My Father and the Moondog Coronation Ball

My Father and the Moondog Coronation Ball

Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the first rock and roll concert 

by Lance Freed, Alan Freed's son

Along with the percussive sounds and feral howls that signaled the start of each Moondog show, my father, barely into his thirties, would announce: "Hello Everybody! How are y'all tonight? This is Alan Freed, the old king of the Moondoggers, and it's time again for another of your favorite rock and roll sessions, blues and rhythm records for all the gang in the Moondog kingdom from the Midwest to the East Coast." His voice enlivened the airwaves and his unique spin on popular music launched a revolution, a movement he christened "rock and roll." The fervor he ignited would all come to a head on March 21, 1952. 

Born in Pennsylvania, my father took a shine to bandleaders such as Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman during his formative years, eventually forming the Sultans of Swing and playing trombone. A love affair with the airwaves bloomed while enrolled at Ohio State and by 1951, my Dad was a disc jockey at WJW radio in Cleveland. Dad's friend, Leo Mintz, owned Record Rendezvous on Prospect Avenue, a record store on the fringes of  Cleveland's inner city.

Mintz sold R&B records, and encouraged my father to spin them on his radio program. He did – and the audiences responded. With radio's colorblindness, the "race music" my father was playing reached white and black audiences, creating a teen phenomenon as the upbeat, imminently danceable tracks effortlessly encouraged a party atmosphere. A major concert was the natural next move.

Together with Mintz and concert promoter Lew Platt, my father hatched the inaugural Moondog Coronation Ball, billed on posters as "The most terrible ball of them all" and scheduled for March 21, 1952 from 10 pm - 2 am. It was to be held at the Cleveland Arena at 3717 Euclid Avenue, which was mostly used for sporting events, such as games with Cleveland's American Hockey League team, the Barons. The bill for the evening included Paul Williams and his Hucklebuckers, Tiny Grimes and his Rocking Highlanders, the Dominoes, Danny Cob and Varetta Dillard. Pre-sale tickets were $1.50 and $1.75 at the door. My father and his partners never envisioned a sell-out – much less the near-riot the concert sparked – given that the advertising for it was largely relegated to the Moondog radio show and at Record Rendezvous.

On the evening of March 21, an unprecedented swell of humanity descended on Cleveland Public Hall. A crowd of thousands lined the streets and soon the festive atmosphere turned discordant, as the venue quickly reached capacity and thousands of fans broke through the arena's doors. The resulting hysteria cut the show short after only one song by the opening act, Paul Williams and his Hucklebuckers. It was the first rock and roll concert and my father was heartbroken. 

The following day, Dad expressed his "horrible disappointment of many thousands of folks who tried to attend our Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena last night." Over the course of a 14-minute on-air apology, Dad noted that he cried off stage after trying to placate the confused masses for more than two hours. It was genuine. "When we attempted to bring you, with every sincere good intention, the finest event you'd ever attended in Cleveland or elsewhere, we had no idea that the turnout would anywhere come close to the tremendous number of folks who turned out last night at the Cleveland Arena," my father explained to his loyal listeners. "If anyone – even in their wildest imagination – had told us that some 20- or 25,000 people would try to get into a dance, well I suppose you would've been just like me: you probably would've laughed and said they were crazy."

Rather than be defeatist, my father was even more committed to delivering a show for the fans of rock and roll: "We are making arrangements at this very moment, not to put on another dance, because we found out last night that there are so many Moondoggers in the Northern Ohio area who want to attend a dance that there's not a place big enough to hold them, that we're going to put on a great all-star Moondog Show with reserve seat tickets." He was true to his word.

On March 31, 2012, the 60th Anniversary of the Moondog Coronation Ball will be celebrated during a concert at the Q Arena. Learn more hereThat afternoon at 12 pm, Lance Freed will discuss his father's legacy during a special Rock and Roll Night School event in the Museum's Foster Theater.