This is not goodbye, it’s just good night. Alan Freed’s customary on-air sign-off carries an ominous tone tonight. He may or may not know it as he says it, but his career as a radio big-timer is about to end, six years before his life itself will.
Refusing to sign a station statement denying he played for pay proves only the wick that lit his downfall’s powder keg. Whether or not he’s an implosion waiting a few years to happen probably depends upon whether you think he’s some kind of popular cultural prophet or one of the biggest frauds radio in any generation yielded.
It makes little enough sense on the surface, of course, unless you’re one of those gunning for him just on principle. If there’s ever a case of buying the cow when the milk was on the house, getting Alan Freed on the take seems to be it.
Individual entries notwithstanding, Freed hasn’t played this music, presented its performers on stage, and thumbed his nose at the actual or reputed music establishment over it, because he gets a perverse visceral kick out of setting off stink bombs and watching one and all scurry for cover.
And he hasn’t made a point every few records of standing up for teenagers, reminding people they’re not all the gangs of juvenile delinquents their elders fear through this music, risking the collective wrath of those elders, just because it happens to have made him a reasonably wealthy young man.
However, as Nelson George—in The Death of Rhythm and Blues (New York: Pantheon, 1988)—would examine in due course, it may not have begun quite that way:
For Freed, R&B was an acquired taste. WJW [in Cleveland] had been an 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 . . .
By applying the term “rock & roll” to what he played, a phrase that often appeared in black music as a euphemism for fucking, 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 [R&B 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.
Rock & roll—the words alone evoke notions of hedonism, romantic wandering (taken from the blues), and pseudo rebellion akin to the blues but without the mature battle of the sexes essential to that black expression. But as Freed knew, rock & roll wasn’t a music but a marketing concept that evolved into a life style. 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 . . .
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,” [black disc jockey Eddie] O’Jay says without rancor. “Bless his soul.”
Nobody with a functioning brain really believes Freed’s the only jock on the take, when payola is as common a part of the era as the ducktail or the chitlin’ circuit. He’s merely one of the most ostentatious about it. And, gentle reader, understand this much: Payola qua payola is not illegal when WABC squeezes Freed off the air and into the arms of Congress.
But commercial bribery is illegal, very much so. And that’s how Freed gets bagged in the first place. (It may also have been one reason why WINS hastened to shed him in 1958. Only later will Freed face the tax evasion charges and swollen legal fees that wreck him financially.)
“Payola,” In These Times contributor Louis Nayman will observe, after the death of Freed’s great Philadelphia rival Dick Clark, “ranged from flat out bribery–a promoter slipping a couple of hundred dollars to a deejay for playing a designated cut in heavy rotation over a specified time period– to more complex and legally nebulous arrangements involving fake songwriting credits, unearned royalty splits and hidden ownership interests in disc stamping plants, music distribution, publishing, talent management and record labels.”
Freed believes to his soul that a formerly un-mainstream hybrid known as rhythm and blues had something to say beyond being dance music in the teeth of unfathomable 1950s musical blandness. Yet when he’s signed off each night, in the almost desperate vocal tone in which he purrs his not-goodbye-just-goodnight, Freed’s sounded as though he knows too well he stands on the shoulders of giants who could shrug him off without so much as a whop-bop-a-lu-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!
Especially if it isn’t terribly clear just which giants, the ones who employ him or the ones who’ve greased his palms from the outside. And, especially, if Freed were fool enough even to think about peeing down their collars while he stood there.
Half a century following his death it will still seem difficult to know whether Freed was a crusader, a fool, or a self-immolating combinaton of the two. Tonight, alas, he goes from an earnest fellow who’d bumped into a phenomenon he knew by instinct how to present to a nervous wreck who can’t fathom how he got himself on the district attorney’s radar and—this time, with no station lining up to scoop him up—the unemployment line.
In fact, not very long before tonight’s final just-goodnight, Freed may have wired himself into WABC’s electric chair with circuits opposite those that finally compel his departure. The swelling payola scandal—a direct offspring of the television quiz show scandal—does him in at last, of course. But Freed may also have caught his own bosses with their own hands in the proverbial cookie jar. And, he may have been fool enough to zap them for it on the air when he wasn’t exactly Mr. Straight Shot himself.
The inadvertent catalyst, according to critic Dave Marsh in due course (in The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made) was a Brooklyn kid named Carole King. Before hitting stride as a songwriting legend—and long before she’d her writing prowess with gigahits in her own right—she got to cut a single or two on her own. One of them caught WABC’s attention, and the bosses wanted Freed to play it on his signature show.
Freed did what he was told—his way. He was already a couple of drinks between tipsy and tottering, though he never let it affect his on-air delivery. And he couldn’t stand King’s record. “It’s a simpering vocal,” Marsh will recall, in due course , “the female equivalent of a Fabian song, and both singer and song are close to making [Freed] gag.”
