Biography

by Ben Fong-Torres

A dog bays.

A chugga-chugga rhythm begins. The dog howls again. A liquid metronome begins ticking…From the near distance, a voice, casual, conversational, materializes. The volume increases as he asks, “All ready to rock? Atta boy. We’re gonna have a ball. Saturday night again…”

Then, facing the microphone full-on, with the rhythm and the dog still going behind him, the announcer speaks, at a quickening clip:

“Hello, everybody. How y’all? This is Alan Freed, the old King of the Moondoggers, and a hearty welcome to all our thousands of friends in northern Ohio, Ontario, Canada, western New York, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia. Along about eleven-thirty, we’ll be joining the Moondog network…Good old Erin Brew, formula ten-oh-two, northern Ohio’s largest-selling beer, makes it possible for us to be with you a whole extra half hour on Saturday nights. Pop the cap, have a good ball. Enjoy Erin brew, ten-oh-two, and the Moondog Show!”

It’s the Alan Freed show, and, here in 1953, he is 32, and he is a disc jockey in Cleveland. He introduces a jumping jazz tune, “C-Jam Blues,” and, immediately, he’s adding his own lines over the horns and xylophone. “Aw, go!” he exclaims, just before the sax solo. “Ho, now!” Freed  is shouting, singing, moaning, and pounding on a thick telephone book, purposely leaving the microphone on.

He guides the Duke Ellington tune to its end. “That goes back a good many years; a good many tunes have been written ‘round that riff.” Freed then slides into a sincere pitch for good old Erin Brew.

It was in Cleveland that Freed became a star, and it was in New York City that he became “The King of the rock ‘n’ rollers,” drawing thousands of devoted listeners every night. One of them was Roger Steffens, a music historian who not only listened to Freed over WINS in New York in the early Fifties, but taped him, so that he could hear him again and again.

“Alan Freed was like the uncle I never had.” In the midst of adult caterwauling about rock and roll, says Steffens, “He was our champion. He really understood kids, and he seemed like a real decent person.”

He was. But he struck different people in different ways. Fans saw him as a hero who exposed them to new music and ideas. Detractors saw him as a dangerous Pied Piper leading the youth of America on the road to juvenile delinquency.

And to think that he’d gone to school to become a mechanical engineer.

He was born Albert James Freed on December 15, 1921 near Johnston, Pennsylvania, and, at age 12, moved with his family to Salem, Ohio. In high school, he played trombone and formed a band, the Sultans of Swing. He loved bandleaders like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. But, traveling great distances to see and hear them, he realized that he wouldn’t make it as a musician.

At Ohio State, planned on studying mechanical engineering. But, one day, after seeing the campus radio station in action, he fell in love with radio. He started in 1942 at a small station in Pennsylvania, did some sports casting in Youngstown, Ohio, and, in 1945, became a DJ in Akron, playing jazz and pop recordings on WAKR. He became a local celebrity, but after a salary dispute with the station’s owner, he moved to Cleveland for a job on television. It was there, in 1951, that a friend, a record shop owner named Leo Mintz, connected him with WJW radio. Mintz was selling a lot of rhythm & blues records at his store, which was near Cleveland’s inner city ghetto. Soon, Mintz’s Record Rendezvous shop was sponsoring a program of R&B music, hosted by Freed.

Initially hesitant, Freed soon embraced the music and its young fans. As his “Moondog Show”’s popularity increased, he decided to stage a dance with R&B stars. “The Moondog Coronation Ball” on March 21, 1952 was a smash—literally. The 10,000-capacity Cleveland Arena was sold out, but another 20,000 people showed up, and many tried to crash the gates. The dance had to be cancelled, but it is widely considered by historians as the first ever rock and roll concert.

Freed’s popularity continued to grow, and on September 8, 1954, he signed a deal to join WINS in New York. In Cleveland, he had begun to use the term “rock and roll” to describe his show, if not the music he was playing. Soon after arriving in New York, he lost his “Moondog” nickname after a threatened lawsuit from a street character with the same name. He then decided to call his late-night show “Rock ‘n’ Roll Party.”

