When AM radio station WJW hired Alan Freed in 1951, Cleveland was already widely known for its world class symphony orchestra and for popularizing Slovenian Polka music. Encouraged by his boss Leo Mintz, Freed began to mix in songs by the original Black artists on his radio show, as opposed to the White cover versions. He called the music Rock and Roll.
He then put on the first Rock and Roll concert called the Moondog Coronation Ball at Cleveland Public Hall in 1952. The show was over-sold and led to a near riot! There was also much resistance to his promoting a show to a mixed Black and White audience.
Freed appeared in several early Rock and Roll movies like “Rock Around the Clock” and “Mr. Rock and Roll” and hosted the nation’s first rock television show “The Big Beat.” Unfortunately, the program was cancelled when a White teenaged female came onstage and began to dance with Black rock artist Frankie Lymon.
Meanwhile in Memphis, Tennessee, Sam Phillips opened Sun Records. He would sign future rock legends B.B. King, Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others!
Over the years Cleveland venues like the Agora Theatre, Public Hall and Leo’s Casino would become staples on the national rock tour scene, with Leo’s being declared an historic landmark in 1999. Cleveland FM radio station WMMS would nationally break many artists, including David Bowie.
In 1983 several music industry executives, led by Atlantic Records owner Ahmet Ertegen formed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame foundation to preserve and honor the music. They began inducting classes of artists and other music luminaries in 1986. Many influential cities, including Memphis lobbied for the building of the museum, however, Cleveland won in a poll by the USA Today newspaper in a landslide! The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum had its Grand Opening in September of 1995, and has had over ten million visitors to date.
Cleveland is also the home of many successful national musical artists including The Michael Stanley Band, Levert, The Rude Boys, The James Gang, the Raspberries, Tracy Chapman, Kinsman Dazz, Bobby Womack, Marc Cohn, Bone Thugs and Harmony, and 2020 inductees Nine Inch Nails.
As the saying goes, Cleveland Rocks!
Kenny Johnson is an actor and playwright. He co-authored the record-breaking play Soul Sounds which appeared at theaters, universities and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.