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The retelling of history far too often means the re-writing of history as those in search of a way to sell their story look for ways to make the topic at hand seem more impactful, leading to thousands of books on every conceivable subject with subtitles touting “…And The Birth Of Modern America” or some such nonsense.

In actuality, history is a constantly evolving set of loosely connected touchstones, some more important than others, but all mixing together to gradually change the course of human events.

While there are unquestionably many “firsts” that form the notable start to a larger story – The Wright Brothers leaving terra firma in 1903… the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 which launched World War One… and for that matter Roy Brown releasing the first rock record in September 1947 – those events don’t exist in a vaccuum and it’s the circumstances surrounding those firsts which allow them to have a greater impact.

Too many people when looking to find a ground zero for rock ‘n’ roll’s as the cultural steamroller it eventually became have settled on a single concert from March 1952 held in Cleveland, Ohio.

Obviously that’s far from the first moment rock music itself existed, 1,800+ songs already released in the genre prove otherwise, nor was it even the first rock concert, as most artists had been touring since the beginning, often on multi-act bills that drew huge crowds.

But it WAS significant nonetheless, not so much for what led up to it, or even what happened there, but rather it was what followed that event which made it stand out.


The Art Of Self-Promotion
Alan Freed was a con-artist from the start, a hustler looking out for himself first and foremost, fabricating his past at every turn in an attempt to get himself ahead in the future.

While his desperate desire to succeed in radio was genuine, as was his later love of rock ‘n’ roll itself, he didn’t seem to care much how he achieved his goals. Announcer, sportscaster, disc jockey… which role he was in didn’t matter, what he cared about was rising to the top and becoming a big shot in the process.

Music gave him the first encounter with mini-celebrity as his “Record Request” show in Akron circa 1949 became the most popular show in town. But when he didn’t get the raise he was seeking he left, running afoul of the courts for violating his contract by trying to take a job at the station right across the street and as a result Freed spent a year in exile hosting re-runs of B-movies on afternoon television in Cleveland while biding his time.

Freed’s new drinking buddy, Leo Mintz, owned the Record Rendezvous store which was a sponsor on radio station WJW and through him Freed got a job hosting a classical music show, ironically his first musical love.

The story that Freed later pushed at every turn centered around Mintz inviting him to his store in April 1951 to show his friend the shocking sight of tons of white kids buying black records leading Freed to have a musical awakening.

The tale was pure fiction, nothing but a revisionist story to give Freed himself credit for “deciding” to start playing rock ‘n’ roll on the air while making sure to credit Caucasians as being the driving force in the music’s popularity. The truth is the store had a large black customer base and Mintz wasn’t going to be able to profit much by having Alan push Wagner’s Ring Cycle on the air to white listeners who didn’t frequent his establishment.

So Mintz talked Freed into changing his show to play nothing but black rock ‘n’ roll, with the store’s sales figures forming the basis of the initial playlist, thereby enabling Mintz to reach his customer base on a show dedicated to the music they were buying. Since his store was already sponsoring the late night show, hours that got low ratings and generated little ad revenue anyway, WJW had little reason to object… all money was green after all.

Thus on July 11, 1951 Freed took to the air playing The Moondog Symphony by New York street musician Louis Hardin, while talking back to the record as if the howling dog on the recording was actually there in the studio with him as he scolded it and told him to quiet down or he’d wake the neighbors.

With that he cued up Todd Rhodes’ 1947 moody rock instrumental Blues For The Red Boy as his new show’s theme and promptly re-launched his career.


The Moondog House
Freed’s show was wild from the start as Wild Bill Moore’s 1948 hit Rock And Roll led things off that first night while he tried drumming up excitement on the air for what he considered a risky venture by unleashing as much energy as was allowable in the confines of a studio… shouting, ranting and raving along with the records.

