The Disc Jockey widely believed to have first coined the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll” began life as a jazz trombonist with a band called Sultans Of Swing (it may have been them that Dire Straits were singing about many years later).
Born in Pennsylvania in 1922, Freed began his DJ career at various Pennsylvania and Ohio radio stations.
When he became a full-time DJ on Cleveland’s WJW he began playing R&B (or so-called “race music”) to a largely white audience.
A tireless and enthusiastic advocate of the music he played, Freed eventually moved upmarket and took his show to WINS in New York.
There, he further spread the gospel of Rock & Roll via TV, movies, and the celebrated all-star shows he promoted at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theatre. Those stage shows remain the essential Rock & Roll revues of the era.
In May 1958, a stabbing at a Boston concert led to Freed’s arrest on charges of incitement to riot, giving local authorities an excuse to ban rock shows.
In May 1960, Freed and others were indicted on charges of receiving payola. He pleaded not guilty to 26 counts of commercial bribery; the biggest – for $10,000 – from Roulette Records. In return, it was alleged that Freed played a chosen record eight or nine times in a night.
Morris Levy (notorious Roulette boss) claimed “unjust accusations” had been made and that DJs had signed affidavits acknowledging they had never received any “consideration” for playing Roulette platters.
Freed was eventually found guilty on two counts of accepting commercial bribery and used as something of an industry scapegoat. He received a $400 fine and a suspended jail sentence, and the scandal forced the increasingly alcoholic Freed off the air.
Virtually bankrupt by his legal expenses and fines, facing charges of tax evasion, and drinking heavily, Freed checked himself into a Palm Springs hospital on 15 January 1965.
He died five days later from cirrhosis of the liver and renal failure and went to the grave penniless. He was just 42.
Alan Freed was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.