Had he not been nailed to a cross for the payola sins everyone committed in the 1950s, Pope Francis might have elevated Alan Freed to sainthood when he was in the US last week. Freed coined the word “rock and roll” to describe this new, exciting style of post-war R&B. He launched the first rock concerts. And he more than anyone else brought this music to the radio.
The man changed everything. But because he was made a sacrificial lamb for the any-payola forces, he died in disgrace.
(It should be noted that although morally, ethically and legally wrong, everyone was in on the payola scam back in the day. It was standard operating procedure for DJs to take money from record pluggers, labels, managers, acts and mobsters in exchange for airplay. Freed was a convenient high-profile target for the authorities. Meanwhile, guys like Dick Clark got off scot-free.)
If you want to know more about Freed, check out this essay by Jack Doyle. It’s good.
In America during the early 1950s, the music being broadcast on the radio was beginning to change – but not everywhere.
The normal fare of the day was mostly a mixture of Big Band music, old standards, Frank Sinatra-style crooners, a few pop tunes, and some novelty songs. Among the No. 1 singles in 1950, for example, were: “I Can Dream, Can’t I,” by The Andrews Sisters; “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy,” by Red Foley; “Music! Music! Music!,” by Teresa Brewer; “Mona Lisa” by Nat King Cole; and “The Tennessee Waltz,” by Patti Page, among others.
But this style of music – which would remain a standard genre for years – was making room for a new sound and a new kind of music. And one place where the new music was being broadcast on the radio was in Cleveland, Ohio by a late-night disc jockey named Alan Freed.