60 years since the ‘big bang of rock & roll’

This week – on March 21st – saw the sixtieth anniversary of what many music industry commentators call ‘The Big Bang Of Rock & Roll’ or ¬†the world’s first rock ¬†& roll concert. 20,000 teenagers, most of them black, tried to cram into the 9,500 seater Cleveland Arena to watch a rhythm and blues show.

Dubbed ‘Moondog’s Coronation Ball’ the gig took place on the¬†Friday evening, of 21st March 1952.

‘Moondog’ was DJ Alan Freed (often wrongly described as the father of rock and roll) who had organized the concert aimed at black teenagers.¬†Its line up consisted of a number of R&B stars – but not the biggest starts of the day! Freed hosted a late night show on¬†WJW-AM in Cleveland, called ‘Moondog House Rock And Roll Party”.

Headlining the Cleveland show was Paul Williams and His Orchestra, an R&B big band lead by a superb sax player who had hit big in the late 1940s with the dance number ‘The Hucklebuck’; the R&B combo Tiny Grimes (who played a four string guitar) and His Rockin’ Highlanders (stage dress included kilts and Tam O’Shanters); songstress Varetta Dillard, long forgotten R&B singer Danny Cobb and vocal group The Dominoes led by Billy Ward. Entry charge was $1.50, $1.75 on the night.¬†Alan Freed MC’d the show.

The predominantly black teenage audience also discovered that Freed – self styled ‘King Of The Moondoggers‚Äô was white – his DJ style more akin to the black jocks on Southern stations.

The advertising for the show was on Freed’s late night R&B show and on posters. The posters were the root cause of a riot as 20,000 people turned up and began ripping the doors down.

The mistake was caused by the fact that there was no date on the tickets for a follow-up show, which the organizers had set up when the first show sold out.

The fire department, led by the cops, opened up hoses on the crowd. The gig also brought Freed to the unwanted attention of the FBI then in the grip of the cold war.

White conservative America could think of nothing worse than black R&B jump and jive artists, singing songs with double entendre lyrics about ‘Big Ten Inch Records’ and ’60 Minute Men’ and black teenagers and white kids mingling together. It put the Red Scare in the shade!

¬†J Edgar Hoover of the FBI placed Freed under surveillance because the R&B records he played were deemed a threat. Eventually they nailed Freed on a ‘Payola’ rap (playing records for a kick back – a normal industry practice but one Freed would pay a heavy price for).

Not only that, his TV showed black and white kids dancing on the sound stage, outraging Red Necks everywhere. None more so than when the cherubic but precocious 13 year old Frankie Lymon of the vocal group The Teenagers danced with a white girl – on stage!

Freed was nailed and he died an alcoholic in 1965 aged just 43.

Most of the media this week have linked the Cleveland show to Woodstock through to Glastonbury – thats stretching it a bit. But there is no doubt the event in Cleveland 60 years ago started something and changed things forever. It put the shits up white America, turned white kinds onto R&B, which was in the DNA of rock & roll – and you know where that lead us too!

See the BBC Video broadcast this week to mark the event here.

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