19 May: It isn’t goodnight for Alan Freed; it’s a long, painful goodbye

Alan Freed, near the height of his career, circa 1955-56. (Photo: WINS.)

Alan Freed, near the height of his career, circa 1955-56. (Photo: WINS.)

He coined the term “rock and roll” (perhaps inspired by the use of the phrase in Billy Ward and the Dominos’ suggestive rhythm and blues hit “Sixty Minute Man”) and he was often considered its father. And yet there have been those who have pondered whether Alan Freed came to it at first for love or for the cash register. Nelson George, in his remarkable The Death of Rhythm & Blues (New York: Pantheon, 1988), isolated that thought among others:

At Cleveland’s WJW in the early 1950s, Freed had become an unusually obsessive white rhythm & blues deejay, using the on-air handle Moon Dog, based on Todd Rhodes’s instrumental “Blues for Moon Dog.” For Freed, R&B was an acquired taste. WJW had been a MOR “good music” station when Freed, at the urging of local retailer Leo Mintz, began cautiously adding black music. The phone response was phenomenal. Freed saw a good thing and went after it.

Eddie O’Jay, then a deejay at black-oriented WMAZ, recalls that Freed imitated “every black artist you could think of. He didn’t copy off any one black deejay, because there weren’t any around that I knew of that he could sound like, but anything that was black he would say. Any slogans, he would say them. They [WJW] naturally had a clear-watt station and it would beam everywhere, so everybody knew him.”

By applying the term “rock & roll” to what he played, a phrase that often appeared in black music as a euphemism for [sex], Freed tried, with some initial success, to disguise the blackness of the music. In the 1950s, “rhythm & blues,” like “Negro,” meant blacks. Calling it rock & roll didn’t fool everybody, as Freed would ultimately find out, but it definitely dulled the racial identification and made the young white consumers of Cold War America feel more comfortable. If rhythm & blues was ghetto music, rock & roll, at least in name, was perceived to be a “universal music” (a key term in the history of black music’s purchase by whites). That term made it acceptable for whites to play the music by removing the aura of inaccessibility that, for example, had kept [songwriting star Mike] Stoller from singing rhythm & blues. This is not to downplay the impact white covers of black material had on white teens and their attitude toward the music, but the term “rock & roll”—perhaps the perfect emblem of white Negroism—was in itself powerful enough to create a sensibility of its own.

. . . [A]s Freed knew, rock & roll wasn’t a music but a marketing concept that evolved into a lifestyle. Years later critics and fans would search for the first rock & roll record, a quest Freed would probably have laughed at, since he never seemed to know what rock & roll was. The many recordings made under his name in the 1950s reflected a taste for big band swing with bluesy sax breaks and covers of standard tunes (see, for example, “Sentimental Journey,” on his Rock & Roll Dance Party Vol. 1 of 1956).

His albums show that if anything truly defined rock & roll for Freed, it wasn’t any particular style of music. To Freed, it purely and simply meant money. Capitalising on white teenage America’s ready embrace of the varied kinds of music Freed placed under the rock banner (doo wop, solo ballads, up-tempo electric blues), he landed a job at New York’s powerful WINS, promoted concerts at huge theaters, starred in a pack of bad movies, received more payola than any deejay of his time (he reportedly had his own bagman), and, as the 1978 film American Hot Wax suggests, even eventually came to believe that rock & roll meant more than a way to line his pockets. “I think Alan Freed got over,” O’Jay says without rancor. “Bless his soul.”

Alan Freed’s signature signoff, normally, was, “This is not goodbye, it’s just good night.” And innumerable commentators might have fretted about the music corrupting the youth of the day, but they probably came to think by 19 May 1960 that they should have worried more about whether it corrupted its promoters.

On that day, Freed and eight other radio figures—including WINS program director Mel Leeds and WMGM deejay Peter Tripp—are accused of accepting payola, numerous payments to guarantee certain records being played, after the U.S. House Oversight Committee (possibly under the prodding of the American Society of Composers and Publishers [ASCAP])has spent a year examining whether such payoffs (gifts, cash, both) really existed.

[A] man O’Jay had watched with fascination and a bit of envy was plunging toward an early death. Alan Freed had owned Cleveland and a good part of the rock & roll business he’d created. But in the early sixties, his increasing power, which he flaunted, had made him a target of a reactionary backlash. The rebellious rock & roll attitude, a bastardisation of black attitudes toward white authority, were stirring up teens and upsetting white authorities. It was payola, which for Freed was a still growing source of income when he moved to New York’s WINS and WABC, that was used to cut him down.

Manhattan district attorney Frank Hogan, acting as a protector of public morality (and as a politician looking to please voting moms and dads), instructed his office to pursue Freed. In 1962, the deejay pleaded guilty to two counts of commercial bribery. Though fined only $300 and given a six-month suspended sentence, Freed was bounced off the air and blackballed from radio, surely the real victory for the prosecution. A prophet without a voice is a man without reason to live. Freed, always a hard liver off the air, drank like the proverbial fish, and by 1964 he was a broken man living in Palm Springs. The IRS dropped the bomb on Freed that year, claiming he owed $37,920 on unreported income of $56,652 between 1957 and 1959.

