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- Posted by Pat Pemberton
A casualty of the payola scandals that rocked radio, Freed would never be as famous as fellow DJ Dick Clark, who escaped his own payola past with little damage. Yet, in the early days Freed had a much greater impact on rock 'n' roll than Clark, who died a wealthy and respected pop culture icon last spring.
With the 48th anniversary of Freed's death approaching, here are ten reasons why he should be remembered.
HE POPULARIZED THE PHRASE "ROCK 'n' ROLL"
When Freed became a DJ in Cleveland in 1951, "rock 'n' roll" was a slang term in the African-American community, popularized in suggestive R&B songs such as "My Baby Rocks Me with a Steady Roll" and "Sixty Minute Man." Wanting to put a new face on the music created largely by black artists, he started referring to the evolving R&B records he was spinning as rock 'n' roll.
"He took the phrase from the records he was playing, with lyrics such as 'Rock me baby, roll me baby, all night long," his son, Lance Freed, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Rock 'n' roll was a known euphemism, in the black community, for sex. But to the public, 'rock 'n' roll' became the name for a mysterious new genre of music."
HE INSPIRED A MASCOT
Sure, Freed is mentioned in the Ramones song "Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio," and, yeah, there are two movies about him. But you know you've made an impact when a professional sports team names its mascot after you.
The floppy-eared pup named Moondog -- after Freed's self-applied nickname -- has been a fixture at Cleveland Cavaliers basketball games since 2003. According to the Cavs' website, "The Cavaliers' Moondog is dedicated to following in the spirit of the original. Alan Freed was innovative, fun-loving, passionate and controversial. Moondog promises to be the same. "
Best known for his behind-the-back half-court shot, Moondog was an NBA all-star mascot selection in 2003 and 2004.
HE INTEGRATED THROUGH MUSIC
As a DJ in the 40s, Freed spun jazz and pop records. But when a friend and record store owner named Leo Mintz told Freed he was selling a lot of rhythm and blues records, Freed convinced his station manager to give him a show, "Moondog's Rock 'n' Roll Party."
"He was the only white disc jockey playing music created by blacks on a white-owned station," Lance Freed said.
When Freed was honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, Little Richard acknowledged the DJ's efforts, saying, "If the record was good, he played it," regardless of the performer's race.
Later, shows Freed promoted would feature a mix of black and white audiences. Of course, not everyone was pleased with the racial harmony. His 1957 TV show, "The Big Beat" -- which pre-dated Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" on ABC -- was cancelled early on after African-American singer Frankie Lymon was seen dancing with a white girl, drawing protests from the network's southern affiliates.
GAB Archive, Redferns
As his radio show, "Moondog's Rock 'n' Roll Party," became more popular, Freed decided to bring the black artists whose records he played to Cleveland to perform. The first two shows each drew a couple of thousand people. But then Freed decided to plan a larger event -- this one in an ice arena that could seat 10,000.
Yet, as the crowd filled the arena for the Moondog Coronation Ball in 1952, another 10,000 surrounded it, wanting to see the show themselves. Just as Paul Williams and the Hucklebuckers were set to perform, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the crowd outside broke through the gates and crashed the show, creating what police called a riot.
That show, considered the first rock concert -- despite its two predecessors -- got Freed fired from radio station WJW. But overwhelming support from fans not only got him re-hired -- his show was actually expanded.
HE STILL HAS AN ECONOMIC IMPACT ON CLEVELAND
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette once declared, "Alan Freed gets all the credit."
After the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was created in 1983, it needed a home. A search committee considered several cities, including Detroit (the home of Motown), Memphis (home of Stax and Sun Studios), Cincinnati (home of King Records) and New York City (home of, well, lots of stuff). But the committee chose Cleveland largely because it was where rock and roll began, thanks to Freed coining the term and staging the first rock show.
And -- let's face it -- Cleveland needed a little tourist boost. At the time, the Los Angeles Times called it "a national symbol of industrial decline" trying to escape its run-down past.
Since the 150,000-square-foot Rock and Roll Hall of Fame building -- designed by architect I.M. Pei -- opened in 1995, it has become vital to Cleveland's economy, welcoming some 9 million visitors and generation $107 million annually in economic impact, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It has the highest attendance of any hall of fame and regularly features popular exhibits, shows and lectures by famous musicians.
HE WAS INCLUDED IN THE ROCK HALL OF FAME TWICE
In 1986, the first year members were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- before the Beatles and Bob Dylan -- Freed was among the class that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles.
While he wasn't alive to attend his induction, Freed would physically arrive at the hall in 2002, when his ashes were put to rest inside the museum's walls 37 years after his death. Originally reburied under an escalator, at the family's request, the urn containing his ashes were later put on display.
"My dad would probably be thrilled, or at least amused," his son, Alan Freed Jr. told the Associated Press.
HE WAS A PIONEER HOST
Known for his machine-gun delivery and opening howl, the charismatic Freed would offer commentaries about songs as he was spinning them, and he'd often pound out the beat -- over a live mic -- with his fist on a phone book. But mostly he's known for becoming the voice of a radical new musical movement and parlaying his personality into his radio shows and the concerts he promoted.
"I remember when I first heard Alan Freed on the air," the late DJ Wolfman Jack told the Hollywood Reporter in 1994. "He was doing the same thing I hope I'm doing; he gave me so much happiness, and I was determined to become what I am now."
HE APPEARED IN THE FIRST ROCK 'n' ROLL FILM
Filmed to capitalize on the success of Bill Haley and His Comets, the 1956 film "Rock Around the Clock" was a fictionalized tale of the origins of rock and roll. But more importantly, it was the first rock and roll film, which became the archetype for teen musicals to come -- and paved the way for all those Elvis flicks.
Freed, who portrayed himself in the film, would appear in five movies, including "Rock Rock Rock!" "Go, Johnny, Go" and the sequel to "Rock Around the Clock," "Don't Knock the Rock."
HE INTRODUCED THEATRICS TO THE LIVE SHOW
Before a show in 1956, Freed tried to get R&B artist "Screamin'" Jay Hawkins to arrive on stage in a coffin, but Hawkins was reluctant to do so -- until Freed offered him $2,000.
After a spooky-looking Hawkins popped out of a coffin and performed his signature hit "I Put a Spell On You," his reputation was forever sealed.
"Years ago, Alan Freed typed me as a black Vincent Price," Hawkins once told Rolling Stone. "He put the coffin in my act, and I've had that voodoo image ever since."
Hawkins' haunting stage show is said to have inspired numerous other artists to include theatrics in their shows, including David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Dr. John and Marilyn Manson.
HE MADE GREAT ACTS FAMOUS
While Freed was criticized for getting songwriting credits for tunes he had nothing to do with, his promotion of those songs -- including Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" -- helped make them famous.
"He played the hell out of Chuck's first record, 'Maybellene,' because of that," Marshall Chess, son of Chess founder Leonard Chess, told the Independent newspaper in 2008. "My father says he made deal, and by the time he got to Pittsburgh, which was half a day's drive away, my uncle back at home was screaming, 'What's happening? We're getting all these calls for thousands of records!'"