The Pop History Dig

“Moondog Alan Freed”
1951-1965

1950s dance-concert scene with Alan Freed (far right) as DJ & emcee. CD cover for collection of 1950s songs from Freed’s radio years. Famous Grove Records / 1997-98.
1950s dance-concert scene with Alan Freed (far right) as DJ & emcee. CD cover for collection of 1950s songs from Freed’s radio years. Famous Grove Records / 1997-98.
In America during the early 1950s, the music being broadcast on the radio was beginning to change – but not everywhere. The normal fare of the day was mostly a mixture of Big Band music, old standards, Frank Sinatra-style crooners, a few pop tunes, and some novelty songs. Among the No. 1 singles in 1950, for example, were: “I Can Dream, Can’t I,” by The Andrews Sisters; “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy,” by Red Foley; “Music! Music! Music!,” by Teresa Brewer; “Mona Lisa” by Nat King Cole; and “The Tennessee Waltz,”by Patti Page, among others. But this style of music – which would remain a standard genre for years – was making room for a new sound and a new kind of music. And one place where the new music was being broadcast on the radio was in Cleveland, Ohio by a late-night disc jockey named Alan Freed. Working at station WJW and using the on-air nickname “Moondog,” Freed in 1951 was playing a mixture of rhythm and blues (R&B) music; music performed by and listened to by mostly African Americans; music that was not widely played on mainstream radio. This was the music that would soon be known as “rock ’n roll” – a name that Freed would later be credited with advancing.

“Moondog” Alan Freed in 1951 at Cleveland radio station WJW where he called the new music he played, “rock ’n roll.”
“Moondog” Alan Freed in 1951 at Cleveland radio station WJW where he called the new music he played, “rock ’n roll.”
The broadcasting business at that time was in the midst of major technological change, as the new medium of television had arrived. Radio drama programming – a big source of the radio broadcast business – was then shifting to television. That change was consuming the attention of broadcast executives and business mangers. Radio programming, as a result, had less of management’s attention. That gave radio producers and disc jockey’s more latitude and more opportunity to experiment with new kinds of music.

R&B music was then also known as “race music;” music that was played largely in the black community but rarely in white America. R&B music was racially-segregated, like much of American society then. But Alan Freed at WJW in Cleveland soon began using the music as a centerpiece of his broadcasts. Freed began his program of R&B music in July 1951 and he would later start calling it “rock ’n roll” music. He would also fashion a new kind of “DJ talk” during his broadcasts, ad-libbing and using part of the language he heard on the recordings he was offering. “Yeah, daddy,” he would say, “let’s rock and roll!” He was 29 years old at the time. His late-night show was called “The Moondog House” and it soon became popular with the young kids – black and white – of Cleveland, Ohio and beyond. In fact, Alan Freed would be credited as one of the early prime movers of “rock ’n roll” music and the early rock concert business. And Cleveland, the town where the rock `n roll broadcasts began, would later be honored with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum as tribute to Freed. But when Freed came to Cleveland in the early 1950s, he had not come with the idea of broadcasting R& B music.

 

Alan Freed

Early 1950s print ad for Alan Freed’s radio show on Cleveland’s WJW, sponsored by the Record Rendezvous.
Early 1950s print ad for Alan Freed’s radio show on Cleveland’s WJW, sponsored by the Record Rendezvous.
He was born Albert James Freed in December 1921 near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. By the time he was 13 or so, the future radio DJ had formed a band in high school, his family then living in Salem, Ohio. Freed’s band was called the Sultans of Swing and he played trombone. In 1942, by the time he was 21, Freed had started his radio broadcasting career at WKST in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He then did a short sportscasting stint at WKBN radio in Youngstown, Ohio before moving to WAKR in Akron, Ohio where he became a local favorite in the mid-1940s playing hot jazz and pop recordings.

By 1949 Freed had moved to WXEL-TV in Cleveland. There, Freed would later meet record store owner Leo Mintz in early 1951 who urged him to emcee a program of R&B music over WJW radio. Mintz was the owner of the Record Rendezvous, one of Cleveland’s largest record stores, and he had noticed young white kids buying what had been considered exclusively black music a few years earlier. Mintz believed that the R& B music was appealing to the white kids because of its beat, and that it could be danced to easily. He also proposed buying airtime on the station to help sponsor the R & B show. Record Rendevous would also appear in print ads promoting Freed’s shows, as illustrated in the ad above, which uses some radio lingo to pitch its ad slogans, such as: “He spins ‘em keed, he’s HEP, that Freed!”

Disc jockey Alan Freed shown in studio with 45 rpm recording in hand to play on his show.
Disc jockey Alan Freed shown in studio with 45 rpm recording in hand to play on his show.
On July 11, 1951, Freed went on the air at WJW and began playing R&B records. He didn’t make the move to R&B all at once, but gradually. And after listeners responded with repeated requests, he went full bore. He then began calling himself “Moondog” and his show “The Moondog House,” billing himself in radio banter as “The King of the Moondoggers.” He used an instrumental song, “Moondog Symphony,” as his show’s theme, a song by a New York street musician named Louis T. Hardin who also used the name “Moondog.” Others report that Freed used the song, “Blues for Moon Dog” as his radio theme, a song by Todd Rhodes.

On his show, Freed would later call the music he played, “rock `n roll,” a term found throughout R&B music. He wasn’t the first to use the term, but he became the first DJ to program R&B music for a much larger listening audience, helping to take the music business in a whole new direction. WJW at the time was a 50,000-watt clear channel station powerful enough to reach a giant market throughout the Midwest. David Halberstam, describing Freed’s rise in his book The Fifties, wrote:
 

Poster advertising Alan Freed’s “Moondog Coronation Ball,” March 21st, 1952, Cleveland, Ohio.
Poster advertising Alan Freed’s “Moondog Coronation Ball,” March 21st, 1952, Cleveland, Ohio.

“…His success was immediate. It was as if an entire generation of young white kids in that area had been waiting for someone to catch up with them. For Freed it was what he had been waiting for; he seemed to come alive as a new hip personality. He was the Moondog, He kept the beat himself in his live chamber, adding to it by hitting on a Cleveland phone book. He became one of them, the kids, on their side as opposed to that of their parents, the first grown-up who understood them and what they wanted. By his choice of music alone, the Moondog has instantly earned their trust. Soon he was doing live rock shows. The response was remarkable. No one in the local music business had ever seen anything like it before. Two or three thousand kids would buy tickets …all for performers that adults had never even heard of.”

