Noteworthy Connections / Sex, DJ and Rock ‘n’ Roll – Windber Native Credited With Naming Musical Form -by Dave Sutor May 2, 2016 Tribune-Democrat
Back in the early 1950s, a new uptempo form of rhythm and blues music started to gain crossover appeal among teenagers. The sound, however, did not have its own identity yet. But Alan Freed, a disk jockey on Cleveland radio station WJW and a native of Windber, started calling the sound “rock ‘n’ roll.” The description, which was already a well-known euphemism for having sex, captured the spirit of the sound and took off.
“The term wasn’t new,” said Todd Mesek, director of marketing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “It was an innuendo. It was a sexual innuendo, but it kind of described the energy behind the music, the spirit behind it. It stuck.”
Freed, during visits to Record Rendezvous, Cleveland’s largest record store, noticed a large number of white kids buying what were then called race records. At the suggestion of the store’s owner, Leo Mintz, Freed began playing the music on his late-night show – “Moondog Rock ‘n’ Roll Party.”
“It was a magical moment,” Mesek said. “A big part of history was what Alan Freed and Leo Mintz did at that time. It was a shot that was heard around the world.
Freed also helped put together The Moondog Coronation Ball.
“Initially hesitant, Freed soon embraced the music and its young fans,” according to alanfreed.com. “As his Moondog Show’s popularity increased, he decided to stage a dance with R&B stars. The Moondog Coronation Ball on March 21, 1952 was a smash – literally. The 10,000-capacity Cleveland Arena was sold out, but another 20,000 people showed up, and many tried to crash the gates. The dance had to be cancelled, but it is widely considered by historians as the first-ever rock and roll concert.”
Freed then became a popular deejay at WINS in New York City. “He really seized an influential moment in history and saw an opportunity to connect with the music that he had started to call rock ‘n’ roll,” Mesek said. Freed met resistance from some record executives and people who objected to white children listening to “black music” – but “it was excitement they couldn’t bottle back up,” Mesek said.
Today, the music Freed literally helped define covers a broad spectrum, well beyond just its R&B roots. There is heavy metal, psychedelic rock, country-rock, disco and techno. Performers as diverse as Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, The Beatles, Prince, The Allman Brothers Band, AC/DC, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Donna Summer, The Velvet Underground, Public Enemy, Neil Young, Chuck Berry and James Brown are all together under the ever-expanding rock ‘n’ roll genre Freed helped launch. Those musicians and hundreds of others have been enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is located in Cleveland, in part due to that city’s place as the spot where Freed helped grow rock ‘n’ roll. Freed was inducted with the inaugural hall of fame class in 1986.
However, there is a tarnished side to Freed’s legacy, too. Toward the end of his life, he got caught up in a “payola” investigation. He eventually pleaded guilty to two charges from an indictment, and, in the spring of 1963, paid a $300 fine. Freed admitted taking money from record companies, but said it was for consultation and that it did not influence what music he decided to play. Mesek said the scandal was “unfortunate,” but did not overshadow all of Freed’s contributions to popular culture.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is really swing with a modern name. It began on the levees and plantations, took in folk songs, and features blues and rhythm. It’s the rhythm that gets to the kids – they’re starved of music they can dance to, after all those years of crooners.”
On the web:
Albert James “Alan” Freed
• Born: Dec. 15, 1921 in Windber.
• Died: Jan. 20, 1965 in Palm Springs, California.
• Occupation/profession: Disc jockey.
• Education: Graduated from Salem High School in Salem, Ohio.
• First person to use the name “rock ‘n’ roll’ for what was a new form of uptempo rhythmn and blues music in the 1950s.
• Worked as a well-known disc jockey in Cleveland and New York.
• Appeared in several rock ‘n’ roll-themed motion pictures, including: “Rock Around the Clock” (1956) featuring Bill Haley & His Comets and The Platters; “Rock, Rock, Rock” (1956) featuring Tuesday Weld and Chuck Berry; “Mister Rock and Roll” (1957) featuring Rocky Graziano, Lionel Hampton, Frankie Lymon and Little Richard; “Don’t Knock The Rock” (1957) with Bill Haley & His Comets; and “Go, Johnny Go!” (1959) featuring Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, Jackie Wilson and others.
• Shared songwriter credit with Chuck Berry on song “Maybellene.”
• Saw his career ruined by “payola” scandal, reportedly for taking payments from record companies for songs he promoted on the radio; pleaded guilty to “commercial bribery” in 1962.
• Upon his death, was buried in California; family moved his ashes to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland; later interred at a Cleveland cemetery.
• Life inspired the 1978 film “American Hot Wax.”
• Mentioned in songs by The Ramones, Public Enemy, Neil Young, Neil Diamond and others; appears in a Stephen King short story.
• “Moondog,” mascot of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, is named in honor of Freed.
• Enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.