Moondog Rock and Roll
Alan Freed, 1921-1965, Disc Jockey and Music Promoter
Alan Freed is an important figure in the history of contemporary popular music. He was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His life and work are well-documented online, in books and movies. Articles covering his story can be found in the links below.
Freed’s life and career were sadly too short and ended surrounded by payola and tax scandals as well as an FBI investigation. I’m not going to get into these events here other than to say in my opinion, much of the mid 1950s uproar seems to have been part of a witch hunt stoked by the establishment’s fear of the new music genre Alan Freed was playing.
The music was early R&B, often referred to as blues and rhythm. The sound and tempo was shocking to older generations at the time. But what probably alarmed some people even more, was that most R&B was created by black artists and young white kids were enthusiastically listening and excited by this new music.
There’s little doubt, Alan Freed’s most important contribution to 20th Century culture was his unrelenting passion and promotion of black artists and their music. He loved the music and made showcasing the original African-American musicians who recorded the songs his life’s mission.
50+ years later we now know how important the influence of black artists has been on popular music. Alan Freed was instrumental in introducing the music to the general public.
While doing the Alan Freed portrait above I hoped to capture not only the man’s face and features but also part of his story. The Moondog moniker Freed used and the term Rock and Roll he popularized are fascinating chapters. Details of the origins of these two terms are inconsistent in various Alan Freed biographies.
Being a radio deejay and music promoter, it seems Freed had a knack for presenting himself with some embellishment. I believe this went along with his job and is understandable. This also probably contributed to the differing storylines.
While researching his background I wanted to discover more about Moondog himself and the roots of rock and roll.
Moondog the street musician.
Alan Freed was gaining national attention soon after joining WJW Cleveland in July, 1951. This is around the time he also began to brand his various showcases with Moondog. He was the "King of the Moondoggers", going out on the radio waves to the "Moondog Nation". And then there was the ill-fated Moondog Coronation Ball concert on March 21st, 1952.
In 1954, after Alan Freed had moved to New York City, a poet and street musician who went by the name of Moondog, sued Freed for using his name. The Viking of 6th Avenue (as he was also known) won and was awarded $6000 in damages. Freed quit using the Moondog name from then on.
Moondog was Louis Thomas Hardin. He grew up in the Midwest, became blind at age 16 and studied music at the Iowa School for the Blind before moving to NYC in 1943.
Many accounts portray Moondog as just a homeless street busker but he is now remembered by many as an important musical innovator. His work on the streets was a performance that used the sounds around him as background accompaniment. He also recorded many studio pieces, conducted orchestras and performed internationally.
Hardin's work included instruments he invented such as the percussive timba shown below. He would dress in the costume of a viking when playing the city. Moondog befriended, played with and inspired many famous musicians such as Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, Philip Glass, Debbie Harry, Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn.
There is currently a biographical film in production about Moondog.
The origins of the term Rock and Roll
Freed liked to tell people the term rock 'n' roll came to him in a flash of inspiration. He did wholeheartedly incorporate the words into his radio and live shows. He rebranded his act the Rock 'n' Roll Party when he could no longer go by Moondog. Freed even tried to copyright 'Rock & Roll'.
But African-American music, or race music as it was known, had been rocking and rolling for decades.
Record store owner Leo Mintz had a big influence on Freed's song selection and career. Mintz opened Record Rendezvous on Cleveland's Prospect Avenue in 1939, a year before Freed graduated from Salem High School. He specialized in jazz, blues and R&B. The store was among the first to have listening booths for customers. No doubt Alan Freed had a good listen and honed his musical education in Record Rendezvous when he first moved to Cleveland in 1950.
The story goes that Freed and Mintz discussed using rock & roll as a term for R&B to make the type of music more attractive to white customers. Alan Freed ran with the idea and was all about rock 'n' roll!
The term Rock and Roll evolved more organically over a long period of musical history.
When folks were a rockin' and a rollin' in the lyrics of early blues music they were usually, not so subtly, referring to sex. The first recorded song that used both the words rock and roll was My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll) by Trixie Smith in 1922.
When researching this post I learned that Trixie Smith's early songs were recorded on the Black Swan Records label. The Harlem based record company was founded in 1921 by Harry Pace. He started in the music business as a partner in a sheet music publishing company. But Pace, a young entrepreneur, saw a more exciting opportunity and jumped at the chance to set up a recording company just as the technology was opening up to smaller companies.
His vision was to create an all black record label that produced authentic blues by black singers. Pace was certain that there was a market within the black community. He was correct and his records were an immediate success. So successful that mainstream white record companies noticed and started signing black acts once they saw how well Black Swan records were selling.
Thirty years before Freed hit the airwaves in Cleveland, and nearly 40 years before Berry Gordy founded Motown Records, Pace was blazing the trail for the pioneers who would follow him.
I set out on this project as a personal exploration of the music I've always loved and was very pleased to have discovered Black Swan Records and some of the very earliest roots of rock and roll.
Learn more about all these music greats and listen to some of the recordings in the videos above and below. This includes the a video featuring the song Rocket 88. Recorded by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, it is considered by many to be the first song truly in the rock and roll genre. The lyrics do not actually use the word rock and roll but the innuendo is pretty clear.
You can learn more about the Alan Freed letterpress art print below.
A music playlist to go with the letterpress print:
Alan Freed Fan Art
When you've worked a career as an art director as I have, more of your time is spent directing and concepting rather than doing actual art. I recently decided to get back to making art and printmaking around the letterpress shop.
Last Christmas I made a playlist on Spotify featuring Ohio musical artists. It's titled Ohiophonic and you can hear it here. This is a personal project for me to learn more about the rich musical history in the state where I grew up.
When in high school and art college, I often illustrated musicians who I was interested in. Having recently moved to Salem, Ohio I chose Alan Freed as the first portrait in what I plan to make an ongoing series. Alan Freed hails from Salem. I was born in Salem and the area is where most of my relatives come from and many still live today.
The idea was to try to connect with someone from the past who made an important mark on my life. Northeast Ohio was very much a rock and roll community when I was young. I did like to rock but also loved black performers, especially blues, soul and funk.
So the Alan Freed portrait is a personal discovery of music that influenced me and connected me to my hometown. Finally, the idea was tied together nicely for me with my son Alex Berger. He still lives in Chicago and seems to have inherited my interest in music. He a big fan of R&B, funk, soul and disco music and has taken this interest to another level. Alex is successfully working as DJ Bergadelic in Chicago who specializes in spinning all vinyl records in our favorite funky and soulful genres.
Two more portraits in the Ohiophonic series are in the works and will be finished soon.
You can learn more about the project and purchase the Alan Freed letterpress portrait print at my Etsy shop here.