Alan Freed and the Early Days of Rock and Roll

Alan Freed on a Topps trading card in 1957. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Alan Freed on a Topps trading card in 1957. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1959, disc jockey Alan Freed, who popularized the term “rock and roll,” was fired by New York’s WABC for his part in what came to be known as the payola scandal.

Here are some things you may not have known about Freed, payola and the early days of rock and roll.

Freed started in radio while a student at Ohio State University. He worked as a DJ on Armed Forces Radio during World War II. In 1945, he began a show on WAKR in Akron, Ohio, playing hot jazz and popular music. In 1951, Freed moved to WJW in Cleveland, where he hosted a midnight show featuring rhythm and blues music called “The Moondog House.”

In March 1952, he organized the first rock and roll concert, called “The Moondog Coronation Ball” at Cleveland Arena. The concert, which was to feature black and white performers on the same stage, was controversial at the time. Due to a printing error and counterfeit tickets, about 20,000 people tried to squeeze into the 10,000-seat arena. After the first song, the local fire marshal put an end to the show. The event made Freed one of the most influential DJs in the nation.

Two years later, he moved to WINS in New York and eventually made his way to WABC. In 1959, it was alleged that Freed participated in a pay-for-play scheme known as payola. At the time DJs controlled what was played on stations and record companies were willing to pay them in exchange for airtime. According to congressional testimony by a Chicago DJ, the price could be as much $22,000 per record. Freed refused to participate in the hearings and was fired by WABC. After that, DJs were largely stripped of the ability to choose what to play, and payola became a misdemeanor offense. That didn’t stop the practice, however. In 2005, Sony was fined $10 million for improper promotional practices with several radio companies.

Freed went on to work at a small station in Santa Monica, California, before a short stint in Miami. He returned to Los Angeles in 1964. He died a year later of illnesses related to alcoholism. He was 43.

Our question, what was the first rock and roll song to hit No. 1 on the U.S. charts?

Today is Universal Children’s Day and Transgender Day of Remembrance. In the United States it’s National Peanut Butter Fudge Day and National Absurdity Day. It’s the birthday of astronomer Edwin Hubble, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, musician Duane Allman and Vice President Joe Biden.


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One response to “Alan Freed and the Early Days of Rock and Roll”

  1. Um, my guess as to the first R’n’R song to hit #1 on the US charts (if we include Pop, Country & R&B) would be “Sixty Minute Man” by the Dominoes in June, 1951.

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