Born Aldon James Freed, 15 December 1921, Windber, Pennsylvania
Alan Freed is the most famous disc jockey in rock and roll history, and the man credited with giving rock and roll its name. At the height of his fame, in 1956-57, he was almost as popular as Elvis Presley, but the payola scandal and its aftermath destroyed his career.
Born in Pennsylvania, Freed moved to Salem, Ohio, in 1933. There he led a jazz band called The Sultans of Swings, in which he played the trombone. While attending Ohio State University in 1940, he fell in love with radio. The next year he joined the army, but received a medical discharge within a year. He started doing radio work in 1942 at a small station in Pennsylvania, did some sports broadcasting in Youngstown, Ohio, and in 1945 became a deejay at WAKR in Akron, Ohio, playing jazz and pop records. He became a local celebrity, but was fired in 1949 for demanding a pay rise, after which Freed moved to Cleveland for a job on television. In Cleveland he met record shop owner Leo Mintz, who sold a lot of rhythm and blues records (and not only to the 130,000 blacks in Cleveland) and got him connected with WJW Radio. White stations didn't play R&B then. In 1951 Mintz suggested to Freed (who knew very little about R&B up to that point) that he would introduce this type of music to a white audience. Mintz, who would sponsor the show, saw Freed's WJW radio program as one giant commercial for his Record Rendezvous merchandise and selected the records. All Freed had to do was to introduce the music. (Later he would say that his WJW program was his own idea.) Freed followed Mintz's suggestion, began to like R&B and called it "rock 'n' roll" in order to avoid racial prejudice which was predominant at that time. Freed was certainly not the first to use the phrase "rock and roll", but it hadn't been used as a term to designate rhythm and blues until then.
Freed began to call himself The Moondog and his program Moondog's Rock 'n' Roll Party. Playing R&B for an audience that consisted primarily of white teenagers was a good move and it caught on. He also started promoting local music concerts, but a near riot at the Moondog Coronation Ball on March 21, 1952 (considered the first modern rock n roll concert) got him in trouble with the local authorities. Still, his popularity grew and grew. At that time, it was common for a white artist to cover a song that had originally been recorded by a black artist. Even when the cover was not as good as the original (which was usually the case), it was the white artist's version that would be promoted by the disc jockeys and the record companies. Freed made enemies in the music business by refusing to play such covers. He introduced white teenagers to the R&B originals, thus creating a much bigger market for black artists.
In September 1954 Freed took his show to WINS in New York City. He lost his Moondog nickname after litigation with a blind Manhattan street musician with the same name. He then decided to call his late-night show "Rock 'n' Roll Party". Freed hosted major live shows at the Paramount Theatre in New York and also promoted rock 'n' roll caravan tours. He appeared in five films : Rock Around the Clock ; Don't Knock the Rock ; Rock, Rock, Rock! (all 1956), Mister Rock and Roll (1957) and Go Johnny Go (1959). The latter was also produced by Freed.
The rock n roll explosion of 1956 took Freed to further heights of popularity. WINS added a second show to his schedule ; he began getting co-writing credits (and royalties) on songs he would play and in July 1957 he began hosting The Big Beat, a Friday evening TV show on ABC. He also taped a weekly 30-minute show for a European audience ("Jamboree"), broadcast on Radio Luxembourg on Saturday evenings.
With the rise of white stars like Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Pat Boone, Freed's power as a disc jockey was somewhat weakened. He became a target of opponents of rock 'n' roll such as Mitch Miller (A&R chief at Columbia Records) and in 1958 he was arrested on a charge of inciting a riot at a Boston concert. Though the charges were dropped 17 months later, legal bills bankrupted him. Fired by WINS, Freed briefly landed at WABC, also in New York, before the US Congress started its "payola" investigations in 1959. Payola was a common practice in the US music industry of the 1950s. Independent labels offered cash or other inducements to disc jockeys in exchange for airplay of their records. In late 1959 Freed was fired by WABC for refusing to sign a statement confirming that he had never accepted payola. His honest naivety led to a charge of 26 counts of commercial bribery. By then it was 1962. Freed received a suspended sentence and a fine. His career was ruined. Others like Dick Clark who had performed their jobs in a similar manner escaped unharmed. Freed held his head high, maintaining that he had never played a record he didn't like.
It seemed that Freed was singled out as a scapegoat for what everyone else in the industry was doing. He had made a lot of enemies. He also had self-destructive tendencies that manifested itself in chain-smoked cigarettes and free-flowing alcohol. He moved to California, but faced a new round of charges, this time of tax evasion. He died a penniless, broken man on January 20, 1965, aged only 43.
A movie based loosely on Freed's activities in the early days of rock n roll was made in 1978. Titled American Hot Wax, it featured Tim McIntire in a stellar portrayal of Alan Freed. In spite of the many historical inaccuracies, the film succeeds admirably in capturing the mood that was created in rock n roll by Freed in the 1950s.
In 1986 Freed was among the first inductees of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (in the category non-performers).
More info : http://www.rockabillyhall.com/AlanFreed1.html
Official website : http://www.alanfreed.com/
Biography : John A. Jackson, Big Beat Heat : Alan Freed and the early years of rock & roll. New York : Schirmer, 1991. 400 pages. Reissued in paperback by Collectables Press as "The Alan Freed Story" (2007). The book was the basis for the TV movie "Mr. Rock 'n' Roll : The Alan Freed Story" (1999), which is available on YouTube in twelve instalments.
Acknowledgements : John A. Jackson, several encyclopedias.
Dik, July 2014
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