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ASHES FOR LEOTARDS: IT'S STILL ROCK 'N' ROLL TO ME

June 13, 2018

Like so many other people, I’ve always had a problem with CNN’s misleading and biased headlines and stories, such as this one dated a few years ago, but was recently brought back to my attention.

 

ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME

OUSTS DEEJAY ALAN FREED'S ASHES,

ADDS BEYONCE'S LEOTARDS

 

At first glance of this intentionally misleading headline, as well as the terribly written accompanying story, relying on the sensationalism of “Beyonce’s leotards” to attract readers, the average person would think the management of the museum in Cleveland, Ohio, has lost touch with reality. “Ousting” the "father of rock 'n' roll" – the man responsible for the museum’s name, the man, without whom, the institution would be called something like “The Ho-Hum Music Hall of Fame,” or something similarly boring. The phrase “Rock ‘n’ Roll” denotes a feeling of excitement, the beginning of an era with no end in sight, the birth of a completely new musical genre. Alas, that’s not entirely true – something you can say about any CNN “news.” While museum management did ask Alan Freed’s family to remove the urn with the disc jockey’s ashes, due to a change of policy regarding celebrity remains, Mr. Freed’s importance is still highlighted prominently throughout the venue..

 

"We are conscious of his important role and will continue to honor him," a spokesman said, adding that the museum's radio studio is named for him, and there "are many touch points" and Alan Freed mementos in the hall. In emphasizing Alan Freed’s importance, the spokesman said Mr. Freed's role in breaking down racial barriers in U.S. pop culture in the 1950s, by leading white and black kids to listen to the same music, put the radio personality "at the vanguard" and made him "a really important figure" regarding civil rights, as well as popular music. Of course, even that accolade is an understatement. Not to diminish the importance of marches and sit-ins in the 50s and 60s, Alan Freed probably did as much for the movement as any person, after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

As a young disc jockey in small Ohio markets in the late 40s, Mr. Freed fell in love with the rhythm and blues sound performed almost exclusively by black singers and groups and only on black radio stations. He felt the general public had a right to hear this unique sound, and started sneaking some of the “banned” records into his playlist, while peppering his broadcasting with “jive talk,” which caused him to lose several jobs. In 1951, Mr. Freed met Cleveland record store owner Leo Mintz, who had begun selling rhythm and blues records. Mr. Mintz told Mr. Freed that he had noticed increased interest in the records at his store, and encouraged him to play them even more. With Mr. Mintz’s support, he was then hired by Cleveland's WJW radio, a major market, for a midnight program called "Moondog," broadcasting R&B hits into the night. Mr. Freed also began popularizing the phrase "rock ‘n’ roll" to describe the music he played, after hearing the words in a 1951 R&B song, Sixty-Minute Man by Billy Ward and the Dominoes:

 

Look a here girls I'm telling you now
They call me "Lovin' Dan"
I rock 'em, roll 'em all night long
I'm a sixty-minute man

 

From there, Alan Freed and his rock ‘n’ roll took off like a Saturn rocket, He promoted dances and concerts featuring the music he was playing on the radio, and 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. In July 1954, following his success on the air in Cleveland, Mr. Freed moved to WINS (1010 AM) in New York City. I was 14 at the time and I was instantly hooked on the sound, and coming of age in the 1950s would have been a whole lot less exciting without Alan Freed and rock ‘n’ roll, that’s for sure. So long, Perry Como and Patti Page and Frankie Laine and hello Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley…and, of course, Elvis – but he crossed all lines. (In fact, when Heartbreak Hotel was first released, and no one knew what Elvis looked like, many radio stations thought he was another black rock ‘n’ roller and refused to play it.) Not only did my friends and I listen faithfully every night, but we attended all of his rock ‘n’ roll concerts at the Brooklyn Paramount – getting to see our favorite performers in action – and watching Chuck Berry quick-step across the stage while singing Maybellene is something I will never forget.

 

 

By 1955 and 1956, the other “Top 40” radio stations in New York (WABC, WMCA, WOR) couldn’t ignore rock ‘n’ roll any longer but they still resisted playing records by black performers and some moron came up with the idea of the “cover record,” which featured white singers trying pitifully to sing like the original black artists.  So while Alan Freed was playing Ain’t That A Shame by Fats Domino, the others were playing the same song by lily-white Pat Boone. At the same time, Earth Angel by The Penguins was covered by the McGuire Sisters; Ko Ko Mo by Gene & Eunice was covered, by all people, Perry Como; Sh-Boom by The Chords was covered by the Crew-cuts, and on and on and on. The other radio stations finally threw in the towel – first in the Northeast, then most of the rest of the country . . . and the original black performers, at last, received their rightful due. Alan Freed became so popular that he 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. because a black singer Frankie Lymon, lead singer of The Teenagers, had been shown dancing with a white girl from the studio audience during his performance of Why Do Fools Fall In Love.: OH NO! It was "too much" for ABC's local affiliates in the South to handle, They demanded, and got, the show's cancellation.

 

But the white establishment of the 1950s didn’t stop there. They wanted Alan Freed’s head, and they would get it. In 1959, it is estimated that nearly 2,000 deejays were spinning records on America’s radio stations. And, it is also estimated that almost every single one of them received cash payments or some other form of gratuity from record companies to favor certain records with air time. It was called “payola,” and when the Federal Government officially made it illegal, the first, and practically the only, person they went after was – you guessed it: Alan Freed. On Feb. 8, 1960 a New York Grand Jury began looking into commercial information in the recording industry and the probe would lead to Mr. Freed being the only deejay subpoenaed by the Oversight Committee. Despite being offered immunity, he refused to testify, in other words he wouldn't rat out record company officials who paid the money, The trial began December, 1962 and ended with Mr. Freed pleading guilty to 29 counts of commercial bribery. Though he only received a $300 fine and six months suspended sentence his career was over.

 

Alan Freed, one of America’s most important figures in music, as well as civil rights, died in a Palm Springs, California, hospital on January 20, 1965, from uremia and cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism; he was 43 years old, On January 23, 1986, Mr. Freed was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was built in Cleveland in recognition of Mr. Freed's involvement in the promotion of the genre. 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. On February 26, 2002, Freed was honored at the GRAMMY Awards with the Trustees Award. His remains were initially interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. In March 2002, at the bequest of the museum's management, a family member carried his ashes to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame  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 urn with his ashes would be interred at Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery together with a special memorial.

 

When you think about it, the ridiculous move by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame management, which should be expanding Alan Freed’s presence in its venue rather than diminishing it, might be better in the long run. Now, all who wish to pay respects to Alan Freed can do so, without dishing out the museum’s pricey $30 entrance fee. And, as for Beyonce's leotards, they would probably get more attention in Jay Z’s bedroom.

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