Where were you in ’52? If among the 25,000 who attended the world’s first rock and roll concert 70 years ago this month, you did not hear much music. Rock and roll’s official coming out party on March 21, 1952 at Cleveland Arena ended during the first set. The overflow crowd stormed the venue (capacity: 10,000) causing the police to bring the night to an abrupt end. Civic leaders heaped scorn on the show’s promoter and master of ceremonies, local disc jockey Alan Freed. It was the first time Freed incurred the wrath of the political and cultural establishment. It would not be the last.
Rock and roll’s first great evangelist and martyr, Freed became associated with the genre on July 11, 1951, when he started hosting a radio show with the purpose of exposing white teenagers to the music. Sponsored by record retailer Leo Mintz, the show was originally called “Freeditorium,” but its host soon adopted the goofy on-air nickname “Moondog” and the show was re-titled “Moondog House.” The playlist featured what was known as “race music” before Billboard magazine renamed it “rhythm and blues” in 1949. The tunes had a heavy beat conducive to dancing but were rarely enjoyed by white audiences prior to Freed. It was not just the music that Freed introduced to the wider world. He also gave it a new handle.
Initially, Freed used “rock and roll” as an adjective to describe his radio show. But soon he applied the term to the rhythm and blues records he spun for his listeners. The term became ubiquitous. Then Freed became ubiquitous. Decamping for the media capital of the world in 1954, Freed’s New York radio show was heard in numerous North American and European markets. On air, Freed was a fountain of urban patois and he embellished songs with a cowbell and a telephone directory he used as a drum. So strong was the public’s identification of Freed with the music he championed that many listeners mistakenly assumed he was black. That changed when Freed became a film and television star as he chaperoned rock and roll into new media.
A superlative showman, Freed focused heavily on the rock and roll stage shows he used to break box office records. Like his radio audience, the crowds at Freed-organized rock and roll concerts were racially integrated. The idea of black and white teenagers dancing together disturbed parents of both races and Freed and rock and roll came under intense criticism. But Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized rock and roll for creating a “powerful cultural bridge between black and white” and facilitating the integration of American teens through a “common music, a common language, and ... the same dances.” Perhaps racial segregation would have eventually subsided regardless. But rock and roll accelerated that change. And more than anyone, Freed accelerated rock and roll.
Like many rock and roll stars, Freed died young. His death at age 43 from alcoholism was the culmination of a spectacular fall from grace that many believe began with legal troubles stemming from an incident at a show in Boston where the crowd got out of hand and worsened when Freed’s name became synonymous with the term “payola.” But his career was already in decline by then. As rock and roll’s popularity soared, it became increasingly dominated by white artists (e.g., Elvis) and milquetoast deejays (e.g., Dick Clark). On the radio, Freed had a habit of eschewing “white” covers of songs in favor of original versions performed by black artists. His weekly ABC-TV rock and roll dance show was summarily cancelled when fourteen-year-old Frankie Lymon of “The Teenagers” danced with a white girl on air. As rock and roll became whiter, Freed’s influence declined. He was a victim of his own success. Even Freed’s copyrighting of the term “rock and roll” was vitiated by the impracticality of enforcing his rights to a phrase that entered common parlance.
Today, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s presence in Cleveland, a city known more for polka than rock and roll, is the most visible tribute to Freed’s musical legacy. Sadly, Freed’s civil rights legacy lacks official recognition. Having brought fame to countless black artists, Freed deserves a place in the National Civil Rights Hall of Fame. Moreover, the Rock Hall has been too busy inducting rap artists to remember the 70th anniversary of Freed’s revolutionary radio show or Freed’s 100th birthday which passed last year without comment. But it was a rap group, “Public Enemy,” who best summed up Freed in song, “Alan Freed the waves as much as Lincoln freed the slaves.”
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney and former member of the NAACP. The opinions expressed are those of the author.