Photo courtesy Library of Congress
One of the most important popularizes 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 December 15, 1922 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania of a Welsh mother and Lithuanian born father. He was one of three sons of Maude and Charles Freed, a clothing store salesman. 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. After he graduated from high school in 1940, he enrolled at Ohio State University where he studied engineering for a year. It was during this time that he developed an interest in radio
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Freed joined the US Army where he was assigned to the Ski Patrol. It was at this time he developed a serious ear infection causing him to receive his discharge.He then enrolled at Ohio State University where he earned a master's degree. Returning to Salem he went work as a government inspector in military plants. It was here he met his first wife Betty Lou Bean. They were married in 1942.
While at his government job, Freed enrolled in a night broadcasting class in Youngstown, Ohio. After finishing he landed a jobs at number of small stations. His first at WKST (1942) in New Castle, Pennsylvania where he played classical music for $45 a week. Next was 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.
In 1950, Freed went to the management of WAKR requesting more money. When he didn't get it he quit went to another Akron station WADC. Except Freed still was under contract to WAKR. A law resulted that banned him from broadcasting within 75 miles of Akron for one year suit. He then left Akron for Cleveland.
It was at this time that Freed took his Request Review to WXEL-TV where the show bombed. However he stayed hosting a midday movie before he went to WJW where he did a classical radio show and late night movie on their television station.
One night he was asked to fill in for a sick colleague and instead of but didn't stick to the station's playlist the selection of records was suppose to play. Instead he played the rhythm and blues records of Chess, Modern, King and Atlantic Records. The next day he was fired. however, the station was bombarded with mail from listeners and Freed was rehired.
Leo Mintz who owned the Record Rendezvous a local record store saw an increasing number of white teenagers buying rhythm and blues records at his store. Based on these observations Mintz suggested to Freed he would sponsor his show if he would begin playing these records. On July 11, 1951, at 11 PM signed off on his classical program. Putting the needle down on Todd Rhodes's Blues For A Moondog calling himself "Moondog," Freed went on the air with his Moondog Rock and roll Party and became among the first to program rhythm and blues for a white teenage audience. Within eighteen months it was the number one radio show in Cleveland. 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
Freed started his own record label Champagne Records and the first act signed were the Crazy Sounds. Later he would changed their name to the Moonglows. Freed's brother David had a small company called Lance Distribution, which specialized mostly R&B, handled the distribution end for Champagne.
In the early hours of a night in April 1953, while driving home from work, Freed fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a tree. The crash was heard at a near by police statuin and when the police went to investigate they found Freed unconscious in the wreckage. when his heart stopped beating and injection of adrenaline was injected. Freed was seriously injured, with a punctured lung and damage to his spleen and liver. Skin on his face was peeled away to which doctors had to replace it and sew it back across his forehead. It took 260 stitches and extensive plastic surgery to get Freed's face somewhat back to normal. the doctors would later tell him he was lucky to have survived.
Freed laid for weeks critically ill fighting for his life in the hospital. Once off the critical list doctors to Freed that considering the extent and severity of his injuries, not to expect to live more than another ten years and he could never have another drink. Freed would outlive the ten year prediction but not by much. Freed would not give up drinking.
In 1954 with Morris Levy as his manager, Freed 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.
"He looked like Christ in Christ-like clothes"
Upon Freed's move to New York, there was a controversy over his famous trademark, Moondog. It concerned a street musician by the name of Thomas Louis Hardin who had adopted the name Moondog. Hardin, a blind eccentric street musician, who dressed as a Viking, sold umbrellas from a stand at the corner of 54th Street and Sixth Avenue. Hardin didn't take kindly to Freed's using his "monicker" and filed a law suit for $100,000 and asking the New York Supreme Court to issue a cease and desist order. The facts he presented were he had been using the name Moondog since 1947, whereas Freed didn't take it until 1951 with the clincher that Freed did not begin calling himself "Moondog" had begun playing "Moondog Symphony" on his Cleveland radio show. The composer of that song was none other than Thomas Louis "Moondog" Hardin. Case closed.The judge ruled in favor of Hardin, ordered Freed to pay him $5,700 in damages, and stop using the name. Thereafter he called his show Alan Freed's Rock 'n' Roll Party.
The show was so popular that Freed's in two years his salary went from from a base of $15,000 plus twenty-five percent from his show's advertising monies to a yearly income in excess of $750,000. By 1955, Freed was appearing in a number of rock and roll films that cost a couple hundred dollars to make and grossed millions.
Freed's Big Beat aired in New York City, first on WABC-TV; then, in 1959, on WNEW
A Sample Hour of Alan Freed Rock 'n' Roll Party
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 thirteen 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.
This action took Freed by surprise since his contract with the station gave it 25% of whatever his stage shows earned. In fact Freed who who considerd himself a "goodwill ambassador" for the station was counting on the station paying for his defense.
Freed moved to WABC radio, and also hosted a locally televised dance show. ABC asked
Freed to sign an affadavit that he never received and money or gifts to promote
records. Freed refused and was fired.
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.
Within the industry there was widespread belief that Fred was set up- that the hearings were prompted by ASCAP , who represented the songwriters and publishers of pop music, much which Freed refused to play.
. "I never take a dime to plug a record I'd be a fool to do so;
I'd be giving up control of my program."
Unable to impose any formal punishment on Freed it wrote a bill that made giving or receiving of payola a federal crime, punishable by up to two years ion jail.
On Feb 8, 1960 a New York Grand Jury began looking into commercial bribery 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 wasn't the only deejay subpoenaed by the Oversight Committee and refused to testify despite being given immunity. The trial began December, 1962 and ended with Freed pleading guilty to two of the seven counts of commercial bribery receiving a $300 fine and a six month suspended sentence. He was also accused of accepting more than $30,000 in bribes from seven record companies and pleaded guilty to only accepting $2,000 from one and $700 from another.
Ironically, what ultimately sealed his fate were Freeds forthright itemized
admissions to the committee concerning payments he had accepted from distributors and
recording companies as a musical advisor. The fact that ABC had fired him for declining to
sign a humiliating all-encompassing oath denying participation in corrupt
practices, while not asking the same of the companys other contract employee, Dick Clark, only deepened committee members and the press perception of Freeds corruption. Less than a month after his testimony, the New York City police arrested the disgraced DJ on charges of having pocketed payola amounting to $116,850.
In January 1963, he was arrested on a warrant charged that he hadn't paid the fine imposed six months earlier.. Though he only received a $300 fine and 6 months suspended sentence his career would be over.
Bankrupt, despondent, and frequently drunk, freed relocated to palm springs.
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.
Freed spent his last days alone, calling friends in the music business asking money for rent and grocery bills.
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 a condition caused by the retention in the of body poisons normally expelled in urine. Alan Freed died Jan 20, 1965 of cirrhosis, a penniless, broken man. He was 43.
Freed 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.