I am emotionally attached to this story because the history of music is one of my favorite areas of study (ref: my passion blog from last semester), I never really thought about where the genre of music came from but get excited because it’s one of those stories that may make you cry (I did).
The term Rock ‘n’ roll was coined by our hero this week, Alan Freed, but started with a song sung by Trixie Smith from 1938 named “My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll”, which evolved in the 1940’s and 50’s to include more rhythm and blues, commonly known to the public as “black music” that was popular in black communities and urban centers. Radio stations refused to play Blues, in favor of big band music such as Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and Nat King Cole.
Our hero this week was an Ohio State graduate (gross I know, I’m sorry) where he studied to be a mechanical engineer after giving up his dream of becoming a musician. In 1942 he started as a disc jockey for a small station in Pennsylvania (hell yeah) and became a DJ for AKR in Akron, Ohio in 1945 where he started playing jazz and pop.
After a salary dispute, he moved to Cleveland Ohio in 1951 to start a career in TV, but before he could get involved he met a record store owner named Leo Mintz. It could be argued that Mintz was the true creator of Rock ‘n’ Roll as he was the one to explain to Freed that white kids loved R&B, but they felt like they could not buy any records because it was considered “black music”, but if Freed could put the music on the radio, it would become popular and more widely accepted by the national population.
During this time in American history whites were afraid to associate with blacks because of the Cold War in which America was fighting a communist regime, which led to the well-known McCarthy trials which prosecuted anyone and everyone who was assumed to be a communist. ‘Communist’ then became a blanket-term for anyone who supported rebellion against the government, including blacks beginning the Civil Rights Movement.
So, Freed played rock ‘n’ roll on his show, the “Moondog Show” at WJW which became wildly popular. It is possible that the first rock ‘n’ roll concert ever was hosted by Freed on March 21, 1952, “The Moondog Coronation Ball”, where the sold out show of 10,000 listeners tripled. With 30,000, both black and white, fired up teenagers, there were people crashing into the gates and the concert had to be shut down.
Soon crossover artists such as Fats Domino, Bill Haley, and Chuck Berry started topping the charts in the pop music industry, making Rock ‘n’ Roll a cultural sensation with the help of Freed.
In September of 1954, Freed joined WINS radio in New York City where he renamed the show “Rock ‘n’ Roll Party”, where he supported independent record labels that popularly released R&B music. So he started to be hated by church groups, parents and the press who thought the music was too racy and had much of it taken off the radio.
In response, WINS gave him a second show and he started hosting a show on ABC named “The Big Beat” in 1957 on Friday nights that mixed R&B and pop music. He even recorded a weekly radio show that was broadcast in Great Britain, which is said to have been heard by the Beatles.
Freed did not care about the race of the musician who created the music, he played music he thought was good and that should be heard, but this did not mean everyone was like him. ABC canceled his show after a black singer was seen dancing with a white girl.
This did not stop Freed from wanting to bring music to people, the most infamous example being a concert in Boston held in May of 1958. Boston is known to be a Catholic center and church dominated city, so extra police were hired to keep the event in line. At one point in the show the cops said to Freed “You gotta turn the lights on, they’re getting crazy here”, so the lights were turned on and Freed said “It looks like the police don’t want you to have a good time here. Come on, let’s have a party” to which the teenagers in the crowd went absolutely insane.
After the show, there were riots and fighting between teenagers, cops, and people who did not want the tour in Boston. Freed was actually charged with inciting a riot because of this evening.
His career struggled to gain steady footing after this and he eventually drowned his sorrows of legal bills, income tax evasion and the end of his career in alcohol. By spring of 1964, Freed was living in Palm Springs where he entered a local hospital for gastrointestinal intestinal bleeding, resulting from cirrhosis of the liver and eventually died of kidney failure at the age of 43.
Today, his ashes remain in an urn in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio alongside Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and James Brown.
Freed began the subtle integration of black and white culture, whole-heartedly believing color did not matter and pushing the boundaries for what popular culture could and would accept, changing the status quo of what white supremacists had taught their children to believe and creating an atmosphere where all were accepted justified by their mutual love of rock ‘n’ roll.