I always thought that it was ironic that I started my radio career in December. Mainly because of the fact that if it hadn’t been for one man, who was born on December 15th, 1921, there probably wouldn’t be a job for me in rock and roll radio…because there wouldn’t BE rock and roll radio as we know it.
He was born Aldon James Freed in Windber, Pennsylvania, but the family moved to Ohio soon after his birth. Throughout high school, he was known as Al J. Freed. When he broke into broadcasting, he was simply Alan Freed.
After a series of radio and TV jobs throughout Ohio, he landed at WJW in Cleveland. That’s where historians credit Freed with using the term “rock and roll” to hide the fact that he was playing rhythm & blues music to white teenagers. The phrase was not invented by Freed, but had been used as far back as the 1930’s by black singers as a way to describe sex, as in “I can rock and roll my baby all night long.” However, in a very segregated America, Freed couldn’t play the kind of “race” music he had been playing without finding some sort of disguise for it.
In case you don’t know, Freed is the main reason that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum resides in Cleveland. It’s considered the birthplace of rock and roll, not only because Freed starting using the term there, but because it was also the site of what most consider the very first rock concert. Alan always refered to himself on his nighttime radio program as “The Moondog,” and on Friday night, March 21, 1952, he joined a booking agent and a record store owner to promote a huge dance that was to be called “The Moondog Coronation Ball.” There were going to be live performances by rhythm & blues artists like the Dominoes, Paul Williams and Varetta Dillard. When the event was first planned, Freed wondered aloud if they would sell enough tickets to the 10,000 seat arena to break even.
The night of the concert came, and by the time 9:30 rolled around the crowd had grown to over 10,000…and there were just four wooden doors separating them from the evening’s festivities. That’s when, according to a photographer on the scene, “the lid blew off,” and the several thousand people waiting to get in crashed through the doors and into the arena. By 11:30, police and fire officials gave up trying to restore order, and the show was cancelled. It was pandemonium. It was rock and roll.
Freed’s following soon attracted the attention of the major radio markets, and in 1954, Freed started at WINS in New York City, where he quickly became a champion for rhythm & blues music, bringing it to teenagers black and white. One of the practices that was prevalent in the music business during those years was giving on-air announcers certain “perks” for playing and promoting certain songs on the air. The perks could come in many forms, but most often it was cold, hard cash. It wasn’t just considered, it was expected. At one point, one of Freed’s associates visited Alan’s home and said that he needed a little money. Freed opened a closet where there were literally stacks of money, and simply said, “How much do you need?”
In the government’s attempt to halt rock and roll from spreading too far into mainstream America, they decided that this practice of providing “perks” to DJs was bribery, and termed the practice “payola.” Many of the nation’s top announcers were indicted, including Freed. Some, like Dick Clark, avoided prosecution by providing states evidence against their colleagues. For some reason, the government went after Freed with a vengeance.
He was never convicted, but his career took a serious hit. He had been fired from WINS when the scandal first hit, and almost immediately was picked up by WABC in New York, where he also hosted a TV show. On one of those shows, a black male was shown dancing with a white female. The show was immediately canceled, and Freed left WABC in protest. Always a smoker and a lover of bourbon, his drinking increased and his health started to decline under the stress.
After a series of radio jobs that would last only a month or two, Alan Freed ended up in California. All of his friends, including all of the people he helped get into the radio or music business, disappeared. He got behind in his bills. In fact, the night that he collapsed at home, he had to have his son run next door to call the doctor because his phone had been disconnected.
He died in the hospital of uremic poisoning caused by advanced sclerosis of the liver. It was 1965. Since all of his friends and associates had deserted him at the end of his life, and he could no longer find a job in the career he loved, many say he died of a broken heart.
It is truly fitting that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is in Cleveland, and that Alan Freed was in the first class of inductees.
Happy birthday, Alan. I hope you are witnessing the respect that you earned in life.