Freed’s dance concerts were advertised over his radio show and he would also emcee the live shows, appearing as the DJ, introducing guest acts, and playing records at the site. In March 1952, he promoted a dance concert to be held at the Cleveland Arena that he called the “Moondog Coronation Ball.” A number of live R& B acts were also billed as part of this concert, including Paul Williams & The Hucklebuckers, Tiny Grims & The Rockin’ Highlanders, The Dominoes, Danny Cobb, and Varetta Dillard.

March 21st 1952: Scene at the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, just before things got out of hand. Photo, Peter Hastings/Cleveland Plain Dealer.
March 21st 1952: Scene at the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, just before things got out of hand. Photo, Peter Hastings/Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Over 20,000 young teens showed up for the 10,000-person ice hockey facility. A riot ensued as the crowd broke into the rink. The police responded and the concert was shut down. Part of the problem was due to the fact that a second night of Moondog Ball entertainment was planned to follow the first night, but all of the tickets for both nights were printed with the first night’s date, March 21st. In any case, the riot that resulted became the talk of the town, as the community was outraged. But the incident only raised the visibility of Freed and his radio show, then becoming more popular among teens.

August 1954. Print ad for big R&B revue show in Cleveland with Alan Freed hosting.
August 1954. Print ad for big R&B revue show in Cleveland with Alan Freed hosting.
On May 17 and 18th, 1952, Freed’s “Moondog Maytime Ball” was held at the Cleveland Arena, this time featuring three shows to handle the crowds. These shows had a number of acts including: The Dominoes, Todd Rhodes and his Orchestra, H-Bomb Ferguson, Freddie Mitchell and his Orchestra, Little Jimmy Scott, Al “Fats” Thomas, Joan Shaw, the Kalvin Brothers, and Morris Lane and his Great Orchestra. Additional “Moondog” dances and concerts were held in Akron, Youngstown, Canton, and Lorain, Ohio, and also Sharon, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, back at his radio show, he was making his own stylistic mark. Rolling Stone writer John Morthland would later observe:

“It is 1953, and Alan Freed is on the air again for his late night Moondog Show on WJW… Freed yips, moans and brays, gearing up for another evening hosting the hottest rhythm & blues show in the land. Slipping on a golf glove, he bangs on a phone book in time to the music – maybe ‘Money Honey’ by the Drifters, or ‘Shake a Hand’ by Faye Adams… [H]e spins the hits and continues his manic patter throughout the night, spewing forth rhymed jive with the speed and flections of a Holy Roller at the Pearly Gates.”

In 1953, when “The Biggest Rhythm and Blues Show” (run by the Gale Theatrical Agency) came to Cleveland on tour that summer, Freed was the featured emcee. On July 17,1953, thousands came out for that show at the Cleveland Arena, which also featured boxing star and celebrity Joe Louis for a brief appearance, as well as a full roster of performers including: Ruth Brown, Wynonie Harris, Leonard Reed, the tap dancing Edwards Sisters, Dusty Fletcher, Stuffy Bryant, and the Buddy Johnson Orchestra. That tour drew a largely black audience and became the largest grossing R&B revue of its day. In 1954, a similar tour again came to Cleveland in August, with Freed running that show as well.

These R&B revues, and Freed’s own stage shows and dances, drew tens of thousands of teens, black and white. Freed’s broadcasts from WJW in Cleveland, meanwhile, were being picked up by some radio stations in the East, on Newark, New Jersey station WNJR, for example, where the show found a receptive audience.Freed’s broadcasts were being picked up by radio stations in the East, and his on-air style was now spreading to other DJs who played a similar mix of music. Freed’s on air radio style was also spreading to other DJs, who played a similar mix of music. And by the early- and mid-1950s, the new rock ‘n roll music was also being listened to on small, hand-held transistorized radios, then selling for $25 to $50.

In May 1954, Freed traveled to Newark, New Jersey where he held the “Eastern Moondog Coronation Ball” at the Sussex Avenue Armory in Newark. It was Freed’s first personal appearance in the New York area. Among the R&B artists who appeared there were: Buddy Johnson and his orchestra and vocalist Ella Johnson; The Clovers, a vocal quartet; Roost Bonnemera and his Mambo Band; Nolan Lewis, Mercury recording star; Sam Butera, jazz saxophonist; Muddy Waters, blues guitar player; the Harptones; and Charles Brown. A crowd of some 11,000 came out for Freed’s Newark show. RCA Victor recorded the entire show for use on a special Moondog album. Our World magazine also covered the event in a featured pictorial story.

In September 1954, Alan Freed would move from WJW in Cleveland, Ohio to WINS in New York City.
In September 1954, Alan Freed would move from WJW in Cleveland, Ohio to WINS in New York City.
Although still at Cleveland radio station WJW in 1954, by August of that year, Freed took his R&B revue show to New York. Around this time he had also begun talking with radio station WINS in New York about joining their station. On August 1, 1954, Freed’s “Moondog Jubilee Of Stars Under the Stars” was held at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field Ebbets, then still home of baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers. On the bill at that concert were the Dominoes, the Clovers, the Orioles, Fats Domino, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Count Basie’s Orchestra, and Buddy Johnson’s Orchestra. A large, racially mixed crowd came out for this concert, like others Freed had helped organize or emcee. Back on his radio show, Freed had been forced to stop using his DJ name, “Moondog” in 1954 after a lawsuit was filed by the blind New York city street musician who had recorded the song “Moondog Symphony.” Freed renamed his show “Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Party.” Freed had also tried to copyright the term “rock `n roll,” which wasn’t widely used at the time. He took out a copyright on the term in partnership with music businessman Morris Levy, veteran promoter Lew Platt, and radio station WINS. But soon, the tidal wave of rock ’n roll music made the term common parlance, and Freed’s claim went for naught.

 

January 1955: “Billboard” magazine ad for Alan Freed’s shows on WINS radio, New York.
January 1955: “Billboard” magazine ad for Alan Freed’s shows on WINS radio, New York.
New York, NY

In September 1954 Freed was hired by WINS radio in New York. There he would receive a $75,000-a-year salary plus a percentage of syndication, as more than 40 radio stations would sign up to either simulcast or rebroadcast his show. Freed’s “Rock ’n Roll Party #1″ was broadcast Monday through Saturday in the 7:00-9:00 p.m. time slot. Another late night show, “Rock ’n Roll Party #2,” was broadcast Monday through Thursday in the 11:00 p.m.- 1:00 a.m. slot and Fridays and Saturdays, 11:00 p.m.-2:00 a.m.

