The First Rock Concert Anywhere Ever

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | april 2019

Posters like this appeared all over Cleveland and across northern Ohio as the spring of 1952 approached. Twenty thousand tickets were sold for the event at the Cleveland Arena, which held a bit over half that number.Apologies and a shout out to Publisher Frank Hermans – but call this column a little “History Bluff" in written form.

You see, Frank likes to travel about sharing interesting glimpses into little corners of the world or flashes of historic events as he comes across them. His “History Bluff" (rather than “Buff") is a fun-filled look in video form. With a face for radio and a voice for newsprint, this writer will keep the current format.

Frank's pieces are usually a little campy and often purposely error-prone. Corrections are made from off-camera by Frank's truly better half, Amy Riemer. Still, there's no denying Frank's passion for history – a driving force that we share. So, imagine this writer's delight when coming across an item online from The History Channel's “This Date in History" declaring March 21 as the anniversary of “the first rock and roll concert in history."

This, on the heels of last month's column which suggested it was time for someone to begin writing Green Bay's rock and roll history.

You could cut the serendipity with a knife.

Cleveland, of Course

Now, the “Cleve" or the “Mistake on the Lake" may have become something of a laughing stock – especially in the sports world, of late – but it's had its moments since first being surveyed in 1796.

Also, in the sports world, Cleveland and other Ohio towns were essential locales in what became the hotbed of early professional football around the turn of the previous century.

More recently, it's earned the moniker, “Rock and Roll Capital of the World" – appropriate especially with the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame there in 1995.

The information shared here might provide a little backstory as to why placing the R&R Hall of Fame there was appropriate to begin with.

At its very beginning, this story takes us to Salem, Ohio – about 70 miles southeast of Cleveland. There, in the very-late 1930s, a teenager name Paul Freed assembles a band called the Sultans of Swing. Freed plays the trombone.

As WWII breaks out, Freed serves as a DJ on Armed Forces Radio. Following the war, he picks up gigs as a DJ in Pennsylvania and Ohio. At Akron's WAKR in 1945, Freed establishes a strong following as he spins hot jazz and pop tunes. He's a personal fan of the style.

In 1951, Freed joins the staff of Cleveland's WJW as the host of a classical music program. It's a step up as far as his career goes, but a step away from the music he loves. It isn't long, however, before he pitches a rhythm and blues show to his bosses – inspired in large part by the input of Record Rendezvous storeowner Leo Mintz.

As a businessman, Mintz's remarks to Freed how platters by black musicians are flying out the door in the excited hands of young music fans of every race.

On July 11. 1951, Freed opens his new show – with Mintz and RCA's Main Line as his primary sponsors. It's a three-hour, midnight soiree during which those same records flying out Mintz's store door are spun across the airwaves of greater Cleveland.

Freed's show surges in popularity – car and home radios blaring to most teenagers' glee and most adults' anguish. “Yeah, daddy, let's rock and roll!" is a typical chant and invitation heard on those radios directly from Freed's microphone.

Freed calls his program the “Moondog Radio Show" and – better yet – “Moondog House." The show has a distinct, upbeat character shaped by Freed's “hipster-style" of talk and his speaking directly to his listeners as though they are all members of a near-cult of R&B. He also hoorahs “Rock and Roll" into a household term.

Freed calls himself the “King of the Moondoggers." As a theme song, he employs a rhythm and blues street ditty, “Moondog Symphony." The song is described as an “offbeat instrumental" recorded by New York sidewalk musician Louis T. Hardin, who goes by the street name “Moondog."

While R&B has been relegated primarily to low-powered inner-city stations aimed at blacks – even referred to, commonly, as “race" music – this marks the first time that this brand of music is broadcast widely.

As is often the case in the “waterbed" effect of history (press down over here and something happens over there), the advent of television has created great change in the possibilities for radio. Many former radio dramas have moved to the small screen. Rather than play it safe, radio stations are forced adapt if they want to survive. The change busts open the possibilities for programming and cracks the door for R&B, then, R&R.

By late-1951, Freed is hosting dance parties while spinning his on-air offerings for those in attendance.

“Shut 'er Down!"

The scene was just about ripe for what musicologists have called “the first rock and roll concert" anywhere ever.

The buzz around all Freed's radio show and Mintz's record store was such that the two of them decided to hold a “live dance party" – this time featuring some of the most-popular artists in the flesh rather than on their recordings.

And so it was that plans were laid by Freed and Mintz for the “Moondog Coronation Ball" at the Cleveland Arena on “Friday Nite, Mar. 21" of 1952. Joining them in the strategery was Lew Platt, a local live music promoter.

Teenagers and other fans of R&B/R&R talked up the approaching event with increasing anticipation.

Headliners for the evening were going to be Paul Williams and Tiny Grimes. Also on tap were the Hucklebuckers and a kilt-wearing African-American instrumental group the Rocking Highlanders. Rounding out the bill were the Dominoes, Varetta Dillard and Danny Cobb.

Freed was set to broadcast his show live from the arena.

Talk of the upcoming show continued to “rock" Cleveland for several weeks as winter gave way to spring. Tickets were $1.50 in advance and $1.75 at the door and they were being grabbed up like hot cakes.

The first sign of trouble was the sale of 20,000 tickets for an arena that held a little over half that number – a snafu created by counterfeited tickets and a “printing error."

As 20,000 anxious music fans began squeezing into the place, pandemonium was nearly a guarantee. Fear that a riot was about to break out put the fire marshal on edge as Paul Williams began the very first song of the show. Immediately after the song, the show was drawn to a halt by the authorities – a guarantee of the dreaded pandemonium.

Dejected fans left the gathering and Freed apologized on-air the next evening. But there was no putting the Brylcreem back in the tube. What might have looked like an epic fail turned out to be a mere whetting of the appetite for both rhythm and blues and rock and roll.

Freed's popularity grew astronomically as did that of the music he was offering.

Indeed, Freed would serve as something of a model for the disc jockeys that would follow. The DJs would bring Elvis, the Beatles and a plethora of other popular acts and Top 40 records to the teenage masses.

His story – reflecting all of the ups and downs of that world including payola scandals – warrants books, not just a single column.

“Cleveland Rocks"

Go figure that a city that sometimes draws a snicker these days was – in those days – considered something of a bellwether for social trends. This was surely the case when it came to advancing R&B to the younger set across racial and ethnic lines.

Today, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame represents a worldwide celebration of the music form. Obviously landing the Hall of Fame would be a huge coup for any city. Cleveland lobbied hard for it, citing the work of Freed in particular and the “Moondog Coronation Ball" even more particularly.

Over the years, one of the hall's main functions has been the recognition of individuals, developments and key work product that has celebrated and advanced rock's evolution. Annually, the hall inducts those individuals. Full-circle, Freed was one of the hall's charter inductees in 1986. Another stepping-stone was recognizing David Bowie, who began his first U.S. tour in Cleveland.

An interesting sidebar to this particular “History Bluff" entry is that hall's museum has created a list of “Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll" including songs from the 1920s through the present day." The oldest song is the “Wabash Cannonball,"written around 1882. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones have eight songs apiece on that list.

Finally a nod to this writer's favorite band that no one has ever heard of – Prefab Sprout. I finally get the “Moondog" references on “Jordan: The Comeback."

Author, educator and horse farmer, Denis Gullickson, writes from Sugar Moon Farm in the Pulaski-Seymour area and the Gingerbread House near Lakewood. As president of the Green Bay Theatre Company, he continues to work with other board members and area activists to bring a working arts and performance venue to downtown Green Bay after moving on from the former Schauer and Schumacher buildings.

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