Alan Freed is probably the most famous disc jockey in rock-and-roll history, and the man who is credited with giving rock-and-roll its name.
Freed was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1922 and attended high school in Salem, Ohio, where he was the leader of a jazz band called The Sultans Of Swing. In college, he developed an interest in radio, and following World War II he landed a job at WKST in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He also worked for WKBN in Youngstown, Ohio and WAKR in Akron, Ohio, before moving on to WJW in Cleveland.
Alan Freed liked the music that was made primarily by blacks which was known then as rhythm-and-blues. But in order to avoid racial prejudice which was predominant at that time, he called it something else -- he dubbed it rock-and-roll. At WJW he began to call his show Moondog's Rock'n'Roll Party. Playing rhythm-and-blues for an audience that consisted primarily of white teenagers was a good move and it caught on. Freed started to put on shows and his popularity increased. In March of 1952, he put on the Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland. To his surprise, 25,000 fans tried to attend it, resulting in a near riot. The majority of them were white.
In 1954 Freed took his radio show to WINS in New York City. He had a delivery and a selection of songs that appealed to the teenage audiences of the 1950's. The Moondog liked to drink scotch and he jived with the numerous acts that performed around New York. His unique style caught on and the stage shows that he produced were to become legendary. He appeared in films made around 1956 and 1957, some of which were based on his style of promoting rock-and-roll: Don't Knock The Rock, Rock Around The Clock, Mr. Rock'n'Roll, Rock, Rock, Rock and others.
In the music business in the 1950's, it was a common occurrence for a white artist to cover a song that had originally been recorded by a black artist, and even though the cover was not as good as the original, 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. Another common practice was for DJ's to arrange deals from various sources in the music business in return for their promotion of certain records. For example, Freed helped to make Chuck Berry's Maybelline a hit record, in return for being listed as co-writer of the song, which he actually was not.
Alan Freed was kind-hearted, very honest, careless, courageous and naive. He put on a show at the Boston Arena that resulted in his being charged with incitement to riot. His legal troubles mounted and even though the charges were later dismissed, he went into bankruptcy. Payola charges began to surface. In late 1959 WABC in New York asked him to sign a statement confirming that he had never accepted payola. Freed refused and he was fired. Charged with 26 counts of commercial bribery, he received a suspended sentence and a fine. Although he faced no prison time, his career was ruined. Other DJ's and promoters who had performed their jobs in a similar manner escaped unharmed from the so-called payola scandals. Freed held his head high, maintaining that he had never played a record that he didn't like.
Freed left New York and faced a new round of charges of income tax evasion. He died a penniless, broken man on January 20, 1965.
A movie based loosely on Freed's activities in the early days of rock-and-roll was made in 1978. Titled American Hot Wax, it features Tim McIntire in a stellar portrayal of Freed. Although the film is short on historical fact, it succeeds admirably in capturing the mood that was created in rock-and-roll by Alan Freed in the 50's. A book called Big Beat Heat by John A. Jackson explores Freed's role in the evolution of rock-and-roll and the lasting effect that he had.
Alan Freed's name was on the list of the first inductees into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
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