Hello Cleveland: The City’s Rock and Roll Legacy
by Carlo Wolff
Rock and roll has been part of Cleveland’s fabric from its beginnings in the 1950s through the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 1995 and up to today, with Kid Cudi rocking the iPod, and Ante Up Studios recording the groove of the future.
Cleveland has always loved rock and roll, and its role in rock is a critical one. The Ohio city helped lay rock’s foundation at Record Rendezvous on Prospect Avenue near Cleveland’s Public Square.
Picture this downtown record store packed with teens eager to shell out their money for the latest tunes. The listening booths are jammed, and the music is loud and sweaty. It bugs parents. The kids love it. The music's got a beat, and while the style still lacks a name, this blend of rhythm & blues, country music and the blues is starting to coalesce as rock and roll.
Rock came together in American urban centers like Cleveland after World War II. Cleveland was prospering from the steel and automobile industries, its labor force swelled by people who moved from the South in search of a better life, their taste for “race” music and hillbilly music in tow.
The term “rock and roll” was mainstreamed by Record Rendezvous owner Leo Mintz and WJW-AM deejay Alan Freed. It became a brushfire when deejay Bill Randle squired Elvis Presley into some of his first shows north of the Mason Dixon Line—in Cleveland. It established what would become the baby-boomer soundtrack in the Sixties over legendary Cleveland AM stations WIXY, WHK, WERE and WJW. It became big business in the Seventies and Eighties, when Cleveland brothers Jules and Mike Belkin mounted extravaganzas like the World Series of Rock at the Municipal Stadium.
In the beginning, however, it was small-scale, its leader Freed. Hungry to capitalize on an emerging market, he played so-called race music – or rhythm & blues -- exclusively on the Moondog House Rock and Roll Party, which he launched in 1951 over WJW. Mintz was the key sponsor of the show. On March 21, 1952, the two staged the Moondog Coronation Ball, selling more than 16,000 tickets to the Cleveland Arena, which could accommodate only 10,000. Tickets cost $1.50 in advance, $1.75 at the door. The first rock and roll concert was bedlam—and put Cleveland on the rock and roll map. Four days later, rock critic-to-be Jane Scott joined the Plain Dealer, the city’s morning newspaper. Scott would become known as the oldest living teenager and would cover rock and roll for five decades.
The Moondog Ball wasn’t the only thing to make Cleveland synonymous with rock from the start. Freed had stiff competition from such deejays as Bill Randle and Tommy Edwards of WERE. Edwards brought a twitchy kid named Presley up from Memphis to the Circle Theater in February 1955, and Randle brought him to Cleveland’s suburban Brooklyn High School that October.
Other signs of those early times:
- Cleveland native Bobby Womack and his brothers opened for Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers at Friendship Baptist Church in Cleveland in 1953. Womack and Cooke are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Womack is the first Cleveland native so honored.
- Cleveland eccentric Screamin’ Jay Hawkins sold more than a million copies of his signature tune, “I Put a Spell on You,” in 1956.
- Future Hall of Famers the O'Jays played the Tremend Lounge at Union and Broadway that decade. Lawrence “Kid Leo” Travagliante, who would become the voice of FM powerhouse WMMS, first saw the Canton group there.
In the 1960s, where bands played became as important as radio stations and record stores. Armories, clubs, high schools, record hops—the music was everywhere.
Cleveland became a mandatory stop as rock evolved beyond rockabilly, blues and rhythm & blues. (Which rock group first said "Hello, Cleveland" is lost to memory.) Stan Kain opened La Cave near Case Western Reserve University in 1962. During its seven years, the basement club featured everyone from the Velvet Underground to Jose Feliciano to Terry Knight and the Pack (which evolved into Grand Funk Railroad).
On September 15, 1964, the Beatles played Public Hall, creating such frenzy that Mayor Ralph Locher banned them. The ban did not last. When the group played Municipal Stadium in summer 1966, it drew only 25,000, largely because John Lennon had claimed the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.