Freed’s live concert dance shows, meanwhile, soon became New York sensations. On January 14th and 15th, 1955 he held a landmark dance at the St Nicholas Ballroom in Manhattan, promoting black performers as rock ’n roll artists. Each night was a sellout, with some 12,000 jamming the hall. The gate for the two nights was $27,500, pretty good money in those days. Among the performers were Joe Turner and Fats Domino.

Freed also became known for his New York stage shows at the Brooklyn and New York Paramount Theaters. At one of Freed’s Brooklyn Paramount shows in September 1955, called his “First Anniversary Rock ‘n’ Roll Party,” he broke the all-time record gross take for both the Brooklyn and New York Paramount Theaters with a gate of $178,000 (for an eight day run). This topped the previous high that had been set by the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy team some years earlier when they reached the $147,000 mark at the New York Paramount. Among those performing at this show were: Red Prysock and his band, The Cardinals, The Rythmettes, Nappy Brown, The Four Voices, The Harptones, Chuck Berry (doing “Maybellene”), the Nutmegs, Al Hibber, Lillian Briggs and others.

Wrote one Cash Box reporter who covered the show:

1950s: The Brooklyn Paramount’s electric marquee at night announcing an Alan Freed show and star participants.
1950s: The Brooklyn Paramount’s electric marquee at night announcing an Alan Freed show and star participants.

“…This reviewer has been through the teen age hysteria that existed from 1936 through 1945 when the kids danced in the aisles to the music of Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey and others, but never have these eyes seen fanatical exuberance such as the type displayed at Alan Freed’s sensational 1st Anniversary Rock ’n roll program…”

In December 1956, during an eight-day stretch over the Christmas holiday, Freed threw his “Rock ’n Roll Christmas Show” at the Brooklyn Paramount with a line-up that included: the Drifters, Fats Domino, Joe Turner, and others. All the musicians were black, but at least half the audience packing the arena was white.

Print ad for one of Alan Freed’s Christmas Shows running over 8 days at the Brooklyn Paramount, 1950s.
Print ad for one of Alan Freed’s Christmas Shows running over 8 days at the Brooklyn Paramount, 1950s.
By 1956, Freed was making about $150,000 a year (1956 dollars) and had become a nationally-recognized DJ. He would also soon appear in a series of rock ’n roll films (see sidebar below) that would add to his national following. Not only was his radio show being heard nationally via CBS, but also internationally. Freed in 1956 began recording a weekly half-hour segment of his show for use on the European radio station known as Radio Luxembourg. Freed’s segment was used on a show called “Jamboree” which aired on Saturday nights throughout British Isles and much of Europe at 9:30 p.m., helped by the statio’s powerful AM nighttime signal. Radio Luxembourg, in fact, was the only commercial radio station heard in the U. K..until 1964. Freed’s show reached places like Liverpool, England and no doubt, the ears of four young lads who liked Little Richard and Chuck Berry and would later become the Beatles.

Back home, meanwhile, Freed’s radio show was also having an influence on emerging U.S. artists. Fred Bronson, writing in Billboard’s Hottest Hot 100 Hits, offers the following account of how Freed’s show had an impact on the formation of one of the more successful “girl groups” of the late 1950s:

…Arlene Smith was the leader of the Chantels, and her inspiration for forming her girl group was a man – or rather, a teenage boy. “Alan Freed came on the radio and played Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers singing ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love,’” Smith told Charlotte Greig in [her book] Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? “It was a lovely high voice and a nice song. Then Freed announces that Frankie is just 13! Well I had to sit down. It was a big mystery, how to get into this radio stuff… It seemed so far removed, but I made a conscious decision to do the same.

October 1955 poster for an Alan Freed show at the Apollo Theater in New York City.
October 1955 poster for an Alan Freed show at the Apollo Theater in New York City.

When Frankie Lymon played a theater in the Bronx, Arlene took her group to meet Richard Barrett, Lymon’s manager. Backstage, the Chantels sang one of Arlene’s songs, “The Plea.” Barrett liked them enough to tell record company owner George Goldner that he wanted to sign them. Their first release was “He’s Gone” on Goldner’s End label; it peaked at No. 71. Their next single, “Maybe,” went to No. 15.

Within the space of five years or so, Alan Freed had helped move the rhythm and blues sound to a more prominent presence in pop and mainstream music. By early 1956, the music industry was advertising “rock ’n roll” records in the trade papers. A quote attributed to Freed from February 1956, has him explaining the new music: “Rock ’n roll is really swing with a modern name. It began on the levees and plantations, took in folk songs, and features blues and rhythm. It’s the rhythm that gets to the kids – they’re starved of music they can dance to, after all those years of crooners.” Freed had also become a champion of teenage kids and their musical interests, and a kind of middleman in the fight against those who wanted to ban the music seeing it as an influence on “juvenile delinquency,” a worrisome social problem and political issue at the time.

In 1957, while working for WINS, Freed continued hosting his big revues in the New York area and elsewhere. In Calgary, Ontario, for example, Freed’s “The Biggest Show Of Stars For 1957″ played at the Stampede Corral venue. Performers included Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the Everly Brothers, Paul Anka, Clyde McPhatter, Eddie Cochrane, Buddy Knox, Frankie Lymon, LaVern Baker, and The Drifters. Tickets were just $2.50. The show also played in the Canadian cities of Edmonton and Regina the next two nights.

By September 1957, Freed was a popular figure in the music industry, and during that month he hosted a big industry bash at his “Greycliffe” residence in Stamford, Connecticut. Among music label executives attending the gathering were: Bob Thiele of Coral Records; Sam Clark of ABC-Paramount; Morris Levy and Joe Kolsky of Roulette Records; and Jerry Wexler, Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic. Alan Freed by this time, wasn’t limiting his exposure to the music industry via radio and TV. He was also involved with bringing rock ’n roll music to film.

