Alan Freed: Mr Rock’n’Roll

ALAN FREED, the man responsible for giving rock’n’roll its name, was many things to many people. To some, he was the original Mr Clean, an innocent ‘good guy’, who opened up hitherto-segregated airwaves and made an unparalleled contribution to the advancement of black popular music.

This was the sympathetic impression conveyed by the Floyd Mutrux 1978 bio-pic, American Hot Wax. ‘He brought us rock’n’roll,’ said Mutrux. ‘I didn’t want to say bad things about a guy who started all that.’ To others like Alexander Walker, the London Evening Standard film critic who met the volatile disc jockey during his heyday, Freed was a pathetic figure, an ignorant crook who accepted kickbacks from any promoter willing to pay his price.

Of Welsh-Lithuanian descent, Freed was born on 15th December 1921 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania; his family moved to Salem, Ohio, when he was four. Freed described his childhood as ‘normal’ although his surroundings were far from affluent. He showed some musical talent, wanted to become a concert trombonist and, at high school, organized a dance-band which he called the Sultans of Swing after the famous Harlem jazz orchestra. At Ohio State University, he enrolled for a course in journalism but switched to mechanical engineering to please his father. ‘One day,’ he told Vic Fredericks in 1957, ‘I peered through the window at the campus radio station and that was it – I was gone.’

Divorce and the Draft

On leaving college, Freed was drafted into the US Army Signal Corps, but was discharged when he contracted double mastoiditis. The infection left him with damaged hearing: ‘Please don’t say that’s why I like rock’n’roll,’ was his stock comment on his condition. After many auditions for work as a radio announcer (CBS told him to forget it because of his grating Midwest accent), Freed took a 17-dollars-a-week job with radio WKST in New Castle, Pennsylvania; from 1943 to 1950 he drifted from one station to another, usually as a sportscaster or disc jockey playing classical records.

Freed married in 1944 and soon had two children. The 13-hour day he was working on Akron’s WAKR radio in the late forties was not conducive to family life, however, and the couple agreed on a divorce in 1949. The following year, while working on Cleveland’s WXEL-TV, Freed married 39-year-old Jacqueline Hess.

It was in Cleveland that Freed met Leo Mintz, proprietor of the city’s Record Rendezvous shop. Mintz had observed that white teenagers were buying unusually large numbers of rhythm and blues records and encouraged Freed to give black music airplay on the radio programme the disc jockey had on Cleveland’s powerful 50-kilowatt WJW station. Freed introduced ‘Moondog’s Rock’n’Roll Party’ in June 1951. He had re-christened rhythm and blues to avoid the racial stigma he thought inherent in the classification, and the new phrase ‘rock’n’roll’, long-used as a sexual metaphor, now described the music he played. ‘It was more Leo’s idea than mine,’ Freed later admitted.

Broadcast from 5 pm to 6 pm and 11.15 pm to 2 am from Monday to Friday and from 11.15pm to 3 am on Saturdays, the programme was an instant success. Freed howled his way through the theme tune (Todd Rhodes’ ‘Blues For Moon Dog’), introduced each disc in a hoarse jive patter and accompanied the beat by slapping his palm on a telephone directory. Soupy Sales, the station’s morning host, later remarked: ‘In fact, Freed was always drunk but it was alright … he could handle it.’

Prompted by his abnormally high ratings, Freed staged his Moondog Coronation Ball with black stars the Moonglows and the Dominoes at the 10,000-capacity Cleveland Arena. On 21st March 1952, a racially mixed crowd of 25,000 showed up and broke down the doors – the first rock’n’roll riot. Freed had sold 18,000 tickets in advance, and the disc jockey was to continue to double as concert promoter throughout the Fifties.

