While Alan Freed called himself the "father of rock and roll", he was not the first to use the term nor the first to play it on the airwaves. He was a promoter and he was very successful at what he did, until his own personal failings became exploited by others. They built their own careers upon the legacy created by Freed, while Freed's personal career was obliterated.
Pioneer of racial harmony
Many of the top African-American performers of the 1950s have given public credit to Alan Freed for pioneering racial integration among the youth of America at a time when the adults were still promoting racial strife. Little Richard has appeared in several programs about that era, to give the credit to Alan Freed that others have denied him. An example of Freed's non-racist attitude is preserved in motion pictures in which he personally played a part as himself with many of the leading African-American acts of that day. His influence and the music that he promoted crossed artificial racial barriers that were in place during the 1950s.
While working as a disc jockey at a Cleveland, Ohio radio station, he organized the first rock and roll concert called "The Moondog Coronation Ball" on March 21, 1952. The event, attended mainly by African-Americans, proved a huge drawing card - the first event had to be ended early due to overcrowding.
Following his success on the air in Cleveland, Alan Freed moved to New York City where he turned WINS into a rock and roll radio station.
Building upon his successful introduction in Europe by film, Alan Freed was then booked onto Radio Luxembourg where his prerecorded shows enhanced his reputation as the "father of rock and roll" music. Due to the tremendous power that the signal of Radio Luxembourg enjoyed throughout much of Western Europe, his choice of music encouraged imitation by many domestic groups. The record companies also bought time on Luxembourg to further promote the music of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and other African-American artists. These sounds were heard in places such as Liverpool, England where the individuals who later became famous as The Beatles were also listening and attempting to copy the music they heard.
Alan Freed also appeared in a number of major and historical rock and roll motion pictures during this period. These films were often welcomed with tremendous enthusiasm by teenagers because they brought visual depictions of their favorite American acts to the big screen, years before music videos would present the same sort of image on the small television screen. One side effect of these movies shown before mass audiences was that they sometimes presented an excuse for thugs to turn a fun event into a riot, in which cinemas in both West Germany and the United Kingdom were trashed.
Alan Freed appeared in several motion pictures that presented many of the big musical acts of his day:
* 1956 - "Donít Knock the Rock" featuring Alan Freed, Alan Dale, Little Richard and the Upsetters, Bill Haley and his Comets, the Treniers, Dave Appell and his Applejacks.
"Rock Around the Clock" featuring Alan Freed, Bill Haley and his Comets, Zola Taylor and The Platters, Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys.
"Rock, Rock, Rock" featuring Alan Freed, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Johnny Burnette, La Vern Baker, The Flamingos, The Moonglows.
"The Girl Can't Help It" featuring Alan Freed, Julie London, Ray Anthony, Fats Domino, Zola Taylor and The Platters, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, The Treniers, Eddie Cochran.
* 1957 - "Mr. Rock and Roll" featuring Alan Freed, Lionel Hampton, Ferlin Husky, Frankie Lymon, Little Richard, Brook Benton, Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter, La Vern Baker, Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
* 1959 - "Go, Johnny Go!" featuring Alan Freed, Jimmy Clanton, Chuck Berry.
It was at the height of Freed's career at the beginning of his new television series that various individuals decided to use Alan Freed as a scapegoat for all that was wrong with the recorded music industry and his show was suddenly cancelled. Into the void that had been created by the absence of Freed on TV, the career of Dick Clark began to take off.
The career of Alan Freed ended when accusations were made that he had accepted payola Ė that is, taken bribes to play specific records. Although his problems were not unique to him, he was singled out for attention. In 1960 payola was made illegal, although this by no means stopped the practice which continues in various forms to this very day. However, in 1962 Alan Freed pleaded guilty to two charges of commercial bribery for which he received a fine and a suspended sentence.
John Morthland provided a succinct description of the payola phenomenon and the situation prior to 1959 deejay scandal in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (revised edition):
Payola--the narrow definition: pay (cash or gifts) for radio airplay--has been
a factor in radio since the medium's inception. In the Fifties, the practice
flourished among rock 'n' roll disc jockeys. Payola padded their frequently
paltry salaries, and it helped the new music reach its intended audience, no
matter how small the label on which it appeared. By the late Fifties, in fact,
a swarm of independent labels recording rock had broken the stranglehold
of the majors--in particular Columbia, RCA and Decca--on the sales and
airplay of popular records.