 

“Rock ’n Roll Films”
1956-1959: With Alan Freed

 

Poster for the 1956 film, “Rock Around The Clock,” billed as “The Screen’s First Great Rock ’n Roll Feature!”
Poster for the 1956 film, “Rock Around The Clock,” billed as “The Screen’s First Great Rock ’n Roll Feature!”
When Bill Haley’s song “Rock Around The Clock” was played during the closing credits of the 1955 film, Blackboard Jungle, kids in some of the theaters began dancing in the aisles. And with that notice, the song soon shot to the top of the charts. But that early combination of rock ’n roll music with a movie also caught the attention of Hollywood promoters. And DJ Alan Freed soon saw the potential as well. Hollywood first came to Freed, seeing him and his radio platform as a marketing vehicle. “…Deejays out of town were picking up on whatever Freed did,” explained Paul Sherman, who worked with Freed in New York. “What Freed played, they played, what Freed hyped, they hyped…” So Freed agreed to take a part in a film called Rock Around the Clock. In making the deal, Freed at first wanted cash up front, but was persuaded to consider taking only a little money up front and a percentage of the box office. That turned out to be a good deal for Freed later on, or as Paul Sherman remembers: “They could have bought Freed for $15,000, and instead [with the percentage arrangement] he made a fortune.”

Scene from “Rock Around The Clock” with Bill Haley at center in plaid shirt & Alan Freed in upper right corner.
Scene from “Rock Around The Clock” with Bill Haley at center in plaid shirt & Alan Freed in upper right corner.
Rock Around the Clock, which starred Billy Haley and His Comets, was a fictionalized rendition of how rock ’n roll was discovered. The plot in this film – as for most of the rock ’n roll films of this era – was pretty thin and secondary to the music. It was released in March 1956.

In addition to Bill Haley, a number of performers appear, including the Platters, Tony Martinez and band, and Freddie Bell and His Bellboys. The film also marked the screen debut of Alan Freed, who plays a disc jockey who books the Haley group in a venue that gives them the exposure and notice they need to break through.

Alan Freed’s name appears on 1956 film poster for “Don’t Knock The Rock” with Bill Haley.
Alan Freed’s name appears on 1956 film poster for “Don’t Knock The Rock” with Bill Haley.
Rock Around The Clock – which became one of the major box office successes of 1956 – was shot primarily to capitalize on the popularity of Bill Haley’s multi-million-selling hit song, “Rock Around the Clock.” The Haley hit is heard on at least three occasions in the film, along with 17 other songs. The film was produced by B-movie king Sam Katzman, who would later produce several Elvis Presley films in the 1960s. It was directed by Fred F. Sears and distributed by Columbia Pictures. That same year, Katztman, Sears and Columbia teamed up for what they hoped would be an equally successful sequel, Don’t Knock the Rock, which also featured Bill Haley and Alan Freed. Rushed into production, the film premiered in December 1956 hoping to capitalize on Rock Around the Clock.

1957 film poster for “Rock, Rock, Rock!,” billing Alan Freed & Tuesday Weld.
1957 film poster for “Rock, Rock, Rock!,” billing Alan Freed & Tuesday Weld.
The sequel’s storyline featured a rock star who returns to his hometown to rest up for the summer, but finds instead that rock ’n roll has been banned there by disapproving adults. Disc jockey Alan Freed and Bill Haley and his band, set about to show the adults that the music isn’t as bad as they think. The 85-minute film included 17 songs, several again from Haley, but also “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti-Frutti” from Little Richard. Don’t Knock the Rock failed to duplicate the earlier film’s success, though it did help popularize Little Richard.

The following year, two more rock ’n roll films were made involving Freed. Rock, Rock, Rock, was a black-and-white motion picture featuring performances from a number of early rock ’n roll stars, such as Chuck Berry, LaVern Baker, Teddy Randazzo, The Moonglows, The Flamingos, and The Teenagers with Frankie Lymon as lead singer. The film’s story line has teenager Dori Graham, played by then 13-year-old Tuesday Weld, who can’t convince her father to buy her a strapless gown for the prom and has to find the money herself in time for the big dance. The voice of Dori for her songs, was not Tuesday Weld’s, but that of singer Connie Francis. David Winters who would later appear in West Side Story, is also in the film. And Valerie Harper, later of Rhoda TV fame from a Mary Tyler Moore Show spin off, made her film debut in the prom scene of Rock, Rock, Rock.

1957 film poster for “Mister Rock and Roll” with Alan Freed & others.
1957 film poster for “Mister Rock and Roll” with Alan Freed & others.
Alan Freed makes an appearance as himself in the film, telling the audience that “rock and roll is a river of music that has absorbed many streams: rhythm and blues, jazz, rag time, cowboy songs, country songs, folk songs. All have contributed to the big beat.”

Another film in this same genre that also came out in 1957, Mister Rock and Roll, features Freed, professional boxer Rocky Graziano, and a number of musical artists, including: Teddy Randazzo, Lionel Hampton, Ferlin Husky, Frankie Lymon, Little Richard, Brook Benton, Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

 

“Go, Johnny Go!”

Go, Johnny Go! was a 1959 rock ’n roll film in which Alan Freed played a talent scout searching for a future rock ’n roll star. Co-starring in the film were Jimmy Clanton, Sandy Stewart, Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, Ritchie Valens, The Cadillacs, Jo-Ann Campbell, The Flamingos, Harvey Fuqua, and others.

1959 poster for “Go, Johnny Go!,” with Alan Freed & performing artists pictured.
1959 poster for “Go, Johnny Go!,” with Alan Freed & performing artists pictured.
The filming of Go, Johnny Go!, according to Chuck Berry, was completed in five days in early 1959 in Culver City, California at the Hal Roach Studio. The 75- minute film premiered in Los Angeles October 7, 1959. The film’s title was inspired by Jimmy Clanton’s popular single “Go, Jimmy Go” as well as the refrain from Chuck Berry’s hit song, “Johnny B. Goode,” which was listed as “Johnny Be Good” in the onscreen credits. The song is sung by Berry over the opening and closing credits.

In the film, as summarized by Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Freed, plays a kind of hipster father figure trying to give talented young people the musical exposure they need to become successful. Johnny Melody, played by Jimmy Clanton, is the troubled teen whose potential musical career Freed helps direct and save.

In this tale, Clanton/Melody rises from rags to riches via a demo disc played on Freed’s radio show. Freed plays himself in the film, as does Chuck Berry. Yet the plot, like most films in this genre, is thin, and puts a cleaned-up face on rock ‘n roll. Still, it does provide a look at the fledgling music industry of that time and its early hype.

