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.
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.
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.