Since then, Freed has been widely credited with coining the phrase to describe R&B and the pop music that it inspired. While it’s been noted that “rock and roll” was a well-known slang term, meaning sex, in black neighborhoods, Freed got the credit—and more.

In the July 1957 issue of Pageant, a mainstream magazine, a writer said of Freed: “He coined the phrase ‘rock and roll,’ and not only sparked the trend but fanned it into flame.”

He did it by way of his show, and by concerts he staged in New York and elsewhere, events that began to draw white as well as black youth. For this, he was called a race-mixer and worse. The recording industry’s establishment feared his championing of the independent labels that dominated rhythm & blues, blues, and jazz music. Freed began making enemies.

Soon, parents groups, church leaders, and the press who deemed much of the music obscene and got much of it banned from radio.

The New York Daily News called the music “an inciter of juvenile delinquency” and pointed to Freed as a chief offender.

But neither Freed nor the music could be stopped. WINS added a second show to  his schedule; he began getting co-writing credits (and royalties) on songs that he would play; in July, 1957, he began hosting The Big Beat, a Friday evening TV show on the ABC network featuring a mix of pop and R&B acts. He taped a weekly, 30-minute show for Radio Luxembourg, a pirate station operating off the British Isles. Beginning in 1956, he starred in a series of musical films such as Mr. Rock and Roll and Don’t Knock the Rock, in which he portrayed himself, quite accurately, as a champion of kids and a defender of rock and roll.

As Matt Dorff, who turned John A. Jackson’s excellent biography of Freed, Big Beat Heat, into a TV movie in 1999, noted, “He was also colorblind – he loved the beat, he loved the people who made the music, and the fact that they were black made no difference to him.”

It did to many others. ABC cancelled his TV dance show after its second show, on which Frankie Lymon, lead singer of the Teenagers (“Goody Goody”) was seen dancing with a white girl, drawing protests from the network’s southern affiliates.

Freed fanned more flames with his concerts at the Paramount theaters in Manhattan and Brooklyn, featuring mostly rhythm and blues artists and drawing both black and white music fans. Despite pressure from law enforcement agencies, he expanded his territory, leading tours that headlined Chuck Berry and Jerry Lewis and that visited dozens of cities. One such caravan arrived in Boston on the third of May 1958.

Joe Smith, a popular DJ there, promoted the concert at the Boston Arena with Freed. “There was a little to-do afterwards, and Alan made a mistake,” Smith said. “Boston was a very jumpy town; very strict and Catholic and church-managed. And him just bringing the show pissed off a lot of people anyhow. We hired extra cops, and at some point the cops said, ‘You gotta turn the lights on, they’re getting crazy here,’ and so they turned the lights on, and Alan said, ‘It looks like the police don’t want you to have a good time here. Come on, let’s have a party.’ And kids started coming out of the seats and surged toward the stage. It was a kind of a messy evening.”

After the concert, fights broke out in the subway, and Freed wound up being indicted on charges of “inciting to riot during a rock and roll show.”

The rest of Freed’s tour got cancelled. Back in New York, he and WINS, unhappy with each other over various issues, including Freed’s numerous outside activities, parted ways. Within a month – by June 2nd, he resurfaced on WABC, ABC’s New York station. He also agreed to do another television show called Big Beat, on WABD, a DuMont station that later would become WNEW-TV.

One of WINS management’s concerns about Freed had to do with payola. The practice of disc jockeys receiving cash and gifts from record promoters for playing their records was not illegal outside New York and Pennsylvania. While many DJ’s routinely accepted payola (and reported it on their income taxes), Freed was a big target.

In late 1959, while a House subcommittee on legislative oversight, which had conducted hearings on TV quiz shows, turned its attention to payola, the  New York District Attorney’s office announced grand jury hearings on misdemeanor commercial bribery charges against disc jockeys. Broadcasting companies, whose operating licenses might be at stake, put pressure on their on-air employees, asking them to sign an affidavit denying any involvement in payola.

Freed, now on the air on WABC, refused to sign the ABC affidavit, telling the station manager that he had received various gifts and didn’t want to perjure himself.  ABC fired him on September 21st. Freed would also lose his “Big Beat” TV show on WNEW, and he did his last program on November 23rd, 1959.