On February 5, 1966, Mike and Jules Belkin formed Belkin Productions. That same year, the Cleveland band the Outsiders reached Number Five on the charts with "Time Won't Let Me," and Henry LoConti launched the Agora, a collection of clubs that would showcase every major act from the Sixties on, from ZZ Top to U2. Music Hall and Public Auditorium hosted acts like the Rolling Stones and the Who.
Leo’s Casino on Cleveland’s East Side became the place for Motown acts to road test their material in the Sixties. It also was the site of Otis Redding’s last performance, on December 9, 1967. He taped the local TV rock showcase, Upbeat, earlier that evening.
In the late Sixties, AM lost ground to FM, and underground radio emerged. WHK 100.7-FM went free-form and rapidly evolved into WMMS, giving deejays Kid Leo, David Spero, Billy Bass and Denny Sanders their head. WMMS would play a national role in rock well into the Nineties.
In the Sixties, Cleveland spawned numerous major artists. Not only did the James Gang, the Raspberries and the Glass Harp form here, so did Pere Ubu, the Numbers Band (from Kent) and Akron’s Tin Huey and the Bizarros, groups that were “alternative” long before that became the tag du jour. Northern Ohio became a rock region, though it never acquired the cachet of San Francisco or Boston, which had its short-lived “Bosstown Sound.” This also was the decade in which Michael Stanley began to build his reputation as Cleveland’s favorite rock son.
Other proof of Cleveland’s rock and roll clout:
- David Bowie broke out of Cleveland—literally—when he played his first U.S. date at Music Hall on September 22, 1972.
- Roxy Music broke out of Cleveland in 1974, largely thanks to Kid Leo’s tireless promotion.
- Cleveland music-industry forces Mike Belkin and Carl Maduri formed Sweet City Records, steering Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” to Number One in 1976. Wild Cherry formed in Steubenville in 1970.
- In 1977, Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" roared out of Cleveland on Cleveland International Records, a label veteran Cleveland record man Steve Popovich founded.
- Bruce Springsteen played 10 dates in Northern Ohio in 1974 and 1975 alone, making Cleveland “Asbury Park West.” One of the most bootlegged shows of all is the three hour-plus performance he served up—with help from a name-checked Kid Leo—at the Cleveland Agora on August 28, 1978.
- In 1979, record labels fell all over themselves, signing Akron-based acts like Devo, the Rubber City Rebels, Tin Huey and the Cramps. Even the Pretenders were signed that year. The group led by Akron native Chrissie Hynde would become one of the most important acts of the 1980s.
- In August 1982, the Michael Stanley Band drew 66,377 to Blossom Music Center over four nights, still a record.
- In 1984, Sean and Gerald Levert, the sons of O’Jays singer Eddie Levert, formed LeVert. In the Nineties, Gerald began to spend time on a solo career that soon eclipsed the group’s. Gerald died in 2006, Sean in 2008.
- In 1984, Bill Peters founded Auburn Records, a heavy-metal label known for the bands Breaker and Shok Paris.
- In 1986, drummer Scott Pickering and guitarist Robert Griffin formed Prisonshake, an underground rock group contemporary with My Dad Is Dead and Death of Samantha, other talented Cleveland precursors of the “alternative” movement. That same year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation chose Cleveland as the site of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The following year, I.M. Pei was selected as Rock Hall architect.
- In 1988, Cleveland native Tracy Chapman’s single, “Fast Car,” hit Number Six on the pop charts.
- In 1989, Nine Inch Nails, the brainchild of western Pennsylvania man Trent Reznor, released “Pretty Hate Machine,” the first industrial rock album to go mainstream. Some of NIN’s earliest performances took place at the Phantasy Nite Club in Lakewood. Its breakthrough came in 1991 during the first Lollapalooza, when NIN upstaged headliner Jane’s Addiction.
