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The First True Disc Jockey

The Life of Alan Freed

Alan Freed

If hero worship is being inspired by someone’s deeds to emulate them in your workplace, then perhaps I am living proof of the work of Alan Freed. I am a disc jockey, a poor comparison, however, to the original, master of the MC, Alan Freed.

Alan Freed was amongst the first true disc jockeys, he lived fast and died young, just forty four years old when he died of bleeding esophageal varices and cirrhosis of the liver, although many believed he actually died of a broken heart. Alan Freed, was at heart just a simple man with the usual vices and an overwhelming desire to be successful, what drove him to an early death was a scandal that tarnished all the work he had done before, the scandal was called Payola. In the late 1950s and 1960s in the United States, record companies were becoming big business and bribery of DJ’s had become commonplace, if remaining strictly illegal; Freed took payments to play the tunes the record companies wanted him to play.

Born as Albert James Freed on December 21, 1921, near Johnstown, PA, the future star of radio, film and television moved at the age of twelve together with the rest of his family to Salem in Ohio. Always a spirited young man with an ear for music and an eye for the pretty girls, Freed founded a band known as the Sultan’s of Swing. In the line-up he played the trombone.

In 1942, Freed achieved the first of many milestone’s on his broadcasting career, by landing his first job at WKST broadcasting to New Castle in PA. Three years later after a number of jobs at a number of radio stations across the mid-west Freed won plaudits and admiration from the audience at WAKR in Akron Ohio, when he played hot jazz and pop records. Within the space of five years he had been snapped up by a larger radio station at Cleveland, WXEL-TV and calling himself "Moondog" filled 20,000 people into the Cleveland Arena, although it was only designed to accommodate 10,000 for the Moondog Coronation Ball on July 11, 1951. This event, more than any other marked him out as something special in the eyes and ears of young 1950s America and saw the arrival of rock and roll as a musical force.

In 1957, ABC gave Freed his own nationally televised rock and roll show, however, misfortune started to appear on the horizon. Freed didn’t care where the music came from only realising that if it was good then it should be played. He’d frequently play "black music" such as jazz and rhythm and blues, often upsetting the racial prejudices of the era. In one-episode of his television show, Frankie Lymon danced with a white girl and so enraged Southern affiliate TV stations that the show was cancelled. The next year more misfortune befell Alan Freed when outside the Boston Arena, violence erupted and Freed was charged with inciting riot, whilst the charges were eventually dropped, the bad press it caused saw Freed loose his contract with New York based radio station WINS.

Having secured another broadcasting job at WABC radio, he also continued his television career with a dance show broadcast locally. November 1959, however, saw the start of the end for Freed, with the Payola scandal. DJ’s across the United States were found to be illegally playing records on the radio for bribes from the record companies. Many of these payments were claimed to be for consultation work and Freed was amongst those charged.

It would be three years before the Payola scandal was eventually brought to court and the tension of this protracted investigation, caused Freed to drink heavily. He moved from station to station across the country from Los Angeles to Miami. In December 1962, Freed was back in New York, not in a radio station studio but in court and there he pleaded guilty to two counts of commercial bribery and was fined the then hefty sum of $300.

With a conviction to his name, Alan Freed, fled back to the sunshine of Palm Springs in California and became an alcoholic. No one would employ a convicted DJ and over the course of the next three years he drunk himself to oblivion finally on January 20, 1965 at the age of just 44.

The intervening years have seen the whole Payola scandal seen for what it was a minor affair, and certainly one that shouldn’t have claimed the life of a talented and gifted disc jockey. In 1986, Alan Freed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and because of his film work in the 1950s he also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

I work as a DJ, not because of Alan Freed but inspired by his talent. The man wasn’t a paragon of virtue, but he was a well-respected and gifted man in the industry, which he loved. He was blessed with the talent of talking to people across the airwaves, reaching into their homes and minds and enlivening their everyday lives. That is something that every last one of today’s disc jockey’s aspires to and we look to Alan Freed as being the man who started the ball rolling; the first world class DJ.

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