Screen shot from "Go, Johnny Go!" shows Alan Freed on drums behind Chuck Berry on guitar.
Screen shot from "Go, Johnny Go!" shows Alan Freed on drums behind Chuck Berry on guitar.
And in its day, before music videos and the web, films like Go, Johnny Go! did provide music fans with a chance to see their favorite performers. (Although few of these films were ever issued in VHS or disc format. Only in recent years, since 2005 or so, have some of them been issued as DVDs). Ritchie Valens, at age 18, has a cameo singing appearance in the film. However, Valens would die in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper on February 3, 1959, several months before the film was released. Go, Johnny Go! also marked the final screen appearance of “rockabilly” performer Eddie Cochran, who died in an automobile crash on April 17, 1960.

Cover of LP sound track album for the film, “Go, Johnny Go!,” with 19 song from the film, issued in early 1959.
Cover of LP sound track album for the film, “Go, Johnny Go!,” with 19 song from the film, issued in early 1959.
Jimmy Clanton and Sandy Stewart made their motion picture debuts in Go, Johnny Go! Chuck Berry, Clanton and Stewart are the only rock ’n roll stars to act as well as sing in the film. The others only sing, most in a stage performance setting. Other acts include: Harvey [Fuqua] of the Moonglows singing “Don’t Be Afraid to Love,” Jo-Ann Campbell’s “Mama, Can I Go Out?,” and The Cadillacs performing “Please Mr. Johnson” and “Jay Walker.” Sandy Stewart, cast as Clanton’s girlfriend and aspiring vocalist, performs an orchestra version of “Playmate.”

TCM’s reviewer, meanwhile, noting the film’s “crude fictionalizing and dreadful miming,” did find some redeeming value. Go, Johnny Go! “offers the only moving evidence of Ritchie Valens,” he observes, and also includes “a rare fragment of Eddie Cochran.” The film also shows the Cadillacs doing two “Coasters-like” numbers, and has Chuck Berry “struggling to be a nice guy in a ‘major acting role’.” This film might have been better, he concludes, if it merely undertook to be a concert film or a documentary. But the “pretense of plot” made it pretty superficial.

Go, Johnny Go!, in any case, was the final film foray of Alan Freed in those years, as not long after, Freed became embroiled in the radio “payola” scandal that ended his career.

 

Controversy

In 1957, Alan Freed briefly had his own ABC-TV dance show.  He is shown here at center, with Jackie Wilson, far left, and Jimmy Clanton, left of Freed, and others.
In 1957, Alan Freed briefly had his own ABC-TV dance show. He is shown here at center, with Jackie Wilson, far left, and Jimmy Clanton, left of Freed, and others.
In July 1957 ABC-TV had given Alan Freed his own nationally-televised rock ’n roll dance show billed as “The Big Beat,” a Friday evening show in prime time that featured a mix of pop and R&B acts. This Alan Freed TV dance show pre-dated the national broadcast of American Bandstand with Dick Clark, the Philadelphia-based show that also went national that August with ABC. Freed’s show was running earlier that summer with the understanding that if there were enough viewers, it would continue into the 1957-58 TV season. Early reviews in June and July were positive, and ratings for the first episodes were strong. Freed and his show seemed to be on course for a long run. But unfortunately for Freed, his TV show came to an abrupt end after a televised episode broadcast one of the show’s black performers – Frankie Lymon, who had appeared with Freed in some of his films – dancing with a white girl. The biracial dance scene enraged ABC’s Southern affiliates and the network cancelled the show despite its growing popularity.

Headlines from a May 1958 Boston Globe story spell trouble for Alan Freed’s stage shows.
Headlines from a May 1958 Boston Globe story spell trouble for Alan Freed’s stage shows.
Other controversy followed Freed at one of his dance concerts. In early May 1958, some violence occurred outside the Boston Arena after a Freed stage show. Authorities there moved to indict Freed for inciting to riot. About a week later, Freed was in Hershey, Pennsylvania with another show when he learned he had to appear in court in Boston. The negative publicity about the Boston show, caused cancellations of other Freed shows then scheduled for Troy, New York; New Haven, Connecticut; and Newark, New Jersey. In New Haven on May 7, 1960, a common pleas court judge upheld a police-requested ban on Freed’s rock ’n roll show there despite a plea from Freed to allow the show to run. Some 100 teenagers showed up outside the packed courtroom in support of the show. The Boston charges against Freed, meanwhile, were eventually dropped, but the resulting cancellations and appeals took a toll on Freed for legal costs, as the fight had stretched out over some 17 months. Much of his show tour that year was cancelled. Back at his New York radio station, WINS, Freed quit his job there, according to a letter he wrote, after management failed to support him during the “riots” crisis. In addition, the Brooklyn Paramount – where Freed had staged a long run of successful shows – refused to host any further Alan Freed concerts. He then moved to WABC radio, also in New York, and he also hosted a locally-televised dance show — again called “The Big Beat” — on WABD, a DuMont station that later became WNEW-TV. But the biggest threat to Freed’s career was yet to come.

 

“Payola”

Nov 1959: Newspaper headline from story on payola hearings.
Nov 1959: Newspaper headline from story on payola hearings.
The late 1950s turned out to be treacherous time for some radio and television DJs and celebrities. TV quiz shows had become one of the most popular forms of entertainment – as contestants on these shows could win huge amounts of money for answering questions correctly. Unfortunately, it turned out that some of the shows were rigged. In 1959, a star contestant on the TV quiz show Twenty-One, named Charles Van Doren – who had become a national sensation for his assumed brilliance on the show – admitted later that he was given the correct answers beforehand.

Congress had a field day with the TV “quiz show” scandals, and then turned to the radio industry where a new kind raucous “rock ’n roll” music was shaking up the established order — and some thought, fueling juvenile delinquency as well. But the main focus of the Congressional interest in the music business was something called “pay for play,” where radio DJ’s were being paid cash or given other favors by music industry reps for repeated playing or “plugging” of songs to boost their appeal and sales. This practice was given the name “payola,” a contraction derived from the words “payment” and “Victrola.”

