Pioneering Northeast Ohio Radio Personality Alan Freed Gets His Final Resting Place
by David C. Barnett
Saturday afternoon, the ashes of legendary disc jockey Alan Freed found their final resting place at Cleveland's historic Lake View Cemetery. Freed blended a love of music with a dynamic radio personality to make an indelible mark on American popular culture.
The year was 1954 and the theme song spinning on a turntable at WJW in Cleveland sent a signal to young listeners across the city that the guy who called himself the “King of the Moondoggers” was about to hold court
"Hello again, everybody. Welcome to the Moondog Rock and Roll party. And away we go with Gil Bernal, picking up that tenor horn to blow it strong on the Spark label, and “The Whip”!
Alan Freed was part of a new breed of radio personality in the early 1950s known as a “disc jockey”, but unlike most of his fellow DJs, Freed’s mic stayed open when the songs started and he sang along in the background, beating out the rhythm on a nearby phone book. A teenaged Billy Strawbridge was a fan. He and his friends were captivated by this white guy playing Rhythm & Blues tunes at midnight.
"Basically, back then," he says, "no one but black folks understood what a back beat was. He understood it from the beginning."
While African American listeners appreciated Alan Freed’s knowledge of their music, he also developed a sizable listenership among white kids.
Terry Stewart is the former CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and continues to research Freed and his impact on popular music. Stewart says Freed's broadcasting skills were matched by his musical knowledge
"He was very prescient in his view about this black art form that he re-named Rock and Roll --- basically he just relabeled Rhythm & Blues, when you get right down to it."
In 1952, Freed staged a concert featuring some of the most popular artists he played on his program. He advertised it as the “Moondog Coronation Ball”, and it was booked into the 11,000-seat Cleveland arena. Billy Strawbridge was there. He says a riot nearly broke out when 20,000 people showed up.
"When the music started, the folks outside were trying to get in," Strawbridge recalls. "And the folks inside weren’t letting nobody in --- because there was no place to go. I mean, they were standing on top of each other."
After a few minutes, the event was cancelled, but it has since been cited as the world’s first Rock and Roll concert. Soon, Freed was famous. He moved to New York, where he was featured on TV, in movies and on radio station WINS.
Freed’s enthralling style also came to the attention of music promoters who started paying him to play their records. That practice came to be known as “payola”. Terry Stewart says it was common in the music industry, and the authorities were starting to crack down.
"New York State had a commercial racketeering law, and of course, he was convicted and fined a few hundred bucks, but he lost everything --- he lost his career, it all went out the window."
Unable to find work in New York, Alan Freed moved to California. He died at the age of 43 in Palm Springs in 1965, largely due to the effects of alcoholism.
Freed’s cremated remains were sent to a New York cemetery. But, in 2002, he was back in Cleveland --- kinda. His ashes were put on display in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the 50th anniversary of the Moondog Coronation Ball. Twelve years later, Freed’s son Lance got a request from the Rock Hall.
"I got a call from the new director of the Rock Hall, asking me to please come remove him: “We don’t want human remains here.” You know? So, I went and picked him up, and we found a new home."
Alan Freed’s ashes were moved to a gravesite by a lake at Lake View Cemetery, where the pioneering DJ joins the likes of crime buster Eliot Ness, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, 22 mayors and President James Garfield. Music expert Terry Stewart suggests, it’s a recognition of Freed’s cultural impact.
"He was one of the big catalysts in the role that music played in bringing the races together," says Stewart. "When you think about how much he loved the music, how close he was to particularly all the black stars, how he did not play white cover records --- all of that is pretty extraordinary for the time."
And now, Alan Freed has finally found his place in the town where it all began.