Mr Rock’n’Roll

Re-printed from Maggie’s Blue Suede News

On 12th September, as part of my regular programme here in Moscow of organising rock’n’roll tribute concerts, I held an event to commemorate a very special man. He wasn’t a performer, a singer or a musician, but as a 1950’s icon it can be argued with conviction that he did more for Rock’n’Roll than anyone else in history.

His name was Alan Freed. One indication of the huge importance of this man in rockin’ history, is the number of times I’ve mentioned him in this column when writing about other r’n’r icons. He was pivotal in the careers of many super stars, such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, etc., to name but a few. The band I booked on 12th September to celebrate the great man, were the Raw Cats. Regular readers will know I’ve written about them in this column previously, as well as a special article 2 months ago about their group leader, Valery Setkin. They’re a brilliant rock’n’roll band with an illustrious pedigree here in Russia. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the concert.

It was Alan Freed more than anyone else who promoted and brought the attention of the World to the revolutionary music of rock’n’roll in the 1950s. And it was revolutionary. It was in the 1950s that the first youth culture developed which was recognisably that of young people themselves, and not just an imitation and modification of those of their parents. It was the birth of teenage and young people’s social rebellion and the music which accompanied and was an integral part of it, was rock’n’roll. As a disc jockey it was Freed who brought this music to the attention of America via mainstream radio. He coined the nickname “Moondog” and this title stayed with him throughout his career. Later he would be involved in rock’n’roll films and television in the 1950s. As mentioned above he was instrumental in the success and fame of many rockin’ 1950s’ stars.

Although his over-riding aim in the music business was to make money and become famous, one positive result of his work was the advancement of many black performers. The 1950s were the infancy of the modern civil rights movement and there were still many obstacles to black performers becoming really big stars. But Freed recognised the crucial influence of black music on the style of rock’n’roll music, for example the addition of rhythm’n’blues to the cocktail of music that eventually became rock’n’roll. So it’s true to say the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Frankie Lymon, etc., owe a lot to his pioneering work in this area. Freed always made a point of opposing any attempt to put on all-white shows, or to “tone down” the musical style to appease more conservative white audiences. And it paid off for him: Despite the opposition he encountered, rock’n’roll took off exponentially and Freed reaped the fame and financial rewards from it in like measure.

It’s worth recording something right here, so there is no misunderstanding when describing Freed’s monumental contribution to rock’n’roll. For example, he is maybe more important in rock’n’roll history than any of the performers, including Elvis; maybe. But it has to be acknowledged Freed was not a nice man, despite the Mr Nice Guy image he portrayed in the rock’n’roll films he appeared in. The majority who came into contact with him in the business describe him as egotistical and a ruthless businessman, who was usually obnoxious and scathing towards those who did not agree with him. He had a self-destructive streak, for example he drank and smoked to excess. This streak was to prove his undoing, but more of that later.

The name and title itself “rock’n’roll” owes its importance to Freed. He didn’t invent the phrase, but it was his use and exposure of it on radio and film that gave our great music its name. Early on in his DJ career, he got lots of criticism from black DJs on black music stations, who at that time were playing the nearest thing to what was to become rock’n’roll. It was Freed who took this music and brought it to mainstream America, still containing many of its black influences. By popularising it in this way, it was claimed he put lots of black DJs out of work. But there is no doubt that without his work, rock’n’roll would never have hit the mainstream American audiences in the way it did; neither would huge numbers of black artists have hit the big-time, as they did thanks to his influence and efforts.

As Freed’s and the music’s popularity ballooned in the mid-1950s, he expanded from his DJ radio work and brought live shows to major venues throughout America. The music had truly arrived, to the accompaniment of big name performers, wild dancing in the aisles and ecstatic young audiences.

But the publicity for him wasn’t all good. Similar to the teenage hooliganism that the Teddy Boys in the UK were very soon to demonstrate, some youths in America made similar behavior part of their youth culture. For example after one of Freed’s shows at the prestigious Paramount Ballroom in New York City, later that night some young attenders at the concert started a mass fight on a subway train in Brooklyn. Some Americans began to blame rock’n’roll and in particular Freed as being responsible for all this teenage social rebellion. It only served to add to the list of enemies he acquired during his successful career years. This was all rather unfair to him, although Freed was the first to acknowledge that the music was “a form of rebellion against authority”.

The music industry was quick to capitalise on this culture of teenage rebellion, in some of the performers and music it promoted, with the aim, like Freed, of making more money. Hollywood too jumped on the bandwagon, with films like “The Blackboard Jungle” made in 1955, which focused on life for young teenagers in an inner-city school, with its accompanying social problems and juvenile delinquency. Instances of teenage street violence, directly following the showing of this film in cinemas throughout the country, further excited some teenagers and enraged the older generation. It further added to Freed’s iconic status in American society at this time, either as a hero or villain.

Another influence Freed had on America was the greater integration of music shows, not just amongst the performers as mentioned already, but also the audiences. Even in the Southern States, both blacks and whites came to attend his r’n’r concerts (even though at first in the South the venue owners separated them within the concert halls i.e. blacks on one side, whites on the other). This all added to the social changes coming to America at that time.

Freed did not escape criticism for these changes. Remember this was America in the 1950s. In the South in particular White Citizens’
Councils began to appear, denouncing rock’n’roll and calling it “obviously negro music” and “a means by which the white man and his children can be driven to the level of the negro”. In the North, although the racism was a bit more subtle than this, it still existed against this new music. Freed was seen by these bigots as the man most responsible for these changes. His social activity added to this stereotype. For example, he openly socialised with the black performers, sharing drinks and cigarettes with them. And a large number of the performers at his shows were black. Freed is therefore to be commended for his progressive attitude during this period of history. Although to be frank, his prime motivation was not social progress. He recognised the money-making potential of advancing the cause of black performers, in view of their talent and crucial contribution to rock’n’roll. Plus he was a hard-headed businessman: He knew that the mainstream white audience for rock’n’roll was infinitely bigger than the black one and made sure his very biggest stars, like Jerry Lee Lewis, were those that came from this social group.

His downfall came with the infamous “payola” scandal in 1959. It was proved that he had accepted payola i.e. received payments from record companies to play specific records as a DJ on radio and at his shows. This was a highly controversial practice at the time. But it was generally known in the business that this practice was not uncommon at that time. Unfortunately for him, the enemies he had made along the way made sure he took the brunt of the blame for it. As a result of the scandal he was fired from the radio station he worked for and shortly afterwards was sacked from his television show. In 1960, payola was officially made illegal and 2 years later he was found guilty of commercial bribery. He was fined and received a suspended sentence.
Although he subsequently found employment on much smaller local radio stations as a DJ, it was effectively the end of his iconic career. He died in 1965 at the age of 43, of symptoms associated with alcoholism. He left behind a wife (his third) and 3 children from his previous marriages.

His legacy was huge and it is difficult to over-exaggerate his contribution to the history of rock’n’roll. Without him, our great music would not have been the same and there is an argument for saying that perhaps it would not even have come into being in the form it did. He was that important. More than any other individual, he deserves the title “Mr Rock’n’Roll”.

And before I sign off for this month, my thanks to Slim Reed for his kind comments, in the August issue of this magazine, about my article on Charlie Feathers in the July issue. Sounds like you agree with me Slim, that Charlie, whilst he received recognition from so many rock’n’rollers, deserved even more acclaim. Feathers was a musical genius. As rock’n’rollers we should all be grateful to him for his music and his legacy. RIP Charlie: Or better still, hopefully somewhere up there you are still rockin’ up a storm !

Richard Hume