Alan Freed, center, going into closed-door hearings before a U.S. House of Representatives committee investigating “payola” in the American radio business, April 25, 1960.
Alan Freed, center, going into closed-door hearings before a U.S. House of Representatives committee investigating “payola” in the American radio business, April 25, 1960.
In early November 1959, the U.S. House of Representatives announced that a subcommittee led by Rep. Oren Harris would begin probing commercial bribery in the promotion of music, and with that, the “payola” scandal became national news. Both Freed and Dick Clark, who’s American Bandstand was a rising national TV dance show, were investigated, along with many others. In early 1960, hearing began, and some twenty-five witnesses would be called, including Clark and Freed, the presidents of several of the country’s larger radio stations, representatives from Billboard magazine, and others. Freed testified in a closed-door session before the Congressional committee in April 1960. But Freed had already made some public statements that did him little good as he stepped into the national spotlight: “What they call payola in the disc jockey business,” he is reported to have said at one point, “they call lobbying in Washington.” At the time of the hearings, however, payola wasn’t a crime in most states, and many in the industry seemed to regard it as an accepted practice. Before it was all over, the U.S. House Oversight Committee, in both closed-door and open sessions, heard from some 335 disc jockeys from around the country who admitted to having received over $263,000 in “consulting fees.” But that number was likely low, since one DJ, Phil Lind, from Chicago’s WAIT, indicated he once received $22,000 to play a single record.

NY Sunday News runs front page story about Alan Freed‘s firing by WABC radio over “payola,” September 1960.
NY Sunday News runs front page story about Alan Freed‘s firing by WABC radio over “payola,” September 1960.
Alan Freed and Dick Clark, meanwhile, were asked by ABC to sign affidavits that they had not accepted payola. Dick Clark did so, and was also required by ABC to divest some of his financial holdings in the music industry. Freed, however, claimed the money he received was for “consultation,” not payola. He refused to sign the ABC affidavit. ABC then fired him on September 21st, 1959. Freed would also lose his “Big Beat” TV show at WNEW and did his last program there on November 23rd, 1959.

Other DJs and promoters involved in payola suffered similar results, but many made it through the proceedings with only minor damage. Freed’s rising prominence on the national scene, however, made him a prime target. And in the wake of the payola probes, there was also some impact on the music itself, if only temporary.

“One of the results of the payola scandal was the change in radio,” explains John Jackson in his book, Big Beat Heat – Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock ’n Roll. “WINS radio in New York dropped rock ’n roll and played Frank Sinatra three days straight. Other stations dropped rock. Disc jockeys no longer could chose songs and play what they wanted. The station play list came in. And music became bland.”

“Boom-to-Bust”
Failing Fortunes

Over the years, as Alan Freed’s fame rose, his income also soared, sometimes in ways not generally known at the time. One way to promote new songs, was to add a popular DJ’s name to the record’s label as a “song publisher,” which would give the DJ a share of the royalties from that song and also incentive to play the song. Alan Freed, although not a song author, became a co-publisher of several hit songs. Freed received writing credit, for example, on Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” a million-seller; on the Moonglows’ “Sincerely,” a No. 20 hit in 1955; and several others. Recording labels like Chess Records, would put DJs’ names on the songs to get airplay and this amounted to form of a payola. Still, author John Jackson, who has written about Freed and the 1950s music industry, says Freed pushed songs like “Maybellene” because he believed in them, and that he also pushed other Chuck Berry records – and those of many other artists – just as hard, even though he had no co-writing or publishing involvement in any of them. Alan Freed also did well with his rock ‘n roll stage shows, taking a piece of the gate for each show. And he sold record albums, had a recording label, and a band of his own for a time – each of which also provided him with income. Still, as the rock ’n roll “riots” and payola scandal both ensnared Freed around the same time, his legal costs soared, his fame sank, and his income dried up, leaving him in dire financial straits in his final years. Even after his death, the IRS attached royalty payments from Freed’s BMI records for 12 years to satisfy its income tax judgement against him.

Alan Freed, meanwhile, tried to pick up the pieces of his shattered career and move on. In 1960, after leaving New York, he was hired by Los Angeles radio station KDAY – a station owned, ironically, by the same company that owned WINS. But shortly after starting at KDAY, Freed was called back to New York when a grand jury there handed down commercial bribery charges against him that dated back some ten years. In May 1960, he and seven other radio DJs were arrested and booked in Manhattan, charged with receiving a total of $116,850 in payola. The final verdict in Freed’s case wouldn’t come for another few years.

Back at KDAY, meanwhile, Freed had signed an agreement to steer clear of payola, and he jumped back into his DJ persona and musical passion, helping showcase new songs and artists, such as Kathy Young & the Innocents and their hit-to-be, “A Thousand Stars.” Freed was also planning to continue his live concerts in the L.A. area, this time eyeing the Hollywood Bowl as a choice venue for the live shows. KDAY, however, would not permit Freed to promote or stage his concerts, and with that, he quit the station and returned to New York. At the time, Chubby Checker’s hit song “The Twist” had caught on nationally spurring a new dance fad, and Freed hosted a live twist show for a time in New York. But as the twist rage faded, Freed left New York and began working at WQAM radio station in Miami, Florida, a job which lasted about two months.

By 1962, Freed was back in New York dealing with his commercial bribery trial. He was eventually charged with 26 counts of commercial bribery. In December 1962, he plead guilty to 2 counts, received a suspended sentence, and paid a fine of $300.00. Facing mounting legal bills for that fight, Freed then faced Federal charges of income tax evasion in 1964. By then, he was living in Palm Springs, California and drinking heavily. On New Year’s day 1965, he entered a Palm Springs hospital for gastrointestinal intestinal bleeding, resulting from cirrhosis of the liver. He died twenty days later of kidney failure. He was 43 years old.

Poster for the 1978 film about Alan Freed and early days of rock ’n roll, “American Hot Wax.”
Poster for the 1978 film about Alan Freed and early days of rock ’n roll, “American Hot Wax.”
American Hot Wax. Some years later, in 1978, Alan Freed was the subject of the biographical musical film, American Hot Wax, directed by Floyd Mutrux and starring Tim McIntire as Freed. The film includes appearances by Chuck Berry, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Frankie Ford and Jerry Lee Lewis, performing in recording studio scenes or concert sequences. Jay Leno and Fran Drescher also appear in the film.  A two-disc soundtrack for the film released by A&M Records features Brooklyn Paramount performances on one disc, and original recordings used in the film on the other.  The album hit No. 31 on the Billboard charts.

In 1986 Freed was among the original inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland – located there partly due to Freed’s influence on early rock ’n roll. In 1988, he was also posthumously inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. In 1991, a “star” was added in his name to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the same year John Jackson’s biography of Freed was published – Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll. In 1999, another attempted film on Freed, this one for TV, titled Mr. Rock N Roll: The Alan Freed Story, with Judd Gregg as Freed, received a lukewarm reception. Freed’s story is perhaps best told, however, by his surviving family, which due to his three marriages, and a number of children and grandchildren, is nicely assembled at the website, AlanFreed.com, which is highly recommended for those who want to see original news sources and other material. In addition to the other awards and inductions already mentioned, in February 2002, Freed was honored at the annual Grammy awards show with a Trustees Award, given to “individuals who, during their careers in music, have made significant contributions, other than performance, to the field of recording.” And last but not least, the mascot of the Cleveland Cavaliers professional basketball team is named “Moondog,” in honor of Freed.

