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Albert James Freed
December 15, 1921
Windber, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||January 20, 1965 (aged 43)|
Palm Springs, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Lake View Cemetery|
Betty Lou Bean
(m. 1943; div. 1949)
Marjorie J. Hess
(m. 1950; div. 1958)
Inga Lil Boling (m. 1959–1965)
Albert James "Alan" Freed (December 15, 1921 – January 20, 1965) was an American disc jockey. He became internationally known for promoting the mix of blues, country, rhythm and blues music on the radio in the United States and Europe under the name of rock and roll. His career was destroyed by the payola scandal that hit the broadcasting industry in the early 1960s.
Freed was born to a Russian Jewish immigrant father, Charles S. Freed, and Welsh-American mother, Maude Palmer, in Windber, Pennsylvania. In 1933, Freed's family moved to Salem, Ohio, where Freed attended Salem High School, graduating in 1940. While Freed was in high school, he formed a band called the Sultans of Swing in which he played the trombone. Freed's initial ambition was to be a bandleader; however, an ear infection put an end to this dream.
While attending the Ohio State University, Freed became interested in radio. Freed served in the US Army during World War II and worked as a DJ on Armed Forces Radio. Soon after World War II, Freed landed broadcasting jobs at smaller radio stations, including WKST (New Castle, PA); WKBN (Youngstown, OH); and WAKR (Akron, OH), where, in 1945, he became a local favorite for playing hot jazz and pop recordings. Freed enjoyed listening to these new styles because he liked the rhythms and tunes.
Freed is commonly referred to as the "father of rock 'n' roll" due to his promotion of the style of music, and his introduction of the phrase "rock and roll", in reference to the musical genre, on mainstream radio in the early 1950s. He helped bridge the gap of segregation among young teenage Americans, presenting music by African-American artists (rather than cover versions by white artists) on his radio program, and arranging live concerts attended by racially mixed audiences. Freed appeared in several motion pictures as himself. In the 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock, Freed tells the audience that "rock and roll is a river of music which has absorbed many streams: rhythm and blues, jazz, ragtime, cowboy songs, country songs, folk songs. All have contributed greatly to the big beat."
In 1945 Alan Freed joined WAKR and became a local favorite, playing hot jazz and pop recordings. The radio editor for the Akron Beacon Journal followed Freed and his "Request Review" nightly program of dance. When he left the station, the non-compete clause in his contract limited his ability to find work elsewhere, and he was forced to take the graveyard shift at Cleveland's WJW radio where he eventually made history playing the music he called "Rock and Roll."
In the late 1940s, while working at WAKR (1590 AM) in Akron, Ohio, Freed met Cleveland record store owner Leo Mintz. Record Rendezvous, one of Cleveland's largest record stores, had begun selling rhythm and blues records. Mintz told Freed that he had noticed increased interest in the records at his store, and encouraged him to play them on the radio. Freed moved to Cleveland in 1951, still under a non-compete clause with WAKR. However, in April, through the help of William Shipley, RCA's Northern Ohio distributor, he was released from the non-compete clause. He was then hired by WJW radio for a midnight program sponsored by Main Line, the RCA Distributor, and Record Rendezvous. Freed peppered his speech with hipster language, and, with a rhythm and blues record called "Moondog" as his theme song, broadcast R&B hits into the night.
Mintz proposed buying airtime on Cleveland radio station WJW (850 AM), which would be devoted entirely to R&B recordings, with Freed as host. On July 11, 1951, Freed began playing rhythm and blues records on WJW. While R&B records were played for many years on lower powered, inner city radio stations aimed at African-Americans, this is arguably the first time that authentic R&B was featured regularly on a major, mass audience station. Freed called his show "The Moondog House" and billed himself as "The King of the Moondoggers". He had been inspired by an offbeat instrumental called "Moondog Symphony" that had been recorded by New York street musician Louis T. Hardin, aka "Moondog". Freed adopted the record as his show's theme music. His on-air manner was energetic, in contrast to many contemporary radio presenters of traditional pop music, who tended to sound more subdued and low-key in manner. He addressed his listeners as if they were all part of a make-believe kingdom of hipsters, united in their love for black music. He also began popularizing the phrase "rock and roll" to describe the music he played.