In April 1953, at the height of his Cleveland popularity, Freed drove his car into a tree after a late broadcast. His face required 260 stitches and 12,000 dollars’ worth of plastic surgery, but five weeks later he resumed his broadcasts from a hospital bed. That same year, he plugged the Orioles’ record, ‘Crying In The Chapel’, the first R&B record to make the pop Top Twenty. The day after Freed’s repeated spins, the disc sold 30,000 copies in Cleveland; that so many copies were readily available appears evidence of some prior agreement. Dubious financial arrangements seemed confirmed when, years later, it was revealed that Jerry Blaine, owner of the Orioles’ Jubilee label, held the mortgage on Freed’s house.

Rockin’ the East Coast

In 1954, Freed’s WJW show was taped for WNJR in Newark, the city in which he staged his first East Coast live concert on 1st May; it was a sell-out. News of Freed’s popularity spread to New York where he joined radio WINS for a salary of 25,000 dollars a year. Programme director Bob Smith hired Freed without knowing whether he was black or white. ‘Moondog’s Rock’n’Roll Party’, which ran from 7 to 11 pm, six nights a week, was first aired on WINS on 8 September 1954, but another Moondog – a blind Manhattan street percussionist – sued Freed over the use of the name and the show became simply ‘Rock’n’Roll Party’. In January 1955 Freed staged his first New York concert at the St Nicholas Arena; the audience was 70 per cent white and 30 per cent black. The following Easter he brought a show to the Brooklyn Paramount; this one, featuring the Moonglows and the Penguins, became the prototype for the many Easter, Labor Day and Christmas shows which followed.

During the late Fifties Freed’s Paramount concerts broke box office records on several occasions, grossing as much as 300,000 dollars over the 12 days between Christmas and the New Year. There were usually six or seven shows a day with 15 acts on the bill. Police patrolled the aisles and Billboard reported an Alcatraz-like atmosphere, while Varietymagazine thought it akin to having an aisle seat for the San Francisco earthquake. On top of his take (involving sums previously unheard-of for a promoter), Freed formed and directed his own band, which recorded for Coral; the label paid Freed 25,000 dollars a year. He also taped weekly shows for stations in Baltimore, St Louis and, in he attracted no fewer than 4,000 fan clubs – mostly on the US East Coast – and presided over legions of New York label owners, promotion men and publishers’ representatives, most of whom helped swell the Freed coffers with ‘gifts’ of jewellery, booze and – what was later held to be most damning of all – cash payments.

Freed on film

In 1956, Freed starred in the films Rock Around The Clock and Don’t Knock The Rock.Portraying himself as a paternal friend to the nation’s youth – helping them and rock’n’roll to conquer all adversity – Freed seemed wooden and not in the least charismatic. But in making these two films, and also Rock, Rock, Rock (1957), Mister Rock’n’Roll (1957) and Go Johnny Go! (1959), Freed enjoyed the genuine friendship of his co-stars. When Earl Carroll of the Cadillacs (who appeared in Go Johnny Go!) was asked whether Freed was really Mr. Sincerity, he replied, “The man is beautiful, just beautiful…he was a fair man and he kept me with food on the table quite a few times. He was for real.’

Another artist who held Freed in high regard was Chuck Berry, who stated: “He was a brother, you know. The record company gave it to him, but he never dreamed anything.” Freed’s name appeared among composing credits to ‘MaybelLene’ and the Moonglows’ ‘Sincerely’ although he did not write either; but, on the other hand, Chuck Berry and the Moonglows appeared in his films and monopolized his turntable. The Moonglows, whose name tied in with the Moondog show, made their first record for Freed’s Champagne label and he introduced them to their subsequent labels, Chance and Chess. Freed was in many ways an ambivalent figure, for as well as promoting rock’n’roll he made a small fortune out of it; many artists received a considerable reduction of their due royalties because Freed’s name appeared on songwriting credits, but on the other hand, his sponsorship helped the records succeed.

It’s important to note that Freed never pushed a record he didn’t like. Not only did he give exposure to Fats Domino, Little Richard and other stars, he also played obscure R&B and rockabilly songs, making short-lived stars out of Billy Brooks, Mac Curtis, Barbie Gaye (who sang the original ‘My Boy Lollipop’) and dozens of black vocal groups. He refused to play Pat Boone or the Crewcuts and attacked disc jockeys who preferred their pale imitation cover records. ‘They’re anti-negro,’ he told Vic Fredericks. ‘If it isn’t that, what is it? Oh, they can always excuse it on the grounds that the covers are better quality, but I defy anyone to show me that the quality of the original ‘Tweedlee Dee’ [LaVern Baker] or ‘Seven Days’ [Clyde McPhatter] is poor.’

