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Mr. Rock and Roll: Meet Cleveland DJ Alan Freed! Follow @nyccitiview
From his seat behind the microphone at WJW Radio in Cleveland and, later, WINS Radio, deejay Alan Freed did more to spread the gospel of rock and roll during its infancy than any other non-performer.
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Cleveland Disc Jockey Alan Freed
Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and raised in Salem, Ohio, Freed came to WJW as the host of a classical music show in February, 1951. He befriended Leo Mintz, owner of Record Rendezvous, a store on Prospect Avenue in downtown Cleveland. Legend has it that Mintz told Freed numerous white kids were buying black R&B records at his store and convinced Freed to begin playing R&B records on WJW. In fact, the vast majority of Mintz’s customers were African Americans, and by getting Freed to play R&B, Mintz thought he could increase sales.
Alan Freed Radio Show
Nonetheless, on the evening of July 11, 1951, Freed’s R&B show made its debut on WJW. Soon, Freed adopted a new persona – the Moondog, a crazed hipster who talked over the music, howled, pounded on phone books and banged on a cowbell. “Hello everybody,” Freed would say. “How ya’ll tonight? This is Alan Freed, the ol’ King of the Moondoggers, and its time for some blues and rhythm records for all the gang in the Moondog Kingdom.”
By the following January, Freed’s show was causing a stir in Cleveland, and other stations began adding R&B to their play lists. Then on March 21, 1952, Freed, Mintz and Lew Platt, a booking agent and promoter, put on the Moondog Coronation Ball at the old Cleveland Arena on Euclid Avenue. A landmark event in the birth of rock and roll, the Coronation Ball was intended as an R&B concert staring the Dominoes, Paul Williams and Varetta Dillard.
First Rock and Roll Concert
Despite the fact that the concert was only advertised on Freed’s radio show, nearly 20,000 people, mostly black, showed up – twice the capacity of the Arena. They crashed through the doors, knocking down ticket takers and ushers and by 11:30, the police and fire departments had closed down the show.
The riot became national news, and Freed’s popularity escalated. Many now cite the Coronation Ball as the first rock and roll concert and, indeed, it many have been. But even more important, as another Cleveland deejay, Bill Randle, pointed out, was the fact that “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.
Alan Freed Biography
Freed eventually moved to New York, where he grew in national prominence as he continued to promote rock and roll, via his radio show, television, movies and all-star concerts at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theatre. By 1956, Freed was known throughout the country, and he was arguably rock and roll’s best-known booster. But by the end of the Fifties, he was a major target of the payola investigation, charged with illegally taking money in exchange for playing certain records. He eventually relocated to the West Coast, where he died a broken man in 1965.
Alan Freed was inducted into the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.