rhythm and blues.  None of those hustling would-be entrepreneurs were rich from selling rhythm and blues records to blacks, and few, if any, expected they ever would be.  But they were industrious, and they were intent on making a living in an industry they knew well.  Moondog's Cleveland Arena audience in part showed these men that  interest in rhythm and blues was far greater than anyone had imagined it to be.  Bill Randle, Cleveland's most popular radio disc jockey in the early 1950's, as well as one of the most influential deejays in the country, said of the Moondog Coronation Ball, 'It was the beginning of the acceptance of black popular music as a force in radio.  It was the first big show of its kind where the industry saw it as big business.'"  (Big Beat Heat, John A. Jackson, Shirmer Books 1991)

 

On May 7, 2016 at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio,  a new jukebox sized gravestone was installed at Freed's burial site.  Stevie Van Zandt aka Miami Steve, of the renowned Underground Radio Network and Springsteen's E-Street Band, delivered an moving speech at the Memorial Dedication: 

 "First of all, I am honored to be here today. I am honored to call Lance Freed one of my best friends. And honored that he asked me to participate in this sacred ceremony. And for those of us whose religion is Rock and Roll, I do mean sacred. Aldon James "Alan" Freed born Dec 15, 1921 grew up in Salem, Ohio where he played trombone in a band he called the Sultans of Swing. I'll do a brief bullet point history of his amazing career and then I want to say just a few words…*1942 WKST New Castle, Penn…*1943 WKBN Youngstown…*1945 WAKR Akron…*1950 WXEL brief first TV experience in Cleveland…*1951 Hooks up with Leo Mintz who has the Record Rendezvous store that will sponsor Alan as he begins his historic run on WJW July 11 and he uses Moondog Symphony as a theme and temporarily becomes the Moondog…*1952 March 13 Rock and Roll becomes a gamechanger and an industry at the Moondog Coronation Ball, right here at the Cleveland Arena. The show is considered the first Rock and Roll show…*1953 The first Rock and Roll show led to the first Rock and Roll Tour…featuring Ruth Brown, Wynonie Harris, Clovers, Joe Louis and Band (!), the Lester Young Combo, and the Buddy Johnson's Orchestra… *1954 Tape of Alan's Cleveland show runs on WNJR Newark which brings him to NY…*1954 joins WINS radio and makes his biggest impact…*1956-'59 involved in several of the first rock & roll movies…*1957 First national RR TV show, yes before American Bandstand, until Frankie Lymon jumps off stage and dances with a white girl which got the show cancelled.  All that stuff you can look up...but here's the thing…what's important to understand, is that Rock and Roll was not inevitable and black music in general crossing over to the white world in a very segregated society was not inevitable.  Let me try and explain it this way.  Our ability as a species to adapt is one of our strongest characteristics. When bad things happen we adjust. Difficult circumstances, we adapt but adjusting so readily can be a bad thing in one sense. When something good happens we adapt to that also and almost immediately take it for granted.  Suddenly history becomes inevitable.  Well I don't believe in inevitability when it comes to history…and not when it comes to greatness…and Alan was plenty of both. In my opinion, history is determined by individual greatness, complemented by other individuals seeking the same goals. Teamwork by the common vision of individuals.  Greatness isn't born. There may be an element of luck involved in terms of circumstance and DNA, but mostly, greatness comes from hard work and craft and endurance and dedicated focus…and, yes, an essential element is a strong ego... and with that a pretty healthy dose of selfishness and stubbornness; not always the best recipe for a family man. For being there when your family and friends want you to be…but I do believe for some there is a higher calling. A vision that few others see. A drive to accomplish something that most would think cannot be accomplished. To reach for greatness. And that drive often becomes obsession…flaws and all.  Those visionaries do the best they can for their family and friends. They really do. I truly believe that. Certainly in Alan's case. After that, all they can do is hope for some understanding.  As I said, Rock and Roll was not inevitable, and neither was Civil Rights. It was the obsession of great individuals that caused both of those revolutions to take place. And Alan Freed was one of those revolutionaries doing both simultaneously.  As I've said many times in the past, he played black records for white kids and changed the world for the better forever and our country crucified him for it…but he sure got the last laugh.  There's some evidence right down the street called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Evidence of far less importance but evidence none the less, would be...me.  Personally, my life has been dedicated to chasing greatness. Studying it. Seeking it out. Supporting it when I find it. And creating it when I can.  Alan Freed was the first to set the standards we all aspire to. He has been one of my heroes and role models most of my adult life. Good and bad.  I've done 738 weekly radio shows and thanked him at the end of every one.  I've mostly made my living playing Rock and Roll and I've never taken it for granted. I don't even take the existence of Rock and Roll for granted. Especially now that Rock and Roll has returned to the cult it was when Alan found it in 1951…but Alan's taste and content was only half the story.  There were probably a dozen white DJs playing R&B before him, but he's the one who sold it and he did it all with a cowbell and a phonebook.  There was something new he introduced. It was called enthusiasm. And his enthusiasm was color blind.  Rock and Roll will live on forever in some form or other.  Just like Blues and Jazz and Gospel, Bluegrass, and Soul Music, our craft begins with live performance so we don't need a music industry to survive but we must acknowledge the Rock Era that Alan started is over.  So this site will be a monument to both Alan and the Rock Era we lucky ones grew up in.  Terry Cashman and Tom West wrote a song about Alan you may not be familiar with, called the King of Rock and Roll.  As a song it's, well let's just say it has a lot of heart. But it does have one great line…It's a shame the way we decided to say goodbye…Let me say that again: It's a shame the way we decided to say goodbye…Well today, at least partially, fixes that and now there will be a place where all of us, and future generations, can say goodbye and hello.  As Alan Freed inspires the next Moondogger to greatness.”

 

 

To Learn More About The Life and Times of Alan Freed:

Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock and Roll

 


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