(December 15, 1921 – January 20, 1965), also known as Moondog
, was an American disc-jockey
who became internationally known for promoting African-American Rhythm and Blues
music on the radio in the United States
under the name of Rock and Roll
. Many of the top African-American performers of the first generation of rock and roll (such as Bo Diddley
, Little Richard
and Chuck Berry
) salute Alan Freed for his pioneering attitude in breaking down racial barriers among the youth of 1950s America. His career was destroyed by the payola
scandal that hit the broadcasting industry in the early 1960s.
Albert James "Alan" Freed was born on December 15, 1921, to Maud Palmer, age 22, and Charles S. Freed, age 28, in Windber
. In 1933, Freed's family moved to Salem, Ohio
(Charles and Maude Freed and three sons, including Al J., were already in Salem, Perry Township, Columbiana County, Ohio, for the April, 1930, U.S. Federal Population Census), where Freed attended Salem High School
, graduating in 1940. While Freed was in high school, he formed a band called the Sultans of Swing in which he played the trombone. Freed's initial ambition was to be a bandleader; however, an ear infection put an end to this dream. While in college, Freed became interested in radio. Soon after World War II
, Freed landed broadcasting jobs at smaller radio stations, including WKST (New Castle, PA
), WKBN (Youngstown, OH
), and WAKR (Akron, OH
), where, in 1945, he became a local favorite for playing hot jazz
Pioneer/"Father of Rock and Roll"
While Freed called himself the "father of rock and roll
", he was not the first to play it on the airwaves; however, he is credited with coining and popularizing the term "rock and roll" to describe the style of music. Many of the top African-American performers of the 1950s have given public credit to Freed for pioneering racial integration
among the youth of America at a time when the adults were still promoting racial strife. Little Richard
has given the credit to Freed that others have denied him. An example of Freed's non-racist attitude is preserved in the motion pictures starring many of the leading African-American acts of the day in which he played a part as himself. For example, in the 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock
, Freed, as himself, tells the audience that "Rock and roll is a river of music that has absorbed many streams: rhythm and blues, jazz, rag time, cowboy songs, country songs, folk songs. All have contributed to the big beat."
After leaving WAKR
in 1949, Freed moved to Cleveland, Ohio
In April of 1950, Freed entered the Cleveland market on WXEL-TV (Channel 9) as the afternoon movie show host.
Leo Mintz, owner of the Record Rendezvous, one of Cleveland's largest record stores, helped Freed get a job playing classical music on Cleveland radio station WJW. In 1951, Mintz told Freed that he had noticed increased interest in rhythm and blues records at his store. He wanted to broaden the market for such recordings, and he proposed to buy several hours of late-night airtime on WJW, to be devoted entirely to R&B recordings. He asked Freed to serve as host. On July 11, 1951, Freed started playing rhythm and blues records on WJW.
Freed called his show "The Moondog House" and billed himself as "The King of the Moondoggers". He had been inspired by an offbeat instrumental called "Moondog Symphony" that had been recorded by New York street musician Louis Hardin, aka "Moondog". Freed adopted the record as his show's theme music. His on-air manner was energetic and faintly smarmy. He addressed his listeners as if they were all part of a make-believe kingdom of hipsters, united in their love for Negro music.
Later that year, Freed promoted dances and concerts featuring the music he was playing on the radio. He was one of the organizers of a five-act show called the "The Moondog Coronation Ball" on March 21, 1952 at the Cleveland Arena. This event is known as the first rock and roll concert. Crowds attended in numbers far beyond the arena's capacity, and the concert was shut down early due to overcrowding and a near-riot. Freed gained a priceless notoriety from the incident. WJW immediately increased the airtime allotted to Freed's program, and his popularity soared.
In those days, Cleveland was considered by the music industry to be a "breakout" city, where national trends first appeared in a regional market. Freed's popularity made the pop music business sit up and take notice. Soon, tapes of Freed's program began to air in the New York City area.