Later that year, Freed promoted dances and concerts featuring the music he was playing on the radio. He was one of the organizers of a five-act show called "The Moondog Coronation Ball" on March 21, 1952, at the Cleveland Arena. This event is known as the first rock and roll concert. Crowds attended in numbers far beyond the arena's capacity, and the concert was shut down early due to overcrowding and a near-riot. Freed gained a priceless notoriety from the incident. WJW immediately increased the airtime allotted to Freed's program, and his popularity soared.
In those days, Cleveland was considered by the music industry to be a "breakout" city, where national trends first appeared in a regional market. Freed's popularity made the pop music business take notice. Soon, tapes of Freed's program began to air in the New York City area over station WNJR 1430 (now WNSW), in Newark, New Jersey.
WINS New York
In July,1954, following his success on the air in Cleveland, Freed moved to WINS (1010 AM) in New York City. Hardin, the original Moondog, later took a court action suit against WINS for damages against Freed for infringement in 1956, arguing prior claim to the name "Moondog", under which he had been composing since 1947. Hardin collected a $6,000 judgement from Freed, as well as an agreement to give up further usage of the name Moondog. WINS eventually became an around-the-clock Top 40 rock and roll radio station, and would remain so until April 19, 1965—long after Freed left and three months after he had died— when it became an all-news outlet.
Film and television
Freed also appeared in a number of pioneering rock and roll motion pictures during this period. These films were often welcomed with tremendous enthusiasm by teenagers because they brought visual depictions of their favorite American acts to the big screen, years before music videos would present the same sort of image on the small television screen.
Freed appeared in several motion pictures that presented many of the big musical acts of his day, including:
- 1956: Rock Around the Clock featuring Freed, Bill Haley & His Comets, The Platters, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, Lisa Gaye.
- 1956: Rock, Rock, Rock featuring Freed, Teddy Randazzo, Tuesday Weld, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Johnny Burnette, LaVern Baker, The Flamingos, The Moonglows.
- 1957: Mister Rock and Roll (film) featuring Freed, Rocky Graziano and Teddy Randazzo, Lionel Hampton, Ferlin Husky, Frankie Lymon, Little Richard, Brook Benton, Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker, Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
- 1957: Don't Knock the Rock featuring Freed, Bill Haley and His Comets, Alan Dale, Little Richard and the Upsetters, The Treniers, Dave Appell and His Applejacks.
- 1959: Go, Johnny Go! featuring Freed, Jimmy Clanton, Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, Eddie Cochran, The Flamingos, Jackie Wilson, The Cadillacs, Sandy Stewart, Jo Ann Campbell, Harvey Fuqua and The Moonglows. Chuck Berry also played Freed's pal and sidekick, a groundbreaking role in those days.
Freed was given a weekly primetime TV series, The Big Beat, which premiered on ABC on July 12, 1957. The show was scheduled for a summer run, with the understanding that if there were enough viewers, it would continue into the 1957–58 television season. Although the ratings for the show were strong, it was suddenly terminated after four weeks. During the second episode, black singer Frankie Lymon had been shown dancing with a white girl from the studio audience: the incident caused an uproar among ABC's local affiliates in the South and "would allegedly lead to the show's cancellation".
During this period, Freed was seen on other popular programs of the day, including To Tell the Truth, where he is seen defending the new "rock and roll" sound to the panelists, who were all clearly more comfortable with swing music: Polly Bergen, Ralph Bellamy, and Kitty Carlisle.
Legal trouble, payola scandal
In 1958, Freed faced controversy in Boston when he told the audience, "It looks like the Boston police don't want you to have a good time." As a result, Freed was arrested and charged with inciting to riot, and was fired from his job at WINS.