The Congressional subcommittee hearings began in early 1960. Before Freed took the stand, several disc jockeys confessed to taking money and gifts for promoting records. Freed appeared in late April. Although carefully prepared by his attorney, and aware that his testimony might be used against him in criminal cases being pursued by the New York District Attorney, Freed gave the congressmen a detailed accounting of his connections with record distributors, and named record companies that paid him for “consultation.”

No longer employed in New York,  Freed moved to Los Angeles, where his friend and former WINS Program Director, Mel Leeds, had landed a job as Program Director of KDAY, an R&B station.

Just days after starting on KDAY, he would have to return to New York, where District Attorney Joseph Stone’s grand jury had handed down what amounted to indictments for misdemeanor commercial bribery charges that, investigators claimed, dated back at least ten years. On May 19, 1960, Freed and seven other radio figures were arrested and booked at a police station in Manhattan and charged with receiving a total of $116,850 in payola.

Despite his legal woes, Freed sounded as energetic as ever on the air in Los Angeles. Having signed an agreement with KDAY to steer clear of anything close to payola, he pushed records strictly out of passion, and helped break several hits, including Kathy Young’s “A Thousand Stars.”

Freed, said his daughter Alana, “was really plugging along. He had a great show.” But the show closed after KDAY refused to allow Freed to promote a Hollywood Bowl concert he was staging. Fired by KDAY, Freed next had to cope with his trial on the commercial bribery charges.

Wary, weary, and increasing his use of alcohol, Freed agreed to plead guilty to two of 99 counts, and, in spring of 1963, paid a fine of $300. Behind that number, however, were insurmountable legal bills and, just around the corner, Federal charges of income tax evasion. By the time those hit, in spring of 1964, Freed was too weak to fight. Living in Palm Springs, he entered a local hospital for gastrointestinal intestinal bleeding, resulting from cirrhosis of the liver, on New Year’s Day, 1965. Twenty days later, on January 20th, he was dead as the result of kidney failure. He was 43.

He left behind a family that included three wives and four children. He married Betty Lou Bean on August 22, 1943 and had two children, Alana and Lance. A year after they divorced on December 2nd, 1949, Freed married Marjorie J. (“Jackie”) Hess on August 12th, 1950; they had two children, Sieglinde and Alan, Jr. The marriage ended on July 2nd, 1958, and Freed married Inga L. Boling on August 13th, 1959. His grandchildren include Alana’s sons Brian and Greg, and, from Lance Freed and Judith Fisher Freed, daughters Hannah Freed Northenor, Isabel Freed, Sarah Bean Freed, and Nettie Rose Freed.

Lance Freed went into the music business, and achieved considerable prominence as head of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ music publishing company.  Nettie Rose Freed is an accomplished songwriter.

Judith Fisher Freed, meantime, is the keeper of the flame. She built the Alan Freed Web site, and, on March 21, 2002, she delivered an urn containing his ashes to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. Freed was inducted into the first class of the Hall, in January 23, 1986, alongside such pioneers and greats as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, James Brown, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke.

Over the years, he has continued to be recognized for his contributions. In December 10, 1991, he received a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood. His story – or a Hollywood version of it, anyway — was told twice: in American Hot Wax in 1978 and in Mr. Rock and Roll, aired on NBC in 1999. Far more accurate was a biography, Big Beat Heat, written by John A. Jackson and published in 1991. On February, 26, 2002, Freed was honored at the Grammy Awards with the Trustees Award, which is presented to people who “have made significant contributions … to the field of recording.”

He did indeed. And at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner in 1986, in the magazine-styled program given to guests, a  profile of Freed gave him the last word, written by him on one of his oldies albums: “I hope you’ll take my hand as we stroll together down our musical Memory Lane. ‘The Big Beat in American Music’ was here a hundred years ago – it will be here a thousand years after we are all gone. SO – LET’S ROCK ‘N’ ROLL!”

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Ben Fong-Torres, a former editor and writer for Rolling Stone, is the author of The Hits Just Keep on Coming: The History of Top 40 Radio. He was also a DJ on KSAN, the pioneer FM rock station in San Francisco, and writes a radio column in the San Francisco Chronicle (SFGate.com). Visitors are welcome at www.benfongtorres.com.

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