A Leisurely Look @ Alan Freed

I no longer hold much stock in who has been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Whether or not an act has been so honoured is not really a benchmark of their greatness or their contributions, says I. I mean, some of the acts that are getting in now…it’s getting to be like the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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Having said that, the first few years of the Hall’s existence saw them honouring the truly great pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll and popular music. Take, for example, the very first group of inductees. And consider that, if you’re going to do this at all, you are going to highlight those who have made the greatest impact on the music. In 1986, the inductees included Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, James Brown and Sam Cooke. Now, that’s a group of pioneers.

The Hall also acknowledges in separate categories “Early Influences” and “Non-Performers”. The first ceremony honoured Sam Phillips. This is a no-brainer as Sam is legendary for being, among other things, the first man to record Elvis Presley. So, if you add Sam to the previously mentioned group, it is a who’s-who of early rock ‘n’ roll. But there was yet another person honoured at the premiere festivities, the man we’re looking at today, Alan Freed.

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Alan Freed was born in Pennsylvania. And I’m going to pause right there to say – what is it about the Keystone State that produces notable personages? So many of the people I’ve been looking up lately hail from this state. People like Lizabeth Scott, Fred Rogers, Martin Gabel and Janet Gaynor. Add to the list people like Arnold Palmer, Perry Como, Frankie Avalon, Grace Kelly, Bobby Troup, Daryl Hall, Charles Bronson, David O. Selznick and the Barrymores and you’ve got quite a group.

Freed grew up in Ohio playing trombone in a swing band. While attending Ohio State University, he became interested in radio and later worked as a DJ on Armed Forces Radio while serving in the Army during World War 2. Upon leaving the service, he found work at radio stations in Ohio and Pennsylvania and became known for playing hot jazz.

In the late 1940’s, Freed left WAKR in Akron and his “non-compete clause” restricted the work he could do in radio. Subsequently, he had to take the graveyard shift at WJW in Cleveland. It was here that a seismic shift was about to take place.

In Cleveland, Freed met a local record store owner who told Freed that the kids were starting to buy his rhythm and blues records in great numbers and suggested Freed would have a radio audience for this music. So Freed began a new show, peppered with hipster lingo, on July 11, 1951 that he called “The Moondog House” and that was devoted to playing R&B all through the night. This is considered to be the first time that R&B – decidedly “black music” – was played regularly on a mainstream station. He began an intimate relationship with the kids who listened to his station and he began to refer to the music he was playing as “rock ‘n’ roll”.

The phrase “rock ‘n’ roll” can trace it’s origins back as far as the 17th century to describe the movement of a ship at sea. At the start of the 20th century, the phrase began to appear in black gospel and referred to spiritual fervour. Later, the phrase became a part of black slang and was used in a sexual connotation. Then, the phrase began to be heard in blues and popular songs by artists like The Boswell Sisters, Chick Webb and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. By the time Freed was on the air in Cleveland, the term was heard in and had connections to the “race records” and R&B that Freed was playing. From there, it was as simple as Alan Freed deciding to call the music he was playing “rock ‘n’ roll”. His radio show and any concerts he put on used the term, as well.

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The date March 21, 1952 could be considered a “birth” of sorts for this genre. Freed often gathered artists together to put on concerts but on this date he staged the “Moondog Coronation Ball”, which has been called the first rock ‘n’ roll concert. The line-up featured the Dominoes and several other acts that have been lost in the mists of time, including the Rocking Highlanders, a black group that appeared in kilts! An estimated 20,000 people turned up at the Cleveland Arena which held less than half that. The Cleveland police shut the concert down and made the crowds disperse when it looked like a riot would ensue. So, the first rock ‘n’ roll concert went off in real “rock ‘n’ roll” fashion. (Side note: the last sports team to occupy the Cleveland Arena was the Cleveland Crusaders of the World Hockey Association. The building was demolished in 1977). 

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By July of ’54, Freed’s popularity was soaring, so much so that he landed a job at major station WINS in New York City. Tapes of his shows began to be played elsewhere throughout the country and Freed hosted a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Dance Party” on CBS radio. Hollywood was the next obvious step and Freed showed up in early rock ‘n’ roll exploitation films such as Rock Around the Clock, Rock, Rock, Rock and Don’t Knock the Rock. Add to this his prime time TV series, The Big Beat, and his appearances on many popular TV talk and quiz shows of the day and Freed emerged as a staunch defender of this music and was loved by the kids who saw him as a hero. But it was about to come crashing down.