Freed's career ended when it was shown that he had accepted payola (payments from record companies to play specific records), a practice that was highly controversial at the time. There was also a conflict of interest, that he had taken songwriting co-credits (most notably on Chuck Berry's "Maybellene"), which entitled him to receive part of a song's royalties, which he could help increase by heavily promoting the record on his own program. In another example, Harvey Fuqua of The Moonglows insisted Freed's name was not merely a credit on the song "Sincerely" and that he did actually co-write it (which would still be a conflict of interest for Freed to promote).
Freed lost his radio show on WABC, and was later fired from the station altogether on November 21, 1959. He also was fired from his television show (which for a time continued with a different host). In 1960, payola was made illegal. In 1962, Freed pleaded guilty to two charges of commercial bribery, for which he received a fine and a suspended sentence.
On August 22, 1943, Freed was married to Betty Lou Bean. The couple had two children, daughter Alana Freed (deceased) and son Lance Freed. On December 2, 1949, the couple divorced. On August 12, 1950, Freed married again to Marjorie J. Hess. During this time, the couple had two children, Sieglinde Freed and Alan Freed, Jr. The couple divorced on July 25, 1958.
Freed married for a third time on August 8, 1958, to Inga Lil Boling, with whom he remained until his death.
Later years and death
Because of the negative publicity from the payola scandal, no prestigious station would employ Freed, and he moved to the West Coast in 1960, where he worked at KDAY/1580 in Santa Monica, California. In 1962, after KDAY refused to allow him to promote "rock and roll" stage shows, Freed moved to WQAM in Miami, Florida, but that association lasted only two months. During 1964, he returned to the Los Angeles area and worked at KNOB/97.9.
Freed died in a Palm Springs, California, hospital on January 20, 1965, from uremia and cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism; he was 43 years old, and was initially interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. In March 2002, Judith Fisher Freed carried his ashes to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. On August 1, 2014, the Hall of Fame asked Alan Freed's son, Lance Freed, to permanently remove the ashes, which he did. The Freed family later announced the ashes would be interred at Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery.
An archived sample of Freed's introduction on the Moondog Show was used by Ian Hunter in the opening of the now-classic song "Cleveland Rocks", from Hunter's 1979 album You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic.
The 1978 motion picture American Hot Wax was inspired by Freed's contribution to the rock and roll scene. Although director Floyd Mutrux created a fictionalized account of Freed's last days in New York radio by utilizing real-life elements outside of their actual chronology, the film does accurately convey the fond relationship between Freed, the musicians he promoted, and the audiences who listened to them. The film starred Tim McIntire as Freed and included cameo appearances by Chuck Berry, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Frankie Ford and Jerry Lee Lewis, performing in the recording studio and concert sequences.
On January 23, 1986, Freed was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. In 1988, he was also posthumously inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. On December 10, 1991, Freed was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The VH1 series Behind The Music produced an episode on Freed featuring Roger Steffens. In 1998 The Official Website of Alan Freed went online with the jumpstart from Brian Levant and Michael Ochs archives as well as a home page biography written by Ben Fong-Torres. On February 26, 2002, Freed was honored at the Grammy Awards with the Trustees Award. In 2017 he was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
Freed was used as a character in Stephen King's short story, "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band", and was portrayed by Mitchell Butel in its television adaptation for the Nightmares & Dreamscapes mini-series. He was the subject of a 1999 television movie, Mr. Rock 'n' Roll: The Alan Freed Story, starring Judd Nelson and directed by Andy Wolk. The 1997 film Telling Lies in America stars Kevin Bacon as a disc jockey with a loose resemblance to Freed. The Cleveland Cavaliers' mascot Moondog is named in honor of Freed.
Freed is mentioned in The Ramones' song "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?" as one of the band's idols. Other songs that reference Freed include "The King of Rock 'n Roll" by Terry Cashman and Tommy West, "Ballrooms of Mars" by Marc Bolan, "They Used to Call it Dope" by Public Enemy, "Payola Blues" by Neil Young, "Done Too Soon" by Neil Diamond, "The Ballad of Dick Clark" by Skip Battin, a member of the Byrds, and "This Is Not Goodbye, Just Goodnight" by Kill Your Idols.
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