Disc jockey Alan Freed was born Albert James Freed on 15 December, 1921 near Johnstown, PA, the son of a clothing store clerk named Charles Freed. When he was 12, his family moved to Salem, Ohio. Freed had a high school band called the Sultans of Swing, but as a DJ he would eventually become one of the pioneers of popular music, credited with turning a minor phrase in black slang into an accepted part of the English language. That term (which he tried unsuccessfully to copyright) was rock 'n' roll.
Alan Freed may not have changed music per se but he was at the right place at the right time and in tune with the changes that were occurring in American music. It was his skill in promotion and his dedication that greatly enhanced the spread of rock and roll.
During the Great Depression and the war years, the churches had their great hymns of the faith and the well-heeled had their Brahms and Bach and Beethoven; but among the lower and middle-classes large numbers were listening to jazz and hillbilly music and rhythm 'n' blues.
In the 1930s and 1940s, most radio music came from studio orchestras performing live. The invention of vinyl changed all that. In the late forties, 45rpm vinyl discs began playing and radio stations created a new job: the disc jockey (DJ)
In 1941, like many others in his generation, Alan Freed enlisted in the army. Unlike many, an unforeseen medical problem caused a quick discharge, and he was once again a civilian. Freed pursued a career in radio but it wasn't until he left for Cleveland that he started to become famous. In 1943, Freed married Betty Lou Greene, a marriage that would end seven years later.
The Cleveland Years
In Cleveland, he had a show which he called Moondog's Rock and Roll Party. Then he syndicated his program so it was heard all across America. He went even further and made an arrangement to have it broadcast on Radio Luxembourg, allowing kids from Europe and even Great Britain to hear this new style of music.
He was also a shrewd business person and got his name as co-author on several recordings including Chuck Berry's hit 'Maybelline'. While working as a DJ in Cleveland, Freed was said to have 'kept time to his favourite records by beating his hands on a phone book'1.
Shortly after that, he held what many consider to be the first rock 'n' roll concert and such huge crowds tried to crash the party that the event was cancelled.
Meanwhile, the older generation called this music evil. Interviewed by Eric Severeid, Freed faced up to charges that he was involved with music that fostered immorality and juvenile delinquency. Some parents went so far as to forbid it being played in their houses. But the genie was out of the bottle and couldn't be stopped.
The Big Apple and beyond
Then in his thirties, Freed took his rock 'n' roll to New York City. His show soon became the number one rated show in the New York market. He had a string of stage productions and then ABC-TV signed him up for a nationally televised program. In addition to his other activities, he found time to play himself in two movies about the new rock 'n' roll phenomenon. These movies were: Rock Around the Clock in 1956, and Mr Rock and Roll in 1957. Freed did as much as humanly possible to promote this new genre. He was the model for future DJs.
Now divorced from his first wife Betty Lou and with two kids, he married Marjorie McCoy and had two more kids. Once again the marriage failed. He then married a third time in 1959. This marriage to Inga Boling continued until his death.
The Beginning of the End
Too much fame can go to your head and Alan Freed was soon knee-deep in trouble over payola2. The US House of Representatives Oversight Committee stepped in and, when he refused to cooperate, the matter was turned over to a grand jury. It was the beginning of the end. ABC asked him to leave. Alan was soon drinking, chain-smoking and could not hold on to a job. He bounced around the country taking jobs here and there.
Finally, under indictment for tax evasion, his health failed and he died a broken man in Palm Springs, CA on 20 January, 1965 and his body was shipped to Hartsdale, NY for burial.
In 1978, a movie American Hot Wax was made spotlighting his early days in New York.
Some 20 years after his death, the city of Cleveland, Ohio opened the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Alan was one of the first names enshrined there. It has even been stated that Cleveland was chosen as the location for it because of its connection to Freed. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, the Walk of Fame Committee gave him his own star on the sidewalk. He had lived just over 43 years and both these honours attested to the fact that he was, to quote Neil Diamond, 'done too soon'.