In January 1965, suffering from uremia and probably a broken heart, Freed’s body died, though his voice, through a hundred other mouthpieces, could still be heard on most pop radio stations across the land. Freed, like Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips, used black slang and a flamboyant delivery to match the music he broadcast, and now a generation of hip, high-energy white jock voices were flowing out of the radio. They cleaned up the words, perfected the pronunciation, and sold Coke and Clearasil to white teens. Via Freed, white, often ethnic jocks came to the fore: in Philadelphia there was Jerry Blavat, aka the Geeter with the Heater; from Mexico and, later, Los Angeles, the scruffy Wolfman Jack; in New York, Murray Kaufman, better known as Murray the K. Because of the payola punishment meted out to Freed, that practise was curtailed, and these jocks had less control over the music than their white counterparts in the fifties or black contemporaries like O’Jay. Program and music directors began serving as intermediaries between record labels and deejays, making a playlist of forty or fewer songs for airing and (read this with a knowing wink) putting an end to payola.

Nelson George.

A year before the House Oversight Committee made its accusations, Freed was canned from WABC when he refused “on principle” to sign a statement confirming he never accepted payola. (Never mind that payola was almost as old as the music industry itself, or that such old-time radio hits as Your Hit Parade never quite got around to disclosing how much it might have cost, wink-wink nudge-nudge, to get a song placed on the show.) Shortly before that, the Committee and the country were well tied up in the surrealistic quiz show scandals out of television, and the payola scandal in which Freed and others were caught just may have been seeded directly by the television scandal.

All but driven out of New York, Freed went to work for Los Angeles KDAY—ironically, a station owned by the same company that owned WINS. He lasted only long enough to leave when the station’s management refused to let him promote live rock & roll shows.

He returned to Manhattan to emcee a live twist revue, then hooked on as a deejay at WQAM in Miami, but any dreams Freed harboured about a return to New York and the radio bigtime were dissipating as fast as his drinking accelerated. He lasted only two months in Miami. He moved to Palm Springs and suffered the body blow from the IRS, before his hospitalisation and death at 43.

His ethics would be questioned often enough. (Like many in the day, he claimed songwriting credits as possible promotional payoffs; he was also accused of underpaying talent who appeared in his famous rock and roll spectacular shows and tours before the payola scandals.)

But if it may have begun with an eye and ear on the cash register and the regional ratings, Freed’s commitment to rock & roll became real enough in short enough order. It only began with his absolute refusal, with extremely rare exceptions, to play white covers of black music. And if Freed simply re-labeled black music to sell it to white buyers, as George analysed so acutely, he couldn’t be accused of downright sanitising the music or the actual or alleged lifestyle as could be said of another jock who was caught up in the scandal but who came out of it with his reputation and his career intact, Dick Clark.*

According to Performing Songwriter, as many as 335 deejays told the House Oversight Committee they’d received a cumulative $263,000 in what they called “consulting fees.” Maybe they were smarter about flaunting their power and pelf than Alan Freed was.

 

Channel Surfing . . .

Amos ‘n’ Andy: Suspecting the Kingfish is Embezzling (comedy/drama; NBC, 1929)
The Goldbergs: Sammy and Sylvia Talk (comedy/drama; CBS, 1941)
Lux Radio Theater: Model Wife (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1941)
Broadway is My Beat: The Jane Arnold Murder Case (crime drama; CBS, 1950)

___________________________________________________________

* When he died at 82 in 2012, Dick Clark’s role in the payola scandal would be recalled by In These Times writer Louis Nayman as a partial case of Clark presenting a more clean-cut, middle-class image than did the earthier-looking but darkly handsome Alan Freed. Performing Songwriter noted Freed was blunt, smoked almost constantly, and “looked like an insomniac.”

Nayman also implied there may have been a whiff of anti-Semitism as well as anti-black bias attached to the hearings, considering Freed’s unapologetic championship of black music:

 

Dick Clark before Congress in 1960.

Dick Clark before Congress in 1960.

Freed made for a less-than-sympathetic witness. Although not a Jew according to Halachic law (which confers religious identity through matrilineal descent), the Cleveland deejay’s swarthy complexion and prominent nose must have made him seem Jewish enough to the Dixiecrats and Northern Republicans who dominated the proceedings. Freed, after all, had made his reputation introducing “race music” to white kids during his nightly broadcasts and was known for a steadfast insistence on playing authentic original recordings instead of the more sanitized white covers . . .

The son of a radio professional and solidly middle-class family, [Clark] had been brought up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and earned a business degree at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management. His physical appearance before the committee was indistinguishable from the image television viewers saw every weekday between 4 and 5:30 p.m. – an affable well-mannered junior executive in a white shirt, unobtrusive tie, well-tailored grey business suit, engaging smile and straight neutral hair set perfectly with glistening tonic . . .

Going into the hearings he had divested himself of financial interests in at least 33 conflict-of-interest music business enterprises. His professional numbers man produced charts and figures demonstrating that of all the records spun on his programs, Clark had a pecuniary stake in only 27 percent, and that those records attained a popularity rating of only 23 percent. While acknowledging that from time to time he may have received compensation for extramural music-connected services, Clark respectfully but firmly denied ever having taken payola or having broken the law, saying this was just the way the industry works.

In the end, Subcommittee Chair Oren Harris agreed, saying of his earnest and seemingly clean-cut witness, “I don’t think you are the inventor of the system, I think you are the product. Obviously, you’re a fine young man” . . .

Unlike Freed, Clark’s career wasn’t ruined by the payola scandal. In time he rebuilt his entertainment empire and became an even bigger American icon when he began producing and hosting the annual Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. He died a multi-millionaire.

“In differing ways,” Nayman would write of Freed and Clark, “both men were avatars of interracial crossover and cultural diversity, and–even if unwittingly– agents of political change. One was a smooth huckster and commercially savvy entrepreneur; the other embodied crude raw energy attuned more to music and soul than to self-preservation and business. To progress, America needed both.”

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