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Rock & Roll’s broken heart – The rise and tragic end of Alan Freed

May 2019

Elvis Presley may be the King of Rock & Roll, but there would be no Rock & Roll if it wasn’t for Alan Freed.

Alan Freed was the Rock & Roll Disc Jockey and media personality who coined the term in 1951 to describe the uptempo rhythm and blues sound playing on radios across the United States at the time.

Born on 15 December 1921 in Windber, Pennsylvania, Freed’s family moved to Salem, Ohio in 1933.

It was while serving in the US Army during WWII that Freed began his career as a DJ on Armed Forces Radio.

After the war, Freed continued his DJ career, landing a series of radio jobs with WKST in New Castle, Pennsylvania, WKBN in Youngstown, Ohio, WAKR in Akron, Ohio and WJW in Cleveland, Ohio.

Freed enjoyed listening to the new styles coming out of the music scene because he liked the rhythms and tunes. It was at WJW in Cleveland that he coined the term “rock & roll” to describe the new musical genre, one that helped bridge the racial segregation gap in America. Freed played and promoted songs by black musicians on his “Moondog Rock & Roll House Party” radio show (Moondog being his radio nick-name), rather than playing cover versions by white artists.

Freed also arranged live concerts attended by racially mixed audiences, like the “Moondog Coronation Ball,” the first Rock & Roll show, held on 21 March 1952 at Cleveland Arena.

Freed moved on to WINS radio in New York City in July 1954 and two years later, was forced to surrender his radio name after being successfully sued by New York street musician Louis T. Hardin, who had been using the name “Moondog” for years prior.

Not content to be contained by radio, Freed was also frequently seen on TV on popular programs, including “To Tell The Truth.”

The beginning of the end for Freed began in 1959, when he was fired from his TV job “Big Beat” at WNEW in New York after payola accusations against him surfaced.

Payola was a highly controversial practice, with record companies paying off DJs to play specific records, a practice that was finally made illegal in 1960.

Freed was fired from his radio show on WABC and from his television show in late 1959 when it was confirmed that he had indeed accepted payola, along with conflict of interest accusations for songwriting co-credits, such as on Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and “Sincerely” by The Moonglows. By receiving co-writer credits, Freed was entitled to receive royalty payments every time the songs were played, royalties that Freed could help increase by heavily playing the songs on his radio show.

In 1962, Freed pleaded guilty to two charges of commercial bribery and received a fine and a suspended sentence.

Freed struggled to find and maintain employment as a result of his involvement in the payola scandal. He moved to California in 1960 and worked at KDAY in Santa Monica, but left two years later when the station refused to allow him to promote rock and roll stage shows.

Freed moved on to WQAM in Miami, Florida, but left after only two months, returning to the Los Angeles area and finding employment at KNOB in Long Beach.

By this time, Freed’s health was in decline due to his alcoholism. He died on 20 January 1965 in Palm Springs, California, of uremia and cirrhosis. He was 43 years old.

Freed was originally interred in Fernclif Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, but in March 2002, Judith Fisher Freed arranged for his urn to be displayed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where Freed was among the first group inducted into the museum.

His ashes were removed at the request of the Hall of Fame on 1 August 2014 and were later interred in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland’s east end.

Today, the “Father of Rock & Roll” lies beneath a large, black granite tombstone that has his picture and a brief telling of his place in music history on one side, and a etching of a vintage jukebox on the other side.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/rock-rolls-broken-heart-the-rise-and-tragic-end-of-alan-freed/

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