By John Jackson
Alan Freed was born Albert James Freed today (December 15, 1921,) near Johnstown, PA. In 1933 the Freed family moved to Salem, Ohio. In high school, Freed formed a band know as The Sultans of Swing, in which he played trombone. In 1942, Freed landed his first broadcasting job, at WKST (New Castle, PA). He took a sportscasting position at WKBN (Youngstown, OH) the following year.
In 1945 he moved to WAKR (Akron, OH) and became a local favorite, playing hot jazz and pop recordings. In 1949 Freed moved to WXEL-TV in Cleveland.
Record store owner Leo Mintz convinced him to emcee a program of rhythm & blues records over WJW radio, and on July 11, 1951, calling himself “Moondog,” Freed went on the air.
At his “Moondog Coronation Ball” at the 10,000-capacity Cleveland Arena in March 1952, upwards of 20,000 fans (almost all black) crashed the gates, causing the dance to be cancelled.
This is considered to be the first “rock” concert. It also marked the point at which Freed’s audience began to include an increasing number of whites — who subsequently heard Freed refer to rhythm & blues as “rock & roll.”
The following January he held a landmark dance there, promoting black performers as rock & roll artists. Within a month, the music industry was advertising “rock & roll” records in the trade papers.
Freed also emceed a string of legendary stage shows at the Brooklyn and New York Paramount Theatres; was heard nationally via CBS radio; and starred in several rock & roll movies.
In 1957 ABC-TV gave Freed his own nationally-televised rock & roll show, but an episode on which Frankie Lymon danced with a white girl enraged ABC’s Southern affiliates and the show was cancelled.
In the spring of 1958, when violence occurred outside the Boston Arena after a Freed stage show, local authorities indicted him for inciting to riot. The charges were eventually dropped, but WINS failed to renew Freed’s contract.
Freed moved to WABC radio, and also hosted a locally televised dance show.
When the broadcasting payola scandal erupted in November 1959, Freed claimed payments he’d received from record companies were for “consultation,” not as an inducement to play their records.
He was fired from his radio and television programs.
Freed was hired by Los Angeles’ KDAY radio (owned by the same company that owned WINS) in 1960, but when management refused to let him promote live rock & roll shows Freed left the station and returned to Manhattan to emcee a live twist revue.
When the twist craze cooled he hooked on as a disc jockey at WQAM (Miami, FL). Realizing that his dream of returning to New York radio was just that, Freed’s drinking increased. The Miami job lasted only two months.
In December 1962, in New York, Freed pleaded guilty to two counts of commercial bribery and was fined three hundred dollars.
Living in Palm Springs, CA, and drinking heavily, the one-time “king of rock & roll” was a broken man. He died there on January 20, 1965, ostensibly of bleeding esophageal varices and cirrhosis of the liver.
Those closest to him swear he died of a broken heart.
In 1986 Freed was among the original inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
In 1991 a comprehensive biography, Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll was published. That same year, Freed received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.