The iJamming! Weekly Download: Alan Freed
You could write a book about Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll – and in 1991, John A. Jackson did just that. Big Beat Heat is one of the better music biographies around, telling the story of the famous radio DJ and in the process, giving a solid introductory background to the origins of the music that came to be called “rock and roll.” I’ve read it several times and heartily recommend it.
For what it’s worth, Alan Freed’s popularization of the term was largely inadvertent. On air in Cleveland, he went by the name of Moondog, often howling along to the sound of ‘The Moondog Symphony,’ by the New York-based avant-garde street musician of the same name. When Freed was brought to New York City in September 1954 to broadcast a daily show on 1010WINS, the original Moondog quickly brought an injunction against Freed, claiming the name for himself. Despite showing up in court dressed in his usual Viking costume, Moondog (Louis Thomas Hardin) easily proved his case, and Freed was faced with the need for a new name, literally overnight. He settled on Alan Freed’s ‘Rock & Roll’ Party and, largely thanks to the popularity and influence of his show now that it was broadcast from the biggest city in America, it stuck.
Freed did not just stumble across the words “rock & roll.” The term, a euphenism for sex, had been showing up in the lyrics of R&B songs for years, and Freed had himself been using it on air for a while already – as this entertaining clip from his show on Cleveland’s WJW station of April 6, 1953 confirms. Across the course of this MP3, made available through the alanfreed.com web site, you will hear Freed howl along to the aforementioned ‘Moondog Symphony,’ give props to music biz pioneer Joe Davis sitting alongside him in the studio, endorse a local beer sponsor (with great conviction), read dedications, and promise his listeners “another of your favorite rock and roll sessions, blues and rhythm records for all the gang in the Moondog kingdom.” That Freed felt compelled to turn the then standard musical term “rhythm and blues” on its head suggests that he was always trying to distinguish himself from the pack, and of course, he succeeded. Popular music would not have been the same without him.
The media section of the alanfreed.com web site offers up dozens more clips from Freed’s radio and TV shows, stretching all the way from March 1952 to his TV farewell in 1959. Sadly, what’s missing, presumably for copyright reasons, is the music itself, which would help put his enthusiasm into context. Still, you can have hours of fun just listening to Freed rant, rave and roll. His morning-after explanation for the near riot that took place at the Moondog Coronation Ball in March 1952 is particularly revealing. In addition, there’s a lengthy interview with lawyer Warren Troob (by John Jackson?) and a link to the NPR documentary Let The Good Times Roll hosted by Jerry Butler. Elsewhere on the site, there’s as astonishing amount of archive information, including Freed’s original contracts with WINS all the way through to the cashed checks that were used as evidence in the Payola Investigations that brought Freed down in 1959. Thanks to the people at the alanfreed.com web site for helping archive such an important part of musical history – whether you call it rhythm & blues, blues & rhythm, or rock & roll.