King in his castle

Beyond the artists he sponsored so assiduously, Freed did not make friends very easily. ‘His ego was huge’ said radio programme director Bob Smith. ‘He was an impossible individual on a personal basis.’ Freed’s style offended many. He lived in a 16-room stucco mansion overlooking Long Island Sound in an exclusive district of Stamford. By 1957 his fear of automobiles made him something of a recluse and the station equipped his home with remote broadcasting facilities. Some of the more sophisticated record men disliked Freed’s vulgarity and took umbrage at having to visit ‘His Majesty, the King in his Connecticut Castle’, as Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler once put it. If there was one luxury Freed lacked it was a press agent to tell him how to present the correct image.

On 3rd May 1958, Fred compered the ‘Big Beat Show’ at the Boston Arena, with Jerry Lee Lewis topping the bill. To prevent dancing in the aisles, police turned up the lights. Apologising to the audience, Freed was alleged to have said, ‘Hey kids, the Boston Police don’t want you to have a good time.’ In the city-wide orgy of violence that followed, a score of Bostonians were beaten, stabbed and robbed.

Rock’n’roll was banned not just in Boston, but in Maine, Connecticut and New Jersey. Indicted under anti-anarchy laws, Freed was charged with wickedly and maliciously inciting both a riot and the unlawful destruction of property. The charges were dropped after 17 months of judicial argument, leaving Freed with legal fees which ensured his bankruptcy. WINS had not supported him during the crisis and he left the station in disgust. In addition, the Brooklyn Paramount refused to play host to further Freed concerts. Popularity among teenagers could not save the DJ from establishment wrath.

Freed moved to wabc where he began presenting the ‘Big Beat Show’. Within weeks, a probe into rigged television quiz shows had widened into public examination of payola. In November 1959, Freed was dismissed from wabc after refusing to sign an affidavit denying that he had ever received bribes in return for playing records. The defiant disc jockey informed the press that what broadcasting called payola, Washington called ‘lobbying’ – a comment that did little to endear him to the establishment. After testifying before the Harris Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight (‘the payola hearings’), Freed was arrested in New York State on 26 charges of commercial bribery totalling over 30,000 dollars. In December 1962, having pleaded guilty to some of the charges, he received a six-month suspended sentence and a 300-dollar fine.

In 1959 Freed had begun working for kday radio in Los Angeles in an attempt to revive his career, but in 1964 he was charged with income tax evasion on 47,920 dollars received between 1957 and 1959. Ten months later on 20th January 1965, he died of uremia in a Palm Springs hospital at the age of 42. He left a third wife, Inga, and his four children by earlier marriages.

Freed deserves to be remembered for his adventurous – even imprudent – efforts on behalf of the music he loved. His early non-segregated dances often defied local custom and his partiality to black artists was not universally popular. His short-lived ‘Rock’n’Roll Dance Party’ show on cbs-tv, cancelled when the cameras caught Frankie Lymon jiving with a white girl, also enraged the segregationists. Later, Freed went on the same television channel to defend Jerry Lee Lewis’ controversial nuptials (‘these Southern boys marry young’) and he often appeared to condone delinquency (“They’re not bad kids, if the theater gets a few broken seats, that’s their problem’). Whatever Freed’s personal frailties, he did far more than most whites to popularize black music. ‘He died,’ said the New York Post, ‘depending on whether you get an uptempo version or a slow blues, of either a broken heart or too much whiskey.’ And Cashbox added that ‘he suffered the most, and was perhaps singled out for alleged wrongs that had become a business way of life for many others.’

© Bill Millar, 1982

Alan Freed: Mr Rock’n’Roll Alan Freed: Mr Rock’n’Roll

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