Alan Freed: Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll

DJ Alan Freed, one of the earliest promoters of rock ‘n’ roll, was hated by the US establishment for helping to break segregation in the music industry – and paid the price, writes Mitch Mitchell.

Go, Johnny Go! (1959, dir. P. Landres) starring Alan Freed

In the 1940s, Cleveland radio station WJW launched the career of Alan Freed. He was hired as a sports commentator, which he did for a couple of years. Then, the DJ who ran the late afternoon/evening slot on the station was taken ill and WJW, which ran on a tight budget, called upon Freed to take over in the other guy’s absence.

The sort of music he played was of the bland, middle American kind. However, one morning he was called by a friend who ran a record store. ‘Come and see this,’ the friend said. ‘What do you mean?’ said Freed. ‘Just come down.’

Intrigued, Freed went downtown to the store. There he saw a group of teenagers, white and black, dancing together to records, which at the time were categorised as ‘race music’ (the term ‘Rhythm and Blues’ was coined in 1949 by Jerry Wexler, then a journo on Billboard magazine, but later the senior artists and repertoire man at Atlantic records). Artists like Valetta Dillard, The Dominoes and Wynonie Harris were blaring out and the kids all seemed to be having a great time.

Back then, radio stations tended to cater for certain audiences. Predominantly Black stations played R&B; white stations mainly played country and bluegrass. Then there were stations like WJW, which tended to have slightly more powerful transmitters and relied on safe, bland stuff in the main.

Freed grabbed a few of the records that his friend was selling and rushed off back to the station for that day’s show. He then tore up the play list which the upper echelons of his station insisted upon and transformed the show to R&B output.

At first, this didn’t go well with his bosses. But then the responses started coming in. It seemed that what Freed was doing was popular, especially with younger listeners. Advertisers also began to contact the station and the management saw dollar signs in front of their eyes.

So, instead of the sack for deviating from the play list, they gave him a late-night three-hour slot. This led him to call the programme ‘Moondog’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Party’. He had taken the phrase ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ from African American slang where it was a euphemism for sex.
For those times, it was a wild show. Freed often beat time to records, whacking a telephone book with a drumstick. He also used a hand bell that he kept on his desk.

The show was a massive success and led to him being headhunted by the much larger WINS station from New York. He became a national name at that station and, being quite a shrewd businessman, he started to organise live shows at various large venues using the artists whose records he played.

When he arrived at WINS he also vowed to only play the original versions of songs, rather than the toned down versions which had been covered by white artists. As he put it, ‘You’ll never hear Moondog playing Pat Boone’.

The live shows were also an enormous success. They frequently included women artists like Laverne Baker and Ruth Brown and when Freed introduced them, they would often give each other a peck on the cheek. This inflamed racists, especially when the show played in Boston.

He also had a problem when a street entertainer who went under the name of ‘Moondog’ successfully sued him for the use of his name. Freed himself tried and failed to patent the term ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, but the judge ruled that the phrase was in such wide parlance that it couldn’t be done. He did, however, manage to patent the term ‘The Big Beat’ and persuaded Fats Domino to record a song with that title.

Unfortunately, Freed then came under the eye of the FBI and when he played Boston again, a fight broke out. The fight spilled out onto the street and the local press was full of comments from outraged people who spoke of ‘Jungle rhythms’ and kids behaving like ‘jungle savages’. It was felt, but not proven that the fight was initiated by agents provocateurs.

Boston’s authorities took him to court for ‘inciting riots’. They lost the case. But, the police, FBI and local authorities took much greater notice of him in the future. They began looking for ways they could ‘take him down’.

Meanwhile, he began advising at Chess records. One of his first interventions was with Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybelline’. As only composers got paid royalties for any radio plays, a lot of people had their names added to the composer credit. Chuck’s record had the names ‘Berry, Fratto, Freed’ as the songwriters. Russ Fratto was the landlord of the building where Chess had their studio and this was a ‘thank you’ present for not increasing the rent. This practice was popular throughout the industry. Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager after Elvis had left the Sun label insisted on his boy’s name being added to tracks released, despite the fact that Elvis never wrote any of his pre-Army tracks. Then there was the very shady Maurice Levy, owner of Roulette records, who ‘stole’ the credit for ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. This was eventually resolved in 1990 when survivors of the band and families of the deceased took Levy to court and he was forced to repay royalties.

Of course, as a radio DJ, Alan Freed could give himself a present every time he played the track and all those plays helped it to become a hit, so then he got sales royalties. Another group he promoted were also Chess recording artists by the name of the Moonglows, originally with lead singer Harvey Fuqua, who went on to become a big wheel at Motown in the 1960s. Also, later in their career they were augmented by a very young Marvin Gaye, who was with the outfit when they sang the backing vocals on Chuck Berry’s ‘Back in the USA’ and ‘Almost Grown’.

Freed was then signed to Hollywood and took part in several films, Rock! Rock! Rock! (1956, dir. W. Price), Don’t Knock the Rock (1956, dir. F. Sears), Mister Rock and Roll (1957, dir. C. Dubin) and Go, Johnny Go! (1959, dir. P. Landres) amongst them.

All the while, the establishment was working against him. Opinion there was that rock ‘n’ roll was a communist plot designed to undermine American youth. Ironically, the Soviet Union considered it to be a degenerate sound designed to subvert young Soviets. So it must have been doing something right! The genre was hated in many Southern states and by the KKK, but also by older people (obviously not all older people) in the Northern states.

Freed had one of his package shows at the Paramount theatre in New York interrupted by the police and the US Revenue service. The revenue people went to the box office and took all the cash so they could work out how much was owed in tax and refund the difference (if any) at a later date. This meant there was no money to pay the acts, but such was his popularity with the artists that they performed for free. The police had ordered the lights to be put on and this started much unrest from the audience and another fight ensued.

This was to be Freed’s last stage show. Soon after this, the issue of ‘Payola’ came to a head. Payola was the system whereby DJs got gifts of money, booze, sex workers or combinations of all three for playing and plugging records from song pluggers working for the record companies. Whilst not strictly illegal, it was pretty obviously morally very dubious and also frequently involved the mafia, who had stakes in several record companies.

The government set up a House Committee to investigate and called several people to testify. Freed’s radio station prepared a deposition saying he had received no illicit payments, but he refused to sign saying he wouldn’t lie. He had received gifts, but as it was not illegal, as I said, he didn’t see why he had to lie about it.

The press had a heyday. Freed’s was the biggest name involved and somehow, the House Committee found a way of fining him. His radio station, WIMS dissolved his contract. He signed to a station in California, but his busted reputation went with him and that failed.

He returned to New York and his money gradually ran out as no one would employ him. Many of the artists he had helped to stardom by promoting them either on record or on live shows deserted him for fear of attracting bad publicity as his name had become toxic.

He died, friendless and penniless in his apartment that he couldn’t afford to heat on 20 January 1965.

There is no doubt he received much of the hate directed at him because he stuck with the Black artists who had first made the records which became big hits for whites and refused to compromise. Racism became a big part of determining the future of popular music and back in the 1950s, Freed was in the establishment’s cross-hairs.

1 COMMENT

  1. Fascinating article. The Paramount thearte event was depicted in the excellent film ‘American Hot Wax’ Rarely shown but well worth seeking out.

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