Although Freed made use of the "Moondog Symphony," he failed to obtain the composer's permission to use the piece, nor did he pay any royalties. As a result he was sued by Hardin for infringement in 1952; Hardin also argued prior claim to the name "Moondog," under which he had been composing since 1947. Freed lost the suit, and had to give up both use of the piece and the Moondog name.
1010 WINS New York
Following his success on the air in Cleveland, Freed moved to New York City
where he turned WINS
into a rock and roll radio station.
In 1956, Freed was introduced to European audiences through his appearances in a succession of rock 'n' roll movies such as Rock Around The Clock
, Don't Knock the Rock
and other titles. That same year, while working for WINS
in New York City
, Freed began recording a weekly half-hour segment of the Radio Luxembourg
show called Jamboree
that was aired on Saturday nights at 9:30 PM. The billing of his segment in the 208
magazine programme guide described him as "the remarkable American disc-jockey whose programmes in the States cause excitement to the fever pitch.". A year later, Dick Clark
appeared in a rock 'n' roll movie of his own called Disc Jockey Jamboree
when it was released in the United Kingdom.
Jamboree with Freed was heard throughout the British Isles and much of Europe via the powerful AM nighttime signal of Radio Luxembourg, and outside of Europe by a simultaneous relay via transmission on shortwave. Due to the strange effect that the ionosphere had on the skywave signal of Radio Luxembourg, it was heard poorly in parts of southern England with extreme fading, but sounded like a local station in northern England cities such as Liverpool. The Beatles' founding members claim to have been influenced by African American artists such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry, both of whom were promoted on Freed's radio shows. The recordings made by these artists were in turn promoted on sponsored shows paid for by the record labels that were also heard over Radio Luxembourg, which was the only commercial radio station heard in the United Kingdom until 1964.
Move to WABC 770
After departing from WINS, Freed for a time was employed in New York by WABC
770 AM around 1958, about two years before it evolved into one of America's great Top 40 stations by launching its "Musicradio" format. At this time, WABC (unlike rocker WINS) was more of a full-service station which began implementing some music programming elements. Freed was employed at the station around the same time as another famous pioneering disc jockey who arose during a different era: Martin Block
(of WNEW 1130 AM - now WBBR
- "Make Believe Ballroom" fame), toward the end of Block's legendary career. Freed was fired by WABC (1959) during a dispute where he refused to sign a statement certifying that he had never accepted payola
Freed also appeared in a number of pioneering rock and roll motion pictures during this period. These films were often welcomed with tremendous enthusiasm by teenagers because they brought visual depictions of their favorite American acts to the big screen, years before music videos would present the same sort of image on the small television screen. One side effect of these movies shown before mass audiences was that they sometimes presented an excuse for thugs to turn a fun event into a riot, in which cinemas in both West Germany
and the United Kingdom
Freed appeared in several motion pictures that presented many of the big musical acts of his day, including:
- *1956 - Rock Around the Clock featuring Alan Freed, Bill Haley & His Comets, The Platters, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, Lisa Gaye.
- Rock, Rock, Rock featuring Alan Freed, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Johnny Burnette, La Vern Baker, The Flamingos, The Moonglows.
- *1957 - Mr. Rock and Roll featuring Alan Freed, Lionel Hampton, Ferlin Husky, Frankie Lymon, Little Richard, Brook Benton, Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter, La Vern Baker, Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
- Don't Knock the Rock featuring Alan Freed, Alan Dale, Little Richard and the Upsetters, Bill Haley and His Comets, The Treniers, Dave Appell and His Applejacks.
- *1959 - Go, Johnny Go! featuring Alan Freed, Jimmy Clanton, Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, Eddie Cochran, The Flamingos, Jackie Wilson, The Cadillacs, Sandy Stewart, Jo Ann Campbell, Harvey Fuqua.
