Perhaps best known for coining the phrase "rock ‘n’ roll," deejay/show promoter Alan Freed played an important role in the development an aesthetic for the newly emerging genre. For example, he steadfastly refused to play cover versions of rhythm and blues originals on his radio programs in the 1950s. Although his large broadcast audience constituted a major source of power within the record industry, it paled next the near-monopoly enjoyed on television by Dick Clark’s American Bandstand or the king-making positions of a select group of record label executives and producers.
Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Freed first attracted attention in 1951 as a WJW, Cleveland, disc jockey specializing in the latest R&B recordings. He used his popularity as a springboard to organize live shows throughout the Midwest featuring R&B and rock ‘n’ roll artists. The words "rock" and "roll" had appeared, individually and collectively, in a number of R&B songs prior to the early 1950s when he began using the phrase to denote the new youth-oriented music appearing on the airwaves with increasing frequency. His identification with the genre led WINS, New York, to hire him as its feature deejay following the decision to adopt a rock format in 1954. His Brooklyn Paramount shows on the Easter and Labor Day weekends in 1955, which featured an interracial mix of rock and R&B stars, drew such large crowds that pop music’s industry-wide color bar was soon lifted.
The 1960 "payola" hearings conducted by the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, chaired by Arkansas Democrat Oren Harris, effectively destroyed his career. Indicted for accepting $30,000 from six labels in return for radio plugs, Freed—whose uncompromising support of rock ‘n’ roll and black performers offended the record industry’s old guard—took the fall for a practice that pervaded all levels of the music business. Under investigation by the I.R.S. for tax evasion and in poor health during the early 1960s, he died of uremia at the comparatively young age of forty-two.
With the rise of serious rock journalism beginning in the late 1960s, Freed has received widespread credit for his contributions to rock’s early stages of development. His legacy also lives on in his 1950s film appearances and Paramount Pictures’ American Hot Wax (1978), which depicted the events surrounding the 1959 "First Anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll" concert held at the Brooklyn Paramount.
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