Alan Freed Mr. Rock 'n' Roll

Rock "n" Roll
Alan Freed Biography

The disc jockey credited with naming "rock and roll" was born Albert James Freed on December 15, 1921, near Johnstown, PA. In 1933 the Freed family moved to Salem, Ohio. In high school Freed formed a band known as the Sultans of Swing in which he played trombone. In 1942 Freed landed his first broadcasting job, at WKST (New Castle, PA). He took a sports casting position at WKBN (Youngstown, OH) the following year. In 1945 he moved to WAKR (Akron, OH) and became a local favorite, playing hot jazz and pop recordings.

In 1949 Freed moved to WXEL-TV in Cleveland. Record store owner Leo Mintz convinced him to emcee a program of rhythm and blues records over WJW radio, and on July 11, 1951, calling himself "Moondog" Freed went on the air. At his "Moondog Coronation Ball" at the 10,000-capacity Cleveland Arena in March 1952, upwards of 20,000 fans (almost all black) crashed the gates, causing the dance to be cancelled. This is considered to be the first "rock" concert. It also marked the point at which Freed's audience began to include an increasing number of whites — who subsequently heard Freed refer to rhythm and blues as "rock and roll."

In September 1954 Freed was hired by WINS radio in New York. The following January he held a landmark dance there, promoting black performers as rock and roll artists. Within a month, the music industry was advertising "rock and roll" records in the trade papers.
Within weeks, he was the dominant force on radio there, attracting a huge, racially mixed, youthful audience and, although he inspired many imitators, Alan Freed almost single-handedly brought radio back from the near dead. Freed also emceed a string of legendary stage shows at the Brooklyn and New York Paramount Theatres; was heard nationally via CBS radio; and starred in several rock and roll movies.

In 1957 ABC-TV gave Freed his own nationally-televised rock and roll show, but an episode on which Frankie Lymon danced with a white girl enraged ABC's Southern affiliates and the show was cancelled. Violence occurred outside the Boston Arena after a Freed stage show, local authorities indicted him for inciting to riot. The charges were eventually dropped, but WINS failed to renew Freed's contract. Known for his rapid-fire delivery, for his endless dedications (like those from February 1955 that you should be hearing now), and sometimes pounding on a telephone book or ringing a cowbell to keep the beat, Freed continually referred to our then brand new, youth-oriented music as the "Big Beat in Popular Music." He has always been given the credit he deserves for doing more than anyone to promote and popularize the music that changed the world, music that he truly loved, our music.
He did it not so much because of his radio popularity (which was local, of course) but, in part, through his 1957 nationally broadcast, albeit short-lived (it was cancelled days before the national debut of "American Bandstand"2), TV show on the ABC network, "The Big Beat," later broadcast locally in New York on WNEW-TV, through his live rock 'n' roll stage shows, some that traveled to other cities and others that attracted lots of tourists in New York City, but mainly through five movies released in 1956-1959, beginning with Rock Around the Clock, in all of which he played himself, the only adult who understood the teenagers and their (no, our) new music.

It was only much later that he was also widely recognized for his enormous role in what was soon to become the civil rights movement in our country. He was not just a hero and champion to the youth of America, both black and white, but he also opened doors to scores, maybe hundreds, of black performers and songwriters who, mainly because of Freed, now had opportunities to share their talents with the world and to make a decent living in the recorded music business. Freed was most closely associated with 1010 WINS, which he made the king of the New York airwaves beginning in 1954 but was there only 4 years during which time he accomplished almost all he ever would. His career was fraught with legal and other difficulties including a 1958 arrest in Boston for inciting a riot with one of his live rock 'n' roll stage shows (although the charge that was subsequently dropped, it nevertheless resulted in his being fired that year from WINS) and, ultimately, relentless persecution from the so-called "payola" hearings in congress, which caused him to be fired again in 1959 for standing up for his principles in that regard, this time by 770 WABC. (And at the time, the pejoratively-termed "payola" was, in fact, a perfectly legal, common industry practice, always done openly, until 1960.) But despite all these obstacles, he remained still optimistic when, on November 21, 1959, he said what would be his final New York on-air radio farewell to his loyal music business supporters and fans upon leaving WABC. Freed said, ironically, "This is not goodbye; it's just goodnight, and we'll see you soon." His last appearance on New York TV (WNEW) was six days later on November 27, 1959. The '50s were over. Freed moved to WABC radio, and also hosted a locally televised dance show. When the broadcasting payola scandal erupted in November 1959, Freed claimed payments he'd received from record companies were for "consultation," not as an inducement to play their records. He was fired from his radio and television programs.

Freed was hired by Los Angeles' KDAY radio (owned by the same company that owned WINS) in 1960, but when management refused to let him promote live rock and roll shows Freed left the station and returned to Manhattan to emcee a live twist revue. When the twist craze cooled he hooked on as a disc jockey at WQAM (Miami, FL). Realizing that his dream of returning to New York radio was just that, Freed's drinking increased. The Miami job lasted only two months. In December 1962, in New York, Freed pleaded guilty to two counts of commercial bribery and was fined three hundred dollars.
Living in Palm Springs, CA, and drinking heavily, the one-time "king of rock and roll" was a broken man. He died there on January 20, 1965, ostensibly of bleeding esophageal varices and cirrhosis of the liver. Those closest to him swear he died of a broken heart. In 1986 Freed was among the original inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. In 1991 a comprehensive biography, Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock and Roll was published. That same year, Freed received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.