To be fair, Freed was not exactly a charlatan with this act. He’d long been an advocate for Civil Rights, his best friend growing up was black, he was a former trombonist in a local swing band in high school and a big fan of that music with its more frantic sounds, and he’d had his only real taste of success on the air before this playing “the wildest stuff” he could find in jazz for his Record Request show in Akron.

Of course he expanded on that in any way he could on The Moondog House, as he called his show, using a cowbell to add to the cacophony of sound bleeding into the open mic as the records played, and slamming his hand on a thick telephone directory to accentuate the beat… but in truth his primary goal was about creating a name for himself with these antics.

It worked. By the start of 1952 The King Of The Ol’ Moondoggers, as he proclaimed himself, ruled the late night Cleveland airwaves where such music was allowed to flourish, even if among the general populace he remained all but unknown.

That would soon change.

Flushed with success, Freed and Mintz, along with promoter Lew Platt, decided to see just how they could exploit the popularity of his show, its music and determine the true depth of interest among listeners by renting out the 10,000 seat Cleveland Arena on Euclid Avenue for a March 21st show dubbed The Moondog Coronation Ball.

In their minds they had little hopes of filling such a huge venue. Freed had been pushing the show on his program, hoping to get a sizable walk-up business the night of the concert, but having printed up more tickets than available seats, they had no firm idea of the expected turnout. When six thousand rock fans over capacity showed up the inadequately staffed arena couldn’t handle the overflow as the throngs pushed forward trying to get in to see the show they’d paid good money for and were now being told they couldn’t enter.

The concert was to feature a litany of the top rock stars of the day with Paul Williams and The Hucklebuckers acting as the house band and featuring Tiny Grimes And His Rockin’ Highlanders, Varetta Dillard, Danny Cobb and the biggest vocal group on the scene over the past year, The Dominoes as the showstoppers.

But the show was stopped long before they would get a chance to step on the stage. Williams’s band was playing as the crowd surged in, knocking down the doors and overwhelming security, a mass of people caught up in the excitement of rock ‘n’ roll fueled mayhem.

The police shut down the concert before any other act had a chance to appear, cleared out the arena and began the process of turning the night’s events into controversy by vastly overestimating the crowd (25,000) to the papers the next day, turning the event into a riot and giving rock ‘n’ roll its first negative headlines to be digested by white citizens unaware it even existed.


The Most Terrible Ball Of Them All
Had the popularity of Alan Freed’s radio show dwindled over the next few months… had rock ‘n’ roll forever remained confined to the black community… then The Moondog Coronation Ball would’ve been nothing more than a curious item in the archives of Cleveland’s newspapers.

But while the local furor over the events died down quickly at the time, the story took on a life of its own as rock ‘n’ roll’s popularity continued to climb over the next few years, eventually – with Freed’s help – breaking through fully to white America who looked at the disc-jockey as the man responsible for its takeover of all they held dear.

Naturally that was a role that Freed was delighted to play and as such the facts behind the otherwise long forgotten concert disturbance took on a life of its own.

Despite the claims of Freed and shortsighted chroniclers of history would have you believe, what happened that night did not signal rock’s imminent breakthrough to white listeners. Underestimating the interest, they oversold the show and the crowd who showed up in good faith were more a victim in the events than the city or radio station, as they were deprived of seeing the show they’d been promised.

Though Freed’s subsequent career, both at WJW and then WINS in New York, did begin to attract a cross-cultural listenership, that Cleveland audience, both for the radio show and concert, was entirely black and the integration of the music’s fans was a slower process than this big bang theory suggests.

But people love sensational headlines far more than complex stories and so in the annals of history The Moondog Coronation Ball takes on mythic stature for what in truth was a massive disappointment for the 16,000 fervent rock fans in attendance who found themselves initially vilified and then turned into witnesses of a nonexistent groundbreaking event.

While Freed eventually parlayed that night into celebrity, those who bought a ticket didn’t even get a refund.

(As always please visit the Master Index for the chronological list and links of all records reviewed to date)