Moondog’s Final Sign Off
American disc jockey and rock 'n' roll promoter Alan Freed. Getty Images
Jan. 19, 2015 6:28 p.m. ET
Last August, Lance Freed walked out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame carrying a brushed brass urn with his father’s ashes. For 12 years, the rectangular receptacle had been on exhibit in a display case at the Cleveland museum as a tribute to Alan Freed, the disc jockey known as Moondog who is credited with coining the term “rock ’n’ roll” in the early 1950s. But last year, the institution decided that displaying human remains wasn’t appropriate for an evolving museum and research center.
The eviction was a final blow to the tarnished legacy of Freed, who played a critical role in launching rock ’n’ roll into commercial orbit and turning it into a multibillion-dollar industry. Since his death 50 years ago on Jan. 20 from alcohol-related ailments at age 43, Freed has become all but synonymous with payola—the illegal favors and payments made to disc jockeys and radio programmers for the repeated airplay of records to boost sales, a problem that still lingers today in the industry.
Freed’s troubles began in late 1959, when his payola activities and those of dozens of other disc jockeys around the country, including Dick Clark, were exposed in a six-month congressional probe. When the hearings were over, Freed, the country’s best-known rock disc jockey, came to represent everything that was wrong with the record business—the greed, grubbiness and outright theft. By contrast, Clark, host of TV’s “American Bandstand,” was exonerated and went on to become what Freed had hoped to be—the eternal face and voice of rock ’n’ roll.
In the decades since his death, Freed’s sizable contributions to rock ’n’ roll and to teenagers’ more tolerant view of integration in the 1950s have been largely overlooked. Freed helped generate hit records for hundreds of black and white artists, many of whom eventually became household names, and his tireless efforts helped create thousands of jobs for studio musicians, engineers, record producers, concert promoters and instrument manufacturers.
From the start, rock’s rise was greatly helped by changes in record formats and government policies. A year after Columbia introduced the LP in 1948, RCA brought out its smaller 45, and within two years the lightweight vinyl disc with the big hole began to replace clunky 78s on the radio and in stores and jukeboxes. While LPs were marketed to adults, the inexpensive 45 single was more suited for teens, many of whom owned portable phonographs and personal radios by the mid-1950s.
At the same time, independent radio stations were springing up throughout the country. The Federal Communications Commission was handing out thousands of new licenses to ensure that radio covered regions that television signals did not. These radio stations needed records, and as production ramped up among the country’s expanding number of record labels, so did the stacks of 45s turning up at stations. Many disc jockeys didn’t have the time or inclination to listen to them all.
Enter the record distributor, whose job included schmoozing DJs. To ensure that specific records would be heard as often as possible, distributors showered DJs with cash, gifts—and even partial ownership in record labels and credit for songs they didn’t write. Once DJs had a vested interest in records, they had an incentive to play them often, and they did.
Freed began his radio career in 1945 at WAKR in Akron, Ohio, and moved to WJW in Cleveland in 1951, where he was among the first white DJs to play records by black artists for a white audience. A hyperactive, hard-driving announcer with the personality of a circus barker, Freed held one of rock ’n’ roll’s earliest integrated concerts—“The Moondog Coronation Ball” in Cleveland in March 1952. More concerts followed, and as Freed’s reputation grew, so did his influence. In 1954 he moved to WINS in New York.
In 1956 and ’57, Freed appeared in four teen jukebox films—“Rock Around the Clock,” “Rock, Rock, Rock,” “Mister Rock and Roll” and “Don’t Knock the Rock.” By 1957, Freed was the most powerful DJ in the country, which meant he could command top payola fees of thousands of dollars per record. Freed had even gone so far as to accept partial songwriting credits on 15 songs, including Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” which he then helped turn into a hit in 1955 (the credit was removed in 1986).
But 1957 also was a turning point for Freed. Four episodes into “The Big Beat,” Freed’s prime-time TV music series on ABC, the show was canceled after black singer Frankie Lymon was seen on TV dancing with a white audience member. Freed was shifted to WABC radio, but when Congress’s payola investigation began in November 1959, ABC asked Freed to sign a statement vowing he had never accepted gifts or money to promote records. Freed refused, despite objections from his attorney, and he was fired. Dick Clark avoided the same fate at ABC by agreeing to divest himself of interests in music publishing, production companies and a talent agency affiliated with the records he played on his show. As a result, he was allowed to continue hosting “American Bandstand.”
In the fall of 1959, Congress had several motives for investigating payola—a practice that dated back to England in the late 1880s, when music publishers paid music-hall singers to introduce their new songs. At the end of the ’50s, music publishers unable to afford steep payola fees began complaining to their lobbyists about the practice, raising eyebrows at the IRS. Parents were voicing unease about the sexually explicit aspects of rock ’n’ roll, while legislators were under mounting pressure from constituents in segregated regions who were angry about the integration of teenagers at concerts and on TV dance shows.
Once the payola hearings ended in June 1960, Congress drafted the Communications Act Amendments to eliminate the practice. The bill passed the House by 208 to 15, but its proposed license suspension and fines were watered down in the Senate, leaving the law virtually toothless.
In 1962, following a series of postponements, Freed pleaded guilty in New York to accepting bribes. Though Freed did not face severe penalties—he was hit with a $300 fine and a six-month suspended prison sentence—his reputation and alcohol problems kept him from finding a radio job that covered his bills. In 1964, months before his death, he was indicted on a charge of tax evasion, owing the IRS more than $35,000 in back taxes.
Despite Congress’s efforts to eradicate payola, the practice never really disappeared. As recently as 2006, three major record companies settled cases with New York and paid the state multimillion-dollar fines for radio payoffs by their labels. The cases stemmed from a state investigation that called the industry practice “pervasive.” Even today, many top artists who are asked to play radio-sponsored music festivals and holiday shows at substantially reduced rates do so with the expectation that their songs will be aired—a worrisome trend some in the business have called “showola.”
Last October, Freed’s family found a new resting place for his ashes—at the Lake View Cemetery on the east side of Cleveland. They are planning a memorial stone with a microphone chiseled into its surface and a likeness of Freed holding records at WAKR. The epitaph will be their father’s radio sign off: “This is not goodbye, it’s just good night.’”
Mr. Myers, a frequent contributor to the Journal, writes daily about music at JazzWax.com.