It was at the height of Freed's career at the beginning of his new television
series that various individuals decided to use Freed as a scapegoat for all that was wrong with the recorded music industry. His show, The Big Beat
(which predated American Bandstand
), on ABC
, was suddenly canceled after an episode in which Frankie Lymon
of Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers was seen dancing with a white girl. Reportedly, it offended the management of ABC's local affiliates in the southern states. During this period, Freed was seen on other popular programs of the day, including To Tell The Truth
, where he is seen defending the new "Rock and Roll" sound to the panelists, who were all clearly more comfortable with swing music: Polly Bergen
, Ralph Bellamy
, and Kitty Carlisle
. [This episode was re-broadcasted on The Gameshow Network on February 4 or 5, 2007, and also on April 23, 2007.]
Trouble with the law and the payola scandal
In 1958, Freed faced controversy in Boston when he told the audience, "The police don't want you to have fun." As a result, Freed was arrested and charged with inciting to riot.
Freed's career ended when accusations were made that he had accepted payola, or accepted bribes from record companies to play specific records. There was also the conflict of interest that he had taken songwriting co-credits (most notably on Chuck Berry's "Maybellene"), which entitled him to receive part of a song's royalties. Freed could help increase these royalties by heavily promoting the record on his own popular radio show. After a legal action, Freed's name disappeared from the credits.
Freed lost his own show on the radio station WINS; then he was fired from the station altogether. In 1960, payola was made illegal. In 1962, Freed pled guilty to two charges of commercial bribery, for which he received a fine and a suspended sentence.
Marriages and family
On August 22, 1943, Freed was married to Betty Lou Bean; both were 21 years old at the time. The couple had two children, Alana Freed and Lance Freed. On December 2, 1949, the Freeds divorced, with custody of the children awarded to Betty Lou. In 1950, Freed married again to Marjorie J. Hess. During this time, the couple had two children, Sieglinde Freed and Alan Freed, Jr. The marriage ended in 1958 whereupon Marjorie gained custody of the children. In 1959, Freed married for a third time to Inga L. Bolingwhom, to whom he stayed married until his death on January 20, 1965.
Although the punishment handed down to Freed was not severe, the side effects of negative publicity were such that no prestigious station would employ him, and he moved to the West Coast in 1960, where he worked at KDAY-AM
in Santa Monica
. In 1962, after KDAY refused to allow him to promote rock 'n roll stage shows, Freed moved to WQAM
, but that association lasted only two months. He died in a Palm Springs, California
hospital in 1965 from uremia
and liver cirrhosis
brought on by alcoholism. He was only 43 years old. Freed was initially interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery
in Hartsdale, New York
; his ashes were later moved to their present location at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
on March 21, 2002.
In 1978, a motion picture
entitled American Hot Wax
was released, which was inspired by Freed's contribution to the rock and roll scene. Although director Floyd Mutrux created a fictionalized account of Freed's last days in New York radio by utilizing real-life elements outside of their actual chronology, the film does accurately convey the fond relationship between Freed, the musicians he promoted, and the audiences who listened to them. Several notable personalities who would later become well-known celebrities starred in the movie, including Jay Leno
and Fran Drescher
. The film included cameo appearances by Chuck Berry
, Screamin' Jay Hawkins
, Frankie Ford
and Jerry Lee Lewis
, performing in the recording studio and concert sequences.
In 1986, Freed was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was built in Cleveland in recognition of Freed's involvement in the promotion of the genre. In 1988, he was also posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame and his pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Freed appeared in Stephen King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes as a nightmarish version of himself, who enthusiastically announces the names of deceased rock n roll legends in You Know They Got a Hell of a Band as part of an upcoming concert to perform. He was portrayed by Mitchell Butel in the television adaptation on the Nightmares & Dreamscapes mini-series. The Cleveland Cavaliers' mascot Moondog is named in honor of Freed.
- Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll, by Jackson, John A. - Schirmer Books, 1991. ISBN 0-02-871155-6
- The Pied Pipers of Rock 'N' Roll: Radio Deejays of the 50s and 60s, by Smith, Wes (Robert Weston). - Longstreet Press, 1989. ISBN 0-929264-69-X