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“Banned in Boston”. That’s a phrase you often run into. What is up with this town? Beantown was where it started to unravel for Freed. It was there that he was putting on a rock ‘n’ roll show in 1958. Boston, being a strict, Catholic-run town, was not all that crazy about Freed’s show to begin with but when the show began the police and security grew increasingly concerned that there would be trouble as an excessive amount of kids had gathered at the venue. Police began to strongly suggest changes to Freed’s show and when they asked Freed to have the lights turned up in the place, Freed was ticked. “It looks like the police don’t want you to have a good time here,” Freed told the kids assembled, “C’mon, let’s have a party”. The kids, of course, took this as an invitation to cause a ruckus and the next day Freed found himself charged with “inciting a riot”. But things would get worse.

Payola is a term that refers to the unethical practice of paying someone to promote your product over those of your competitors. In the 1950’s, smaller, independent record labels emerged and attempted to wage war with the larger labels that were arms of mightier conglomerates with many promotion and advertising dollars at their disposal. In order to get their records heard by the public, small labels got creative in coercing DJ’s to spin their platters. Gifts of money and other things were offered to the jocks in exchange for a promise that the DJ’s would promote and play these records on their shows. As illegal as this practice was, it incidentally helped to advance cultural diversity as a lot of these smaller labels were dealing in rhythm and blues recorded by black artists. After all, major labels like Columbia were purveyors of predominantly “white” music that was having no trouble getting airtime. This illegal practice was actually a fight against the white dominance of radio.

 

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Now, payola was not illegal outside of New York and Pennsylvania, believe it or not. Many DJ’s even reported these payments on their income tax. However, in late 1959, authorities started investigating “bribery” charges against disc jockeys. Broadcasters began asking their employees to sign affidavits stating that they did not accept bribes; Freed wouldn’t sign one, stating he did often accept gifts and he didn’t want to perjure himself. Despite his protests, Freed was fired from his radio job and his television show was taken off the air.

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Unemployable in New York, Freed moved to Los Angeles and began work at KDAY. After only a few days there, indictments against Freed were handed down on misdemeanor commercial bribery charges. In May of 1960, Freed was formally arrested in Manhattan and charged – along with seven other radio figures – with receiving payola. Freed looked worse than the others charged though due to co-writing credits he received on songs such as Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene”, which entitled him to royalties as a co-composer; a lot of money if the song did well. “Maybellene” was a song that Freed played often, helping it to become a nationwide hit. This constituted a distinct conflict of interest and KDAY, hoping to distance themselves from the scandal, fired Alan Freed .

Alan Freed now found himself disgraced, out of work and targeted by the government for income tax evasion. Suffering under the immense financial burden of crippling legal bills, Freed lost the heart to fight. Living in Palm Springs with his third wife, Freed died of uremia and cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism. He was only 43.

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Alan Freed’s very cool grave marker in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland.

Alan Freed is a legendary figure in rock ‘n’ roll history. He was a fervent supporter of the music in the early-to-mid-1950’s and was a respecter of youth and their tastes and attempted to provide them with a soundtrack to the challenges they faced as they grew up. Decidedly colour-blind, Freed championed rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, bringing many black artists to national attention. He perhaps was a victim of the establishment’s dislike of this new music and the way it brought black and white youth together. Or perhaps it was Alan Freed who had to be sacrificed as the industry acknowledged it’s flaws and dragged itself out of it’s old fashioned, unfair and uneven business practices. As a result of the payola scandal, changes took place in radio such as the establishment of the “program director”; one person who’s job it was to dictate what records were played.

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The Alan Freed exhibit at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

When planning began for the foundation of a museum devoted to rock ‘n’ roll, many cities put forth their bid to have it built in their locale. Interesting to note that it was Cleveland that beat out places like New York and Memphis. While the Cleveland group did present the best financial package – $65 million in public money – they also cited Alan Freed and his work at WJW and the “Moondog Coronation Ball” when arguing that the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame should be placed where it is today, in downtown Cleveland. Fitting, too, that – for a time – Freed’s ashes were housed in the Hall of Fame in the city he put on the rock ‘n’ roll map.

3 comments

  1. Fascinating stuff as usual. Am I right in thinking that George Klein got into a spot of bother over payola in 76 or 77? I seem to remember reading that Elvis phoned President Carter to try and intervene, but was so medicated the President couldn’t work out what he was trying to say. Probably luckily.

    It seems to me that Alan Freed was treated very unfairly. Disgracefully so, in fact. Compared to the sins of some of the biggest names the entertainment industry management generally, and what blatant crooks have gotten away with over the years, and been widely celebrated for, Freed’s transgressions seem barely worth considering. Payola is merely the free market at work, isn’t it?

    • I don’t recall anything about George Klein’s problems with this – must look that up.

      Yes, I tried to suggest in the text that the industry was looking at it’s practices and felt like the conflict of interest thing was not good – this at a time when the movie studios were divesting themselves of their theatre holdings. They tried to clean things up but really put the boots to Freed; holding him up as an example. But on payola; if money drives things then the richest most powerful record labels would have a monopoly. Look at stupid Manchester City FC – with all the oil money at their disposal, they can buy the best players and achieve a sort of monopoly.

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