For additional music related stories at this website see the Annals of Music category page, or visit the Home Page for other story choices. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please consider supporting this website. Thank you. - Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 28 February 2014
Last Update: 14 November 2014
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Moondog Alan Freed: 1951-1965,”
PopHistoryDig.com, February 28, 2014.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Alan Freed at WAKR radio in Akron, Ohio, mid-1940s.
Alan Freed at WAKR radio in Akron, Ohio, mid-1940s.
Hartford Times (CT) newspaper story announcing a forthcoming January 1958 Alan Freed stage show.
Hartford Times (CT) newspaper story announcing a forthcoming January 1958 Alan Freed stage show.
1958: Alan Freed, going through a stack of 45rpm records at WABC radio station in New York.
1958: Alan Freed, going through a stack of 45rpm records at WABC radio station in New York.
Poster ad for an Alan Freed “Big Beat” stage show of April 16, 1958 for the Municipal Theater of Tulsa, OK.
Poster ad for an Alan Freed “Big Beat” stage show of April 16, 1958 for the Municipal Theater of Tulsa, OK.
Alan Freed in the 1950s, likely hosting a live stage show in the New York city area, broadcast over WINS radio.
Alan Freed in the 1950s, likely hosting a live stage show in the New York city area, broadcast over WINS radio.
Pennsylvania historic marker honoring Alan Freed at location of his boyhood years in Windber, PA.
Pennsylvania historic marker honoring Alan Freed at location of his boyhood years in Windber, PA.
8 Sept 1957: From left, Alan Freed, Larry Williams, Ben Dacosta (DJ) & Buddy Holly at NY Paramount Theater.
8 Sept 1957: From left, Alan Freed, Larry Williams, Ben Dacosta (DJ) & Buddy Holly at NY Paramount Theater.
One of Alan Freed’s “Rock ’n Roll Dance Party” albums, (Vol.3) w/1950s acts, issued on WINS label, circa 1970.
One of Alan Freed’s “Rock ’n Roll Dance Party” albums, (Vol.3) w/1950s acts, issued on WINS label, circa 1970.

Judith Fisher Freed, “The Alan Freed Web- site,” AlanFreed.com.

John Morthhland, “The Rise of Top Forty A.M.,” in Anthony DeCurtis, James Henke, Holly George-Warren, and Jim Miller (eds.), The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, New York: Random House, 1992, pp.102-106.

David Halberstam, The Fifties, New York: Villard Books, 1993, pp. 466-467.

Ben Fong-Torres, “Biography,” Alan Freed .com.

John A. Jackson, Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll, Schirmer Books, 1991.

“Archives: Moondog (1950-1954),” Alan Freed.com.

Hank Bordowitz, Turning Points in Rock and Roll, New York: Citadel Press/Kensington Publishing, 2004, pp. 60-68.

“Alan Freed,” Wikipedia.org.

“Disc Jockey Alan Freed Files in Bankruptcy,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), May 9, 1951.

“Moondog Coronation Ball,” Entertainment: This Day in History, History.com, March 21, 1952.

“Warrants Sought in Blues Ball Brawl,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), March 22, 1952.

“Moon Doggers Get New Permit for Ball,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), May 12, 1952.

“Moon Dog Dance To Be Restricted; City of Fire Prevention Rules Threaten Frolic,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), December 12, 1952.

“Moondog Bark Worse Than Bite; Only 500 at Dance,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), December 15, 1952.

Marv Goldberg, “The Clovers – Part 1,” Marv Goldberg’s R&B Notebooks, 1999/2009.

Tom O’Connell, “Alan Freed Hosts Moondog Affair Tonight in Newark,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), May 1, 1954.

George E. Condon, On The Air, “‘King of the Moondogs’ Quits WJW to Sign with New York Station,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), August 1954.

“Dear Mr. Moondog: Alan Freed’s Coronation Ball Packs 11,000 Into Newark Armory,” Our World, August 1954.

“Record Crowd of 9,000 Fans Attend Public Hall Rhythm and Blues Show,” Cleveland Call & Post, August 15, 1954.

Josephine Jablons, “‘Moondog,’ Blues, Jazz Disk Ace, Gets NY Show,” New York Herald Tribune, August 1954.

Tom O’Connell, “Alan Freed, WJW Battle Over Moon Dog Rights,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), September 11, 1954.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Ball,” The Cash Box, January 29, 1955.

“Alan Freed’s ‘Rock-n-Roll’ Music Thrills New Yorkers: Former Salem Man Rises as Disc Jockey” (Salem, Ohio news source), January 1955, via AlanFreed.com.

“$155,000, One Week’s Gross – Paramount Theater, Brooklyn, New York,” Variety, Wednesday, September 14, 1955.

Robert Sullivan, “Rock ‘n’ Roll – ‘n’ Riot,” Sunday News (New York), September 18, 1955.

“Alan Freed Rocks ’n Rolls To The Tune of $178,000 Gross For One Week Stand At Brooklyn Paramount,” The Cash Box, 1955.

“Rock Around the Clock (film),” Wikipe-dia.org.

Alan Freed, “The Big Beat,” Guest Writer, Izzy Rowe’s Notebook, The Pittsburgh Courier, 1955.

“Music: Yeh-Heh-Heh-Hes, Baby,” Time, Monday, June 18, 1956.

Milt Freudenheim, “Alan Freed Cashes In On 2R’s,” The Cleveland Press, Saturday, April 13, 1957, p. 38.

Earl Wilson, “Alan Freed, Rock ’n Roll Exponent, Boosting Rock- a-Billy in Gotham,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), April, 13, 1957.

“Alan Freed Pacted For Six Week Tour,” The Cash Box (New York), November 16,1957.

Associated Press, “New Haven Shall Not Be Freed, Court Rules,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), May 8, 1958.

“Television: Rock ’n Riot,” Time, Monday, May 19, 1958.

“Alan Freed Quits Radio Station in Rock ’n Roll Row,” Long Island Press (Jamaica, NY), May 9, 1959.

