Until the late 40’s, probably the type of music most heard on radios came from big bands such as Glenn Miller’s, Benny Goodman’s, Harry James’, Sammy Kaye’s, and famous crooners. When Rock and Roll exploded, so did the amount of vocal groups trying to make it to the top. Groups would be formed in schools, churches, or even street corners. Since that time, radio DJs represented a strong influence on who would hit it big, and who wouldn’t. Although it’s known that some DJs were paid off to play certain records, which would probably help the groups to get more airtime and turn into a household name, I’m pretty sure a song wouldn’t last long if it wasn’t any good.
Alan Freed, a.k.a. Moondog, was the most famous DJ of that time. He got his artistic name from the New York street musician Louis Hardin, who had an instrumental song called Moondog Symphony, and was known by the same name. (Freed would later lose the right to use the name in a lawsuit Hardin accused him of using his nickname and song without permission). Nevertheless, Alan Freed is known to be the “father” of Rock and Roll, because he was the first to coin the name “Rock and Roll” on the radio, and helped categorize it as a genre of music.
In the late 40’s, while working at a radio station, Freed met Leo Mintz, who was a record store owner in Cleveland. At that time, Mintz told Freed how there was an increase in interest for R&B records. Some years later, Mintz proposed to WJW station to buy airtime for Freed to play R&B records. That would be the beginning of Freed’s success, and probably the start of a more hip and energetic way for DJs to direct themselves at the younger crowd. He was also responsible for promoting the first Rock and Roll concert. The Moondog Coronation Ball was to be held in March 21, 1952, including a five-act show. Due to overcrowding, it had to be shut down. After this happened, Alan Freed’s popularity went over the roof.
Eventually, he moved to New York and expanded his fame all the way to Europe, for originating the Rock and Roll craze, as Life magazine would put it. He appeared in 5 movies in a three year period: Rock Around the Clock, Rock, Rock, Rock, Mr. Rock and Roll, Don’t Knock the Rock, and Go Johnny Go! He also recorded segments for Radio Luxembourg, and also had his own TV show, The Big Beat. What seems almost impossible to believe these days, The Big Beat was canceled after Frankie Lymon of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers was seen dancing with a white girl.
What was to be a career that was meant to last way beyond the coming of new genres, ended in the late 50’s, when Alan Freed was rightfully accused of receiving money from record companies to play certain records (known at the time as payola). He lost his job at WINS, and in 1962 received a fine and a suspended sentence for two charges of commercial bribery. The law might not have been harsh, but the notoriety of the scandal was. His reputation was stained forever, and east coast radio stations wouldn’t touch him. He ended up working for KDAY-AM on the west coast, which didn’t let him promote any more Rock and Roll stage shows. From there, Freed did a two month stint on a Miami radio station. He died at 43, in 1965, from complications derived from alcoholism.
If you want to hear the type of shows Alan Freed hosted in his prime, I recommend the Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio CD. It’s a compilation of live radio broadcasts on CBS in 1956, with song introductions by Freed. Besides the Count Basie Orchestra, you will also hear Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, The Drifters, Otis Williams and the Charms, The Cleftones, The Cadillacs, The Chordettes, Ivory Joe Hunter, Gene Vincent, La Verne Baker, Etta James, The Platters, Clyde McPhatter, Chuck Berry, The Penguins, and Bill Haley and the Comets. It’s a pretty rare CD, but I found this link on the web.