The Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll



January 2018

Section 5E, Lot 383-0.

Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland.

It’s quiet here.  Of course it’s quiet.  It’s a cemetery. 

This quiet is in contrast to the way this plot’s occupant lived his life.  Who lives here in this burial place?  Alan Freed.

Alan Freed was born in 1921 in Windber, Pennsylvania, 59 miles from my home as the crow flies, 74 miles as the crow drives.  At the age of 12, he moved to Ohio where he later tried being a student at Ohio State.  He put in some time with the U S Army.  And blah, blah.  But then he studied broadcasting and got a job as a news and sports announcer on WAKR in Akron.  In 1950, he moved over to WJW-AM radio in Cleveland.  This is important.

It was here in Cleveland that Freed made a world-shaking observation.  When he worked at Record Rendezvous, the largest record store in town, it became obvious that a whole lot of white kids were buying the rhythm & blues records.  Because the artists were primarily African-American, these were known as “race records.”

I was one of those white kids who sought out race records:  B B King, Aretha Franklin, Elmore James, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Isley Brothers, Jr Walker and the All Stars, Dr John, John Lee Hooker, The Staple Singers, Lorraine Ellison.  Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Billie Holiday.  Wilmer Alexander & the Dukes, the Foundations, Booker T & the MGs, Thelonius Monk.  Bill Haley and the Comets, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Otis Redding.


Note that not all these performers were black.  Some acts, like Bill Haley and the Comets, Dr John, The Righteous Brothers and The Spencer Davis Group, sounded, dare I say, blackish.  You could categorize them as R & B, or “race music” or be bop or jazz or the up and coming Rock ’n’ Roll.  No matter.  I couldn’t get enough of them.  And although at the time I had never heard of, or heard, Alan Freed, I was tightly connected, through the music, to the culture.

In 1951, Freed began programming race records on a late-night radio show.  He called it “Moondog Rock ’n’ Roll Party,” and thus became the first white guy to play “black music” on the air.

Freed moved to super station WINS in New York and became a radio star and a concert promoter, introducing R & B to the masses.  In 1952 Cleveland, Leo Mintz, owner of the Record Rendezvous, along with Freed and promoter Lew Platt put together the Moondog Coronation Ball, the first-ever rock and roll concert.  Featured were The Dominoes, Paul Williams and the Hucklebuckers, Tiny Grimes and the Rocking Highlanders, Danny Cobb, Varetta Dillard and some other artists.  25 000 fans showed up to the arena, a building with a capacity of 10 000.  Remember, this was a time of incendiary race relations in this country.  And here were all these white kids dancing and grooving to music performed by black musicians.  Get down with your bad self!

And there it was.  “Rock ’n’ Roll.”  Alan Freed became known as the “father of rock ‘n’ roll,” being credited with first using the term to describe this new music in the early 1950s.  It was a cultural phenomenon.

Why “rock ’n’ roll?”  Freed began using this name because “it seemed to suggest the rolling, surging beat of the music.”

What almost no one knows is that, when Freed began to spread the rock ’n’ roll gospel all over us, the term was not a new one.  For years it had been used in the black community to mean “sexual intercourse.”  Seriously get down with your bad self!  Ha!  We believe that this application of the name to this music was not unknown to Mr Freed.

But life turned bad for Alan Freed.  He was accused of accepting payola, the illegal practice of deejays accepting payment from record companies and distributors to play certain records.  Although he vigorously denied the charges, he was fired and blackballed.  By the age of 43, Freed’s liver could no longer keep up with the vast amounts of alcohol he was fond of drinking, and he died of cirrhosis.

Lisa and I have some stuff to do in Cleveland so, as we always do on our trips, we find a place to walk or hike.  This time it is an extended visit in the Lake View Cemetery.  I specifically want to seek out Alan Freed.  Once in the neighborhood, it was easy to figure out which grave marker was his.  Behold…

Freed actually started out his death by getting cremated and interred in a New York mausoleum.  Later his ashes spent twelve years at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.  Then he moved to his current and final address here at the Cemetery.

It is worth noting that of 107 000 graves in this cemetery, some of Freed’s contemporaries, all from Cleveland, reside here.  They include…

. Eliot Ness — Cleveland’s Public Safety Director from 1935 to 1942, a famous, honest cop who brought down the famous, dishonest gangster Alphonse Gabriel Capone.  In Chicago, Ness led a band of law enforcement agents called The Untouchables.

. Harvey Pekar — A peculiar cartoonist who wrote the American Splendor comics

. James Garfield — U S President #20

.  John D Rockefeller — Financier and possibly the wealthiest American ever.  Behold a few bits about this guy.

His father was a traveling snake-oil salesman who posed as a deaf-mute peddler.  He also posed as an eye-and-ear specialist.  He cheated on his wife, but he also cheated on his girlfriends.

He hired other men to substitute for him as a soldier to avoid Civil War combat.

He had alopecia.  This is where all your hair, on head and body, falls out.

Who and what else at Lake View?

.  the Cialis casket bathtubs — I assume these are for randy dead people.

.  the Haserot Angel of Death Victorious, crying black tears

Yes, Rock ’n’ Roll is here to stay.  Or at least, Rock is.

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