As Morthland further noted, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) also had reason to be unhappy with the state of affairs at that time. The publishing house had become a dominant force in the music business through its licensing agreements regarding the sales of sheet music, piano rolls, and the recordings of Tin Pan Alley songs. A battle between ASCAP and the radio stations--whose programming had become increasingly committed to airing recorded music during the latter 1930s and early 1940s--spurred the latter to boycott ASCAP material and establish their own publishing firm, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). ASCAP's history of ignoring black and country music compositions, combined with the tendency of many radio stations to target regional tastes overlooked by the major networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) enabled BMI to secure a near monopoly on the material in these categories. The advent of rock 'n' roll, itself largely a product of the marriage of rhythm and blues and country, assured the continued dominance of BMI within the youth music market.
Therefore, it appeared to be a case of protecting vested interests when ASCAP pushed for the House Legislative Oversight subcommittee to broaden its inquiry into corrupt broadcasting practices--centered up to 1959 on television quiz programs--to cover payola practices within radio. According to the perspective held by many within the record industry, the payola investigation would assist in stamping out rock 'n' roll--already reeling from the loss of many of its top stars and faced with an onslaught of media friendly teen idols--altogether.
The music business quickly closed ranks in the face of outside political interference. ABC-TV forced American Bandstand host Dick Clark to unload his holdings in other music-related activities, ranging from record companies to publishing houses. In response to Federal Trade Commission directives, a number of independent record labels and distributors filed consent orders agreeing to eliminate payola. Such moves enabled the industry to withstand formal House hearings in early 1960. Clark, whose deportment under interrogation was that of a model citizen, was not found guilty of directly engaging in payola practices.
On the other hand, Alan Freed, the deejay most clearly identified with the rise of rock 'n' roll, refused to testify despite an offer of immunity. A pariah within the field he'd helped so much to nurture, he was ultimately found guilty on two counts of commercial bribery.
In the end, the committee recommended anti-payola amendments to the Federal Communications Acts which prohibited the payment of cash or gifts in exchange for airplay, and required radio stations to police such activities. These amendments formally became law on September 13, 1960.
While the overall impact of the hearings remains unclear, it is clear that the general media circus surrounding them far over- shadowed whatever concrete results might have taken place. The smaller independent labels had been forced to compete on more equal terms the majors and their superior publicity and distribution networks. As a result, many of the former went of business during the early 1960s. Nevertheless, new labels continued to surface--and sometimes achieve great success--in the upcoming years. Payola itself continued to be employed within the industry, giving rise to yet another scandal in the early 1970s centered around Columbia Records president Clive Davis and allegations of bribes involving money, sex, and drugs.
Although the punishment handed down to Alan Freed was not severe, the side effects of negative publicity were such that no one of note would employ him. He died in a Palm Springs, California hospital in 1965 suffering from uraemia and cirrhosis of the liver. He was interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
One of the reasons why Alan Freed was targeted for attack and destruction was due to his early belief in defacto integration and harmony and unanimity among the races. The 1950s were the age of extreme bigotry and race hate in the United States where Alan Freed promoted a sound for the youth of white America that had its origins not in Europe, but in Africa. American teens loved it and racist religious and political leaders reacted with alarm. Freed became a threat to their own message and therefore Freed had to be destroyed like a devil. To his fans worldwide Alan Freed is still remembered and appreciated to this day as being the "father of rock and roll". In the end his message became the norm, while the message of hate is now under attack.
In 1978 a motion picture entitled American Hot Wax was released which is based on Freed's contribution to the rock and roll scene, leading up to a concert that was held in New York City in 1959. Several notable personalities starred in the movie, who would later become well-known celebrities, including Jay Leno and Fran Drescher, and there was even a cameo appearance by Chuck Berry, performing in the concert segment.
In 1986, he was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, built in Cleveland because of him. In 1988, he was also posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.