Here’s a historical question that’s frequently debated: When did the Rock ‘n’ Roll era begin?
Opinion is divided over the answer to this one. Some say it started on 5 July 1954, when an unemployed truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi walked into Sun Records studios in Memphis, Tennessee, to record the Arthur Crudup blues song That’s All Right, Mama for his mother’s birthday. The truck driver’s name? Elvis Presley. Others argue that it started on 13 February 1955, when Elvis performed at the Fair Park Coliseum in Lubbock, Texas, on a bill that included the 18-year-old Lubbock singer-songwriter Buddy Holly – a concert that finally convinced Holly to pursue a career in music. Others put the case for 19 March 1955, when the movie Blackboard Jungle was released, a film whose soundtrack included the song Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & the Comets – hitherto the B-side of the band’s lesser-known single Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town) – thus causing the single to be re-released and become a huge hit all over the world.
An arguably stronger case, however, can be made for 21 March 1952, when a popular-music concert was held at the Cleveland Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. The event, called the Moondog Coronation Ball, was hosted by the maverick disc jockey Alan Freed (this was a reference to his own on-air nickname of “Moondog”). The Ball was to feature a host of rhythm-and-blues acts, including Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams, whose records had been played by Freed in his shows on the local radio station WJW-AM. If this event, exactly 65 years ago, was the start of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era, it could hardly have been less auspicious: more than 20,000 people (most of them youths) had tried to get into a venue whose total capacity was no more than 10,000, and the police ended up forcing the event’s closure after Williams had finished his set. Freed rather sheepishly had to broadcast an apology on WJW the next day.
Despite this setback, Freed continued his revolutionary broadcasts. They are considered revolutionary for a number of reasons. For a start, Freed is considered to have originally re-defined the term “rock ‘n’ roll”, to denote a form of rhythm-and-blues music (influenced further by country music) that was not only performed by white as well as black musicians, but also eagerly bought and lapped up by both white and black radio listeners. (Contrary to popular myth, Freed did not coin the term “rock ‘n’ roll”: it was already in existence, and had originally been a slang term among black jazz musicians to mean sex – as in, ‘We’re gonna rock ‘n’ roll all night’) Ellis Amburn, biographer of Buddy Holly, explains how the rise of this revolutionary music genre had profound social as well as artistic implications for America at the time:
Journalists warned that rock ‘n’ roll would lead to a wave of youth crime, but what they really feared and resented was rock’s violation of society’s taboos against racial mixing. As Robert Palmer later wrote in Rolling Stone, ‘Much has been made of sixties rock as a vehicle for revolutionary social and cultural change, but it was mid-fifties rock ‘n’ roll that blew away, in one mighty, concentrated blast, the accumulated racial and social proprieties of centuries.’
In other words, it wasn’t just the Civil Rights movement that was breaking down racial barriers in the US and beyond. It was also significant that Freed, a white disc jockey, was happily and eagerly promoting this music originated by African-American artists. These weren’t the only reasons why conservative figures in the Deep South were dead-set against rock ‘n’ roll music. They also feared, as alluded to by Amburn, the public disorder seemingly threatened by this new, boisterous type of music – a fear that was fuelled by the apparently over-subscribed public concerts, of which the Moondog Coronation Ball proved to be the first example. In one notorious such concert, at the Boston Arena in Massachusetts in May 1958, as the local police struggled to control the over-subscribed audience, one of the officers ordered Freed to turn the lights on, at which point Freed said ‘It looks like the police don’t want you to have a good time here. Come on, let’s have a party.‘ It was a casual, throwaway remark, but was seized upon by the law, and Freed was charged with incitement to riot, and later found himself fired from his then-job at the New York radio station WINS.
Being charged with both inciting a riot and inciting unlawful damage to property was, however, only the beginning of Freed’s problems. The following year, on 23 November 1959, he was fired from his DJ job at WABC in New York, after admitting to charges of payola – the practice of accepting payments from record companies in return for playing certain discs of theirs on-air. Effectively, this amounted to accepting bribes, and the practice had been going on at a range of radio stations in the States for many years before, and not only by Freed. It was not, strictly speaking, illegal at the time, but was, at the very least, ethically dubious. Only in 1960 would payola finally be made unlawful – but Freed’s notoriety (if that’s the right word) in promoting rock ‘n’ roll music and all its related social phenomena ensured that he would the one the American establishment would go for.
Freed’s refusal to co-operate with the authorities’ investigation into something that had not been illegal at the time he had partaken in it may have been a principled position to take, but it effectively ended his career: his employers in New York dismissed him, and the ongoing Congressional hearings into payola meant that no other major radio station would dare hire him. He spent his remaining years on minor stations in California, but the combined stresses of having to attend various legal hearings as officialdom continued to pursue him, together with the failure of his marriage, led him to hit the bottle, and in a big way. On 20 January 1965 Alan Freed died in Palm Springs, California, of liver cirrhosis, at the age of just 43.
It was a tragic end to a man who had done so much to popularize one of the most enduring of musical genres, but Freed’s reputation has continued to grow over the years, with his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio being foremost among American locations to honour him posthumously, owing chiefly to the revolutionary Moondog Coronation Ball of 65 years ago. As John A Jackson, author of Big Beat Heat, explains:
That Moondog Freed was not the first white disc jockey to play rhythm and blues records on the air is inconsequential. What is significant is that he proved to be a deft communicator, one able to move popular audiences. Using only a microphone, a stack of rhythm and blues records, and his charisma, Alan Freed was able to rally some twenty thousand blacks to an innocuous dance staged at a seedy minor-league ice hockey arena…
A figure possessing Freed’s magnitude of charisma needed only a cause to champion before he became a force to be reckoned with.