- Nothing Records, a custom imprint of Interscope, was formed in 1992 by Reznor and then-manager John Malm Jr. Key signings: NIN and the Canton-based band Marilyn Manson. Nothing died in 2004 amid a welter of lawsuits pitting Reznor against Malm.
- Among the hottest Cleveland clubs of the Nineties were Empire and the Odeon Concert Club. Empire ran from 1990 to 1992. Among groups and artists that played there were Nirvana, Lush, Warren Zevon and Nine Inch Nails. The Odeon was a Flats beacon from late 1993 to early 2006. Owned by the Belkin family, it showcased everyone from the Cranberries to Kid Rock to Chris Whitley to Metallica.
- In 1993, ground was broken on the Rock Hall. It opened September 1, 1995. The following day featured a star-studded concert with Bruce Springsteen, the Pretenders, Sam Moore, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and many others.
- The hip-hop group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony formed in Cleveland in 1991. Its 1995 debut album, E 1999 Eternal, sold 4 million albums, and the single, “The Crossroads,” won a Grammy award. BTNH’s last release was in 2007.
- “Green Mind,” a pop-industrial rocker by the Kent group Dink, got airplay on WENZ-FM (“The End”) in 1993, leading to a short-lived contract with Capitol Records. Also formed that year: Mushroomhead, a theatrical heavy-metal band that has recorded for several major labels.
- Akron native Joseph Arthur, a Firestone High School graduate like Chrissie Hynde and Black Keys Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach, signed with Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records in 1996. Arthur, now focused on guitar, played bass around Cleveland as a teen with guitarist Frankie Starr.
- In 1999, Canton native Macy Gray scored worldwide with “I Try,” a hit from her debut album, How Life Is.
- In 2000, Cindy Barber and Mark Leddy opened the Beachland Ballroom, the most important, non-mainstream rock venue in Cleveland. Its key competitor, the House of Blues, located off of Public Square, opened in 2004.
- In 2001, Belkin Productions was sold to SFX, which subsequently was sold to Clear Channel Radio, a public company that ultimately spun off its concert business into Live Nation. That year also saw formation of the Black Keys, an Akron duo that has sold more than 800,000 CDs and invested in or spun off such side projects as Drummer, an Auberbach solo album, Dan Auerbach protégé Jessica Lea Mayfield, and the bands Houseguest and Beaten Awake.
- One of the hottest current artists is 2010 Grammy Award nominee Kid Cudi, born in Cleveland in 1984. An associate of Kanye West, Scott Ramon Seguro Mescudi, who grew up in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, charted in fall 2009 with “Day ‘n’ Nite,” a track from his debut album Man on the Moon: The End of Day. Other area notables of the 21st century: Mick Boogie (born Mick Batsyke) of Youngstown, who has done mash-ups with Eminem, Talib Kweli and Jay-Z and was official DJ of the Cleveland Cavaliers for several seasons; and Pittsburgh native Greg Gillis, who began creating mix tapes under the name Girl Talk while studying biomedical engineering at Case Western University in Cleveland. On the softer side: Bay Village native Kate Voegele, born in 1986. Signed to Interscope, she hit with “Lift Me Up,” a take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and “Sweet Silver Lining.” She also records as Mia Catalano, the name of her character on the television show One Tree Hill.
High in today’s mix, mixing and mix tapes: Ante Up Audio, a state-of-the-art recording studio formed in 2004 in Tyler Village, a mixed-use development on East 36th Street between Superior and St. Clair Avenues, and Exit Stencil Studios, launched in 2008 in the Waterloo Arts District that the Beachland dominates. Another new addition is Gotta Groove Records, a vinyl-record pressing plant located near Ante Up.
That should set the stage for this history of Cleveland rock. Next, this site will detail the Fifties, when Cleveland was a boomtown, and rock and roll was a baby.
Cleveland writer Carlo Wolff has been a music critic since the 1970s and is the author of Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories (Gray & Co.).