One of the most important popularizers of rock and roll during the '50s,
Alan Freed was the first disc jockey and concert producer of rock and roll. Often credited
with coining the term rock and roll in 1951, ostensibly to avoid the stigma attached to
R&B and so called race music, Freed opened the door to white acceptance of black
music, eschewing white cover versions in favor of the R&B originals.
Albert James Freed was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1922 of a Welsh mother and Lithuanian born father. In 1933 when Freed was twelve his family moved to Salem, Ohio. He attended Salem High School during which time he formed a band known as the Sultans of Swing, in which he played trombone. His ambition was to on day to become a bandleader, but an ear infection ended that possibility. In college, he developed an interest in radio, and following World War II he landed a jobs at number of small stations. Among them were WKST (1942) in New Castle, Pennsylvania, sportscasting at WKBN (1942) and WAKR (1945) where he became a local favorite, playing hot jazz and pop recordings. Both of these stations were in Akron, Ohio. In 1949 Freed landed a job and moved to WXEL-TV in Cleveland..
Leo Mintz, a local record store owner, saw an increasing number of white teenagers buying rhythm and blues records at his store. Based on these observations Mintz suggested to Freed that he should begin playing these records. On July 11, 1951, calling himself "Moondog," Freed went on the air and became among the first to program rhythm and blues for a white teenage audience. Other small stations followed eventually forcing the larger stations to join in.
Due to the prejudices of the times Freed began calling the rhythm and blues records he played Rock "n" Roll. What is ironic that term Freed was using to make rhythm and blues more acceptable to a white audience, was slang for sex in the black community.
In 1951 a black vocal group The Dominoes recorded "Sixty Minute Man" which was a (#1 R&B and #17 pop) hit. The lyrics were highly suggestive and used rock and roll in the lyrics. Freed began using the term a month later and most likely was inspired by this song.
Freed would name his show Moondog's Rock 'n' Roll Party. The shows success led to Freed's March 1952 Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland. Top black acts were booked for the show. Six thousand fans crashed gates in addition to the thousands already in 10,000 seat hall. Two thirds of the audience was white
In 1954 Fred moved his show to WINS radio in NY. Within months the show was #1. Freed began staging revues at Brooklyn Paramount where he often could be found on stage gyrating. Freed appeared in a number of rock and roll movies such as Don't Knock The Rock, Rock Around The Clock, and Rock, Rock, Rock. It was no surprise that these movies broadened the acceptance of rock and roll. The real surprise was Alan Freed in the flesh. In his mid-thirties Freed looked at least ten years older. Klutzy with little stage presence Freed looked completely out of place. To many teens Freed looked like the ultimate adult.
In 1957 ABC-TV gave Freed his own nationally-televised rock & roll show, but an episode on which Frankie Lymon danced with a white girl enraged ABC's Southern affiliates and the show was cancelled.
Freed's first real problems began when he put on a show at the Boston Arena (1958) that resulted in his being charged with incitement to riot. Though the charges were later dismissed, but WINS failed to renew Freed's contract. This incident forced him into into bankruptcy and would just be the beginning of Freed's legal problems.
Freed moved to WABC radio, and also hosted a locally televised dance show.
In 1959 the U.S. House Oversight Committee, at the urging of ASCAP, began to look into deejays who took gifts from record companies in return for playing their records on their shows. Though a number of deejays and program directors were caught in the scandal, the committee decide to focus on Freed. Freed's broadcasts alliances quickly deserted him. In 1959, WABC in New York asked him to sign a statement confirming that he had never accepted payola. Freed refused "on principle" to sign and was fired.
On Feb 8, 1960 a New York Grand Jury began looking into commercial information in the recording industry and on May 19, 1960 eight men were charged with receiving $116,580 in illegal gratuities. This probe would lead to Freed being charged with income tax evasion by the IRS.
Freed was the only deejay subpoenaed by the Oversight Committee and refused to testify despite being given immunity. Trial began December, 1962 and ended with Freed pleading guilty to 29 counts of commercial bribery. Though he only received a $300 fine and 6 months suspended sentence his career would be over.
Forced to leave New York Freed work briefly at KDAY (owned by the same company that owned WINS) in 1960, in Los Angeles, but when management refused to let him promote live rock & 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.
March 15, 1964 Freed was indicted by a federal grand jury for tax evasion. The IRS claimed that Freed owed $37,920 tax on unreported of $56,652 for the years 1957-59. Living in Palm Springs, California at the time, Freed was poor, unemployed and unemployable. Before he could answer the charges he entered a hospital suffering from uremia. Alan Freed died Jan 20, 1965 a penniless, broken man. He was 43.
truly loved rock and roll, claimed to have never have played a record he didn't like and
never forgot where the music came from. However, he was a flawed man who claimed
songwriting credits that weren't his, paid performers on his tours very little and
associated with questionable individuals.
Alan Freed was inducted in to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.