The jock had two zaps to throw down: he blasted his bosses for making him play a piece of absolute crap for no good reason other than that the station owned the label that released the single. And, the copy he was given to play had the kind of quality that made a bowl of Rice Krispies resemble a Gregorian chant. According to Marsh, Freed groaned on the air, “At least they could put this crap on decent vinyl.”
(An urban legend will spring up suggesting Freed broke in, right in the middle of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop,” to say he was being canned over refusing to sign the statement. But the music behind him in the surviving clip is jumping; “Shimmy Shimmy” is slinking. Perhaps the legend will arise because of the impact Freed himself had on the Imperials’ career: it was he who tacked “Little” onto the given name of diminutive lead singer Anthony Gourdine.)
Even the most duplicitous of bosses is within his rights to execute you if you’re foolish enough to tweak him publicly with implications of hypocrisy, direct, indirect, or in the breach alike. (Assuming Dave Marsh’s anecdote is true, doesn’t it seem bizarre, considering what her career will become in due course, that Carole King—to whom Freed often lent encouragement earlier on—might inadvertently have written his professional death warrant?)
Freed won’t be the only jock to talk to Congressional probers, but he’ll be the biggest of the fish this side of Dick Clark. Some might suggest the differences between Clark and Freed also have a hand in Freed’s fate. Clark is as polished as Johnson’s Wax, and he’s also smart enough to have divested himself of all the music pies into which he had his own fingers, with an aide taking the fall for him, before he went on to impress the Hill people with his earnest presentation.
Slick as he was in his way, Freed is about as polished as a case of sandpaper by comparison. Clark amounts to a clean mea culpa, maxima culpa; Freed can’t imagine what he’s done wrong, if anything. Payola as we come to understand it is just about as old as radio itself. And, yes, the root of the scandal just might have included the threat popular hits on radio posed to traditional song plugging and jukebox plying.
Freed and his fellow jockeys mostly deny playing for pay. The problem is that Freed could be considered to be under the management of a few label workers and shakers, considering the dollars they’ve poured into him, though never in ostentatious amounts. Clark was smart enough not to give a similar impression. (One can only imagine what Freed might think of Chicago jock Phil Lind copping to having been paid $22,000 over one record.)
All that said, Freed does not go broken into that not-so-good gray night just yet. He does get a couple of chances to rebuild. First, Los Angeles’s KDAY will hire Freed, only to let him go when he refuses to quit promoting and producing live rock and roll shows; perhaps the memories of the infamous 1950s spectaculars and a couple of riots there made the station nervous enough.
From there, Freed will land another shot, on Miami’s WQAM, but his accelerated drinking may have contributed to his ouster there. Finally, he will return to Los Angeles, onto a tiny FM station. But the heavy fine he’ll pay pleading guilty to two charges in the bribery case and the tax evasion charges he won’t be able to beat will wreck him financially and drive him further to drink, which leaves him prone to the uremia that will kill him in 1965.
To that day, Freed will swear he never played music he disliked for any price. Warts and all, he’ll be laid to rest as what he truly is when enough is said, too much is done, and too much may yet stand to be learned: the father, or at least the big brother, of rock and roll radio.
Tonight it’s goodbye for Alan Freed as a radio big-timer. Whether it has to be that way will prove debatable enough.
Additional feature: Two twists for Gunsmoke.
Gunsmoke: Fingered (CBS, 1952)—Long-lonely sodbuster Jim Cobbett finds trouble on his wedding day: a gossipy adversary claims he has a former wife who disappeared under suspicious, uninvestigated circumstances, leading to bigger headaches when the new bride turns up missing in her own right hours after their wedding. This script turned up on the later television series, and you’ll understand why before scene one plays out. William Conrad, Jeanette Nolan, John McIntire, Paul Duval, Parley Baer, Howard McNear, Jack Kruschen, Harry Bartell. Writer: John Meston.
Gunsmoke: Custer (CBS, 1953)— Matt (William Conrad) and Chester (Parley Baer) bump into Joe Trimble (Sam Edwards), an Army deserter who ends up on trial for a rancher’s hanging, but a lack of hard evidence leads to his acquittal. You’ll get a sad charge out of the twist that concludes the episode, which would also be adapted for the future television series, though not quite so effectively. Howard McNear, Georgia Ellis, John Dehner. Writer: John Meston.
Further Channel Surfing. . .
Our Miss Brooks: The Model Teacher (CBS, 1948)
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Health Food (NBC, 1948)
The Halls of Ivy: The Minister’s Son (NBC; AFRTS Rebroadcast, 1951)
The Red Skelton Show: Things to be Thankful For (CBS, 1951)