Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,190Comments
This is the grave of Alan Freed, visited in the aftermath of a ridiculous amount of snow not allowing me to get a better photo.
Born in 1921 in Windber, Pennsylvania, Freed grew up in an ethnically mixed family. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Russia and his mother was American born of Welsh descent. They moved to Ohio when Alan was a kid and that’s where he grew up. He was a kid into the midcentury jazz popular in the day and had a band where he played trombone. He wanted to lead a big band but he had a hearing issue after an infection and so his musical career ended.
So Freed ended up at Ohio State but he found a new way to participate in the music business–becoming a disc jockey. He was then drafted into Army and DJ’d his way through the war on Armed Forces Radio. When he got back to the U.S., he worked for a series of radio stations in small Ohio and Pennsylvania towns. He was deeply interested in new music and in Black music. Unlike a lot of people who grew up on the big band jazz of the 1940s, Freed didn’t want music to stop there. Rather, he saw the new innovations in swinging music as leading toward something more and so he was always on the look out for the next thing.
Now, Freed did not invent the term “rock and roll.” That’s a common misconception. He rejected that himself. The first known use of the term was in Billboard all the way back in 1946. But what matters is that Freed was really into this new Black music and he started promoting it on his radio shows. Now, it might have been possible for listeners to figure out these were Black people performing it, but remember that information was really hard to come by in the late 40s and early 50s and you simply didn’t have a way of knowing. Of course the music industry knew who was in what race (or claimed to anyway) and they tried to promote white artists to white stations, often doing lame covers of these new Black songs. But Freed wouldn’t have any of that. He was going to play the real thing and, lo and behold, that’s what people wanted to hear because it was better music. By this time, he had several hours a day on a station on Akron and he was easily the most popular DJ in northeast Ohio.
Freed didn’t just know these artists were Black, he brought them to Akron to perform in front of interracial audiences. No wonder cultural conservatives thought rock and roll was the devil’s music. He became an underground star in the new rock scene, to the point that he routinely showed up in early rock and roll movies to play himself. He was credibility. Now, Akron was still a small market. The owner of the station there tried to force him to not move to Cleveland, which was pretty close and would interfere with that station’s market dominance, but Freed went to the big city anyway. There, he continued not only his radio work but promoting shows. That included the Moondog Coronation Ball in 1952, which is considered the first big rock show. Paul Williams and Tiny Grimes were the headliners. Those aren’t big stars in terms of our rock memory but they were pretty huge acts then, even if Grimes’ act was a Black band wearing Scottish kilts. There was nearly a riot at the show. The media began paying attention to what these crazy kids were listening to and what it meant for America.
Freed moved to New York in 1954 and had success there too. He got a TV show briefly in 1957 but it was cancelled when it showed Frankie Lymon dancing with a white woman. ABC affiliates in the South completely freaked out and that was it for the show. Word also started leaking out that Freed was totally corrupt. Yep, this was the payola scandal, where he was taking bribes to promote acts. That took awhile to really hit home but the word was out. And then rock and roll was still seen as super scary about authorities. When Freed was promoting a Jerry Lee Lewis show in Boston in 1958 (by the way, how is Jerry Lee still alive?), he stated, because the cops were being jerks, “It looks like the Boston police don’t want you to have a good time.” He was then arrested by said cops for inciting a riot and was fired by the radio station in New York where he worked.
Maybe that wouldn’t have affected him too much–getting arrested for promoting Jerry Lee and hating cops was not exactly bad publicity in the rock community. But then there was the payola. Now, payola wasn’t technically illegal until 1960, but he was still doing it and was charged with commercial bribery in 1962. He pleaded down and paid a fine. But his life was rapidly becoming a mess. He went through his second divorce. Then he was busted for tax evasion. I know I’m shocked a guy known for taking bribes wouldn’t be totally honest on his taxes either. Much of his unreported income was, of course, the payola.
Freed also drank. A lot. He drank more as his life unraveled. He drank himself to death in 1965, at the age of 43, with the official cause of death being uremia caused by cirrhosis. Well, that will happen.
Alan Freed is buried in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio. This is his third resting stop. He was initially buried in Hartsdale, New York. Then, in 2002, his ashes were dug up and “gifted” to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Should have put them on display, would have been more interesting than most of the exhibits about how great Jann Wenner’s favorite acts are or, even better, on Rolling Stone itself which was the main exhibit the last time I was there. But the Rock Hall definitely didn’t want them. In 2014, it asked the family to take them back. They did and thus, the Cleveland grave.
Freed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, part of the first class. If you would like this series to visit other inductees into the Rock Hall from that year, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Chuck Berry is in St. Louis and James Brown is in Beech Island, South Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.