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Alan Freed needed no Top 40. He rolled into prominence in radio, going from Akron, Ohio, to Cleveland in 1951, where he made up his own rules and created the rock and roll foundation for Top 40.
That freewheeling trait would lead to a downfall as tragic as any that beset a rock and roll star.Freed, of course, was a rock and roll star -- who happened to do his performing between the songs, when he was often inspired to exclaim, shout, sing, moan, and pound on a thick telephone book, purposely leaving the microphone on.
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 it 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, Freed speaks, at a quickening clip, to his unseen audience:
"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, fifteen minutes from now, 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. We'll be here until two-thirty in the morning, and operator 210 is at the WJW switchboard to take your telephone requests. When you're calling in play it cool when you call, we'll get to your requests as soon as we can. Pop the cap, have a good ball. Enjoy Erin brew, ten-oh-two, and The Moondog Show!"
He introduces a jumping jazz tune, "C-Jam Blues," and, immediately, he's adding his own lines, some sung, some scatted, over the horns and xylophone. "Aw, go!" he exclaims, just before the sax solo. "Ho, now!" 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, his sponsor since he moved from Akron to Cleveland three years before, in 1950.
We will not, here, try to tell the entire story of Alan Freed, except to the extent of his impact on Top 40 radio. The details of his mercurial career and sad destruction have been chronicled quite well in books -- most notably John A. Jackson's Big Beat Heat -- and less well in films. Those have ranged from the fifties rock and roll movies in which Freed played versions of himself -- a powerful DJ who sided with the kids in defending rock and roll -- to American Hot Wax, which condensed numerous key incidents in Freed's career into one made-for-Hollywood day and night. The movie did convey Freed's genuine affection for both the music he played and his young listeners.
One of them -- in real life -- was Roger Steffens, a rock and reggae writer and 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.
"I used to have an old Pentron reel-to-reel," Steffens recalls, "and I put my mike in front of my '48 Bendix table model. 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."
That, one fellow DJ agreed, was Freed's most tangible quality. Joe Smith, who would go on from radio work in Boston to become one of the recording industry's top executives at Warner Bros. Records, lists Freed as one of the outstanding radio personalities of all time, primarily on the strength of his charisma.
Freed, he said, had "a terrible voice, no style, but a sense of..." Smith took a second to gather his thoughts, conjuring those times. "You know," he continued, "Gillette used to spend tons of money in Top 40. They'd survey high school boys who were just going to start shaving and ask who their favorite disc jockeys were. It was almost always the nighttime jocks. At night, in the East, you could establish a very close relationship to some kid who's lying in bed with his radio. On the West Coast, it's la-la land and people with convertibles with their tops down at night, but in the East, when the weather got bad, that radio was your thing. So it was always nighttime disc jockeys. And Alan could present a sense of danger out there. He was like an on-the-edge kind of guy."
Actually, he was a hearty, partying kind of guy -- at least on the evidence of his air checks. Invariably, he's cheering songs along. Like a hyped-up version of a jazz disc jockey, he made certain to name the musicians whose work he played. He put his heart into his commercials, but put equal energy into his readings of the endless dedications. He may have been intoxicated by the music -- an engineer at WINS said Freed always had his headphone volume turned as high as it could go -- or alcohol, which the DJ was said to have, on occasion, in the studio, but he did not sound dangerous.
If there was danger, it must've been in the music. All around him, rock and roll and R&B were under attack -- by parents' groups, church leaders, the press, and, most vocally, by those who believed the music posed an insidious threat to civilized society, something even more dangerous than Communism: racial equality.
No video history of rock and roll is complete without these two images: first, the chairman of the Alabama White Citizens Council, in white shirt and slacks, standing by a car with a sign reading "We Serve White Customers Only." He tells the newsreel camera, "We've put up a twenty-man committee to do away with this vulgar, animalistic rock and roll bop." Second, we get a look at the organization's executive secretary, who sits behind a typewriter. "The obscenity and vulgarity of rock and roll music," he says, "is obviously a means by which the white man and his children can be driven to a level with the nigger."
Others connected the music with Communism, saying it was a tool of the Red Menace for subverting the youth of America; or that, whatever forces held the strings to it, rock and roll was corrupting the morals of young people and leading to race-mixing. Whatever the merits of any such argument, one thing was undeniable. By its sheer novelty, and by the force of its acceptance by the younger generation, it was scary.
