Freed, Alan "Moondog" (1921-1965)

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Freed, Alan "Moondog" (1921-1965)

One of the most popular and influential pioneering radio disc jockeys, Alan "Moondog" Freed helped make Cleveland, Ohio, an early hotbed of rock 'n' roll music through the programs that he hosted on radio station WJW there in the 1950s. Moving to WINS Radio in New York, he soon became a nationally-known celebrity as one of the first important supporters of the new youth-oriented music that was sweeping the country during that decade. His theory that white teenagers would listen to and purchase rhythm and blues records by black artists proved insightful. For more than a decade, Freed constantly promoted the emergent music format via stage shows, national radio, television, and in a series of movies. Although he did not coin the phrase "rock 'n' roll," he is credited with popularizing the term which had originally been a euphemism for sexual intercourse on "race" records beginning in the 1920s. Freed's talent for promotion soon became his downfall as he and other disc jockeys across the nation were implicated in the payola scandals in 1959. Author John Jackson underscores Freed's contribution to contemporary American music by stating he "proved how essential the disc jockey was to the growth of rock & roll."

Aldon James Freed, who was born on December 21, 1921, and raised in rural Salem, Ohio, had a strong interest in music from childhood. While attending Ohio State University he became fascinated with the activity at WOSU Radio, the university station. He did not become involved with the station during his stay at the university, but, instead, enrolled in a broadcasting school in Youngstown, Ohio. Throughout the 1940s he toiled at a variety of small, local radio stations in Pennsylvania and Ohio where he held numerous positions such as sweeping floors, news and sports announcing, and playing music. The young announcer's fortunes changed dramatically when he took a position with Cleveland's WJW (850 AM) as host of a rhythm and blues program in 1951. He adopted the name "Moondog" from a raucous recording featuring a howling dog titled "Moondog Symphony." Freed's on-air antics soon made him a popular personality with Cleveland's young black community. Six months after the debut of his late night radio broadcast, he and the owner of the area's largest record store entered a partnership to promote a dance called the "Moondog Coronation Ball." On March 21, 1952, more than 10,000 mostly black teens packed the Cleveland Arena to see rhythm and blues performers Paul Williams, Varetta Dillard, and the Dominoes. The arena became so overcrowded with the unexpectedly large mass of people that city officials were forced to stop the show for safety reasons. The Moondog Coronation Ball is considered a signifi-cant moment in the development of rock 'n' roll. Bill Randle, one of the nation's most respected deejays in the 1950s, characterizes Freed's 1952 event as the "beginning of the acceptance of black popular music as a force in radio. It was the first big show of its kind where the industry saw it as big business."

By 1954, Freed's relentless promotion of himself as well as the rhythm and blues style cemented his position as the music's chief spokesperson. Increasingly, young white record buyers began to cross the racial barrier that had separated mainstream pop songs from rhythm and blues. Freed was further able to enlarge his growing white audience when he moved his program to the powerful WINS radio station in New York. The disc jockey became a national figure through his syndicated radio program, many television appearances, and his role in the film Rock Around the Clock (1956). Playing himself, Freed portrayed a disc jockey encouraging adults to accept the new rock 'n' roll music as sung by Bill Haley and the Comets. The film's great success in the United States and across Europe significantly boosted the exposure of rock music to new audiences.

As the influence of rock 'n' roll spread worldwide, Freed became embroiled in a scandal that would tarnish the remainder of his career. The House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, which in 1959 had concluded its investigation of corruption on television quiz shows, began to probe charges that songs heard and heavily promoted on the radio were selected for airplay due to commercial bribery. These secret payments in return for record promotion were known as "payola," a portmanteau word combining "payoff" and "victrola." After years of legal wrangling and a steadily diminishing career, Freed eventually pleaded guilty on December 10, 1962, in the New York Criminal Court to accepting payments and gifts from Superior Record Sales and the Cosant Distributing Corporation "without the knowledge and consent" of his employers. He was sentenced to a six-month suspended jail term and fined $500. He later noted that payola practices had not been ended despite all the government's efforts. Freed never regained his earlier prominence and died on January 20, 1965, after a long illness.

Alan Freed has secured a place in American music history as the first important rock 'n' roll disc jockey. His ability to tap into and promote the emerging black musical styles of the 1950s to a white mainstream audience is seen as a vital step in rock's increasing dominance over American culture. Freed's contribution to the music he sold so successfully was honored in 1986 by the Rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame, which selected him as one of the first inductees in the special "non-performer and early influences" category. In 1995, the city of Cleveland hosted the Rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame and Museum's dedication not far from the site of Freed's Moondog Coronation Ball and the radio station where he popularized the phrase "rock 'n' roll."

—Charles Coletta

Further Reading:

Jackson, John. Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll. New York, Schirmer Books, 1991.

Sklar, Robert. Rocking America. New York, St. Martin's, 1984.