Blackboard Jungle threw juvenile delinquency and rebellion against authority onto the big screen, bow-tied with an upbeat theme song that got the kids out on the dance floor. Rebel without a Cause, starring James Dean, and The Wild One, with Marlon Brando, provided a left-right follow-up.
R&B hits like the Dominoes' "60 Minute Man" and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' "Work with Me Annie" upset more people, especially when they heard that "work" -- not to mention "rock and roll," a phrase Freed had popularized on the radio -- were euphemisms for sex.
Speaking of which, for wary parents, what more frightening vision could there be than the likes of Little Richard pounding on a piano, singing about a girl who "sure likes to ball" or, especially, Elvis Presley, whose handsome leer and nonchalant, sexual body language sprang out from once-safe television variety shows, triggering a national debate about rock and roll and youth?
The New York Daily News called the music "an inciter of juvenile delinquency" and pointed to Freed as a chief offender. Freed, after all, was staging concerts featuring mostly rhythm and blues artists and drawing both black and white music fans. (One of them, in 1954, was a Brooklyn teenager who'd grow up to be Wolfman Jack. The young man worked his way backstage at the Paramount Theater and talked his way into a job as gofer.)
The Freed concerts had created near riots in Cleveland and New York. Despite pressure from law enforcement agencies, the disc jockey only expanded his territory, mounting a concert tour that arrived in Boston in March of 1958. Joe Smith, a popular disc jockey there, promoted the concert with Freed. "That," he recalls, "was with Chuck [Berry] and Jerry Lee Lewis and a cast of thousands, but there was a little to-do afterwards, and Alan made a mistake." Smith explains: "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."
It was enough that Freed had angered the police by showing them up. "Outside afterwards, there were some fights in the subway, so Alan got busted." He was indicted on charges of "inciting unlawful destruction of real and personal property" and "inciting to riot during a rock and roll show." "That," says Smith, "was the start of his downfall."
The Boston troubles triggered cancellations of the rest of Freed's tour. Back in New York, Freed and WINS, unhappy with each other over various issues, parted ways. He would soon resurface on WABC, but, for the moment, the anti-rock forces savored a victory.
And those forces included a few disc jockeys. Another familiar piece of footage in rock and roll history documentaries is that of a DJ at WHK smashing a 78 r.p.m. record against the edge of his turntable and declaring: "Rock and roll has got to go!" While most disc jockeys either liked the music or were doing their job, playing what their listeners wanted to hear, some announcers agreed with critics that the music was mediocre at best, obscene and vulgar at worst. One group of R&B disc jockeys on the East Coast declared a ban on songs that promoted vices or degraded black people. Entire stations, including R&B pioneer WDIA in Memphis, announced bans on all suggestive songs.
The response from the youth of America was predictable. The more the authority figures ranted and raved, the more they flocked to the record shops and record hops, to the rock and roll movies and concerts, and to the disc jockeys who tied it all together, right on their own personal transistor radios.
Soon after arriving in New York in mid-1954, Alan Freed was forced to drop his "Moondog" tag. A street musician who wore a Viking getup and performed in front of Carnegie Hall had established himself under that name and sued the disc jockey. Freed, who in Cleveland had taken to calling his show the "Moondog Rock 'n' Roll Party," dropped the dog and, instead, emphasized "rock 'n' roll." And, as evidenced by an air check from early 1955, he poured it on:
"Hello, everybody! Yours truly, Alan Freed, the ol' King of the Rock 'n' Rollers, all ready for another big night of rock and rolling. Rock 'n' roll records are the big beat in popular music in America today. Let her go!" -- (the engineer rolls the theme music) -- "and we'll be here til nine o'clock, reviewing the Top 25 rock and roll favorites of the week. So welcome to Rock 'n' Roll Party Number One!"
The instrumental theme is established, then fades under Freed.
"Yeah! Top 25 rock 'n' roll favorites, everybody, according to your mail requests, your telegrams and your record purchases all over the rock and roll record kingdom. We're gonna get off and running, warm up with Red Prysock on Mercury, 'Rock and Roll!'"
Excerpted by permission of Miller Freeman Books. Copyright © 1998 by Ben Fong-Torres