Walter Ames, “L.A. Jockeys Deny Payola, But Admit Offers,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 24, 1959.

“Dick Clark Will Face Payola Probers; Alan Freed Will Also Testify,” Los Angeles Evening Mirror- News, November 24, 1959, p. 1.

“Show Business: Facing the Music,” Time, Monday, November 30, 1959.

“Disc Jockeys: Now Don’t Cry,” Time, Monday, December 7, 1959.

“Archives: Payola (1959-1962) – Press Coverage,” AlanFreed.com.

United Press International (UPI), “Interest-Free Loan to Alan Freed Told,” December 1, 1959.

“Alan Freed ~ On The Record,”GeoCities.

“Rock, Rock, Rock,” Wikipedia.org.

Jeff Stafford, “Go, Johnny, Go! (1959),” Articles, TCM.com.

“Go, Johnny, Go! (1959),” Notes, TCM.com.

“A Tribute to Alan Freed, Mr. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’,” RockaBillyHall.com.

Bill Millar, “Alan Freed: Mr Rock ’n Roll,” The History of Rock, 1982 @ TeachRock.org.

Wes Smith (Robert Weston), The Pied Pipers of Rock ‘N’ Roll: Radio Deejays of The 50s and 60s, Longstreet Press, 1989.

Jane Scott, “Triumphs and Tragedies of the Legendary Alan Freed,” The Plain Dealer
(Cleveland, Ohio), Friday, September 27, 1991.

Roger Brown, “King of the Moondoggers: Celebrating Alan Freed, The DJ Who Named Rock ‘n’ Roll,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 1995.

Robert Fontenot, “It’s Not Goodbye, It’s Just Good Night: The Payola Scandal of 1959,” About.com.

“Alan Freed R.I.P. Rock N Perpetuity,” Artie Wayne, March 10, 2007.

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B. Goode, Review, “Don’t Knock the Rock,” Gonna Put Me in The Movies (blog), August 25, 2010.

“Leo Mintz, A Cleveland Rock ‘n Roll Founding Father, Celebrated at Rock Hall,” Cleveland Magazine, Thursday, September 2, 2010.

Lance Freed, Special to The Plain Dealer, “2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions: Moondog Memories from Alan Freed’s Son, Lance Freed – Cleveland, 1952,” Cleveland.com, March 31, 2012.

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Lydia Hutchinson, “Alan Freed and the Radio Payola Scandal,” Performing Songwriter .com, November 20, 2013.


An Ohio Historical marker located just outside the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland,  commemorates Alan Freed’s contributions to rock ’n roll and also notes that he was a “charter inductee” at the Hall (1986).
An Ohio Historical marker located just outside the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, commemorates Alan Freed’s contributions to rock ’n roll and also notes that he was a “charter inductee” at the Hall (1986).




“Come Softly to Me”
1959-1963

1959: The Fleetwoods with Dick Clark, receiving their gold records for “Come Softly to Me” and “Mr. Blue.”
1959: The Fleetwoods with Dick Clark, receiving their gold records for “Come Softly to Me” and “Mr. Blue.”
     In April of 1959, a singing group from the Pacific Northwest named the Fleetwoods rose briefly to the top of the pop music scene with a No. 1 hit titled, “Come Softly To Me.”  The Fleetwoods were high school kids from Olympia, Wash. – Gretchen Christopher, Barbara Ellis, and Gary Troxel.  For a time in 1959-1963, the songs of the Fleetwoods – and in particular, “Come Softly to Me” and another hit, “Mr. Blue” – shot to the top of the music charts and were very popular.  Their sound was sweet and melodic with good harmonies, engaging arrangement, and tender lyrics; a style that flourished briefly amid the more raucous rock ’n roll of Jerry Lee Lewis and other hard rockers of that day.  But several years later, the pop music landscape would be transformed with the arrival of the Beatles and other British groups – the “British invasion,” as it was sometimes called – which would take popular music in a new direction.  But for a time, the Fleetwoods’ sound became very popular.

An original Dolphin record label 45 rpm for the Fleetwoods 1959 No. 1 hit, "Come Softly to Me."
An original Dolphin record label 45 rpm for the Fleetwoods 1959 No. 1 hit, "Come Softly to Me."
     As high schoolers in Olympia, Washington,  Gretchen Christopher, Barbara Ellis, and Gary Troxel each attended Olympia High School.  One of the songs they had written and performed at school functions – then named “Come Softly” – had struck a cord with their classmates who wanted copies.  The group was then known as “Two Girls and Guy.”  Within six months or so they managed to make a recording of their song, and soon met Bob Reisdorff, owner of Dolphin Records.  Reisdorff suggested two changes: adopt a new group name, which they did, choosing “The Fleetwoods,” based on a local telephone exchange, and rename their song to “Come Softly to Me,” which they also did. 

     The year 1959 had something of an era-ending  aura about it.  Dwight Eisenhower was still president of the United States, completing his second term.  U.S. Senators Jack Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey were then maneuvering to be considered for the Democratic Party’s 1960 Presidential nomination, as incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon was the likely Republican candidate.  In film that year, Ben Hur, North By Northwest, and Some Like It Hot were among the top box office attractions.  Exodus, Dr. Zhivago and The Ugly American  were among the best-selling books.

Music Player
“Come Softly to Me” – 1959
The Fleetwoods

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      Early 1959 had seen pop music hits such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by the Platters and “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price.  Musically, this was still the era of the crooners, but a few teen idols such as Frankie Avalon had hits, too.  Avalon had the No. 1 “Venus” in March 1959.  The Fleetwoods, meanwhile, released their song, “Come Softly to Me,” in the spring of 1959.  It rose steadily on the Billboard music chart, reaching No. 1 on April 13, 1959, staying there for four weeks through May 10, 1959.  The success of this song for the Fleetwoods, and a few others to follow, marked one of the first big national success stories for a Pacific Northwest pop music group.


Bob Reisdorff and Bonnie Guitar of Dolphin Records with The Fleetwoods in the background, “Cash Box” magazine, March 5, 1960.
Bob Reisdorff and Bonnie Guitar of Dolphin Records with The Fleetwoods in the background, “Cash Box” magazine, March 5, 1960.
Back Story

     The rise of the Fleetwoods’ first song came about, in part, after a former singer named Bonnie Guitar – a Northwest pop star who in 1957 had a Top Ten hit called “Dark Moon” – joined Dolphin records as a vice president.  During her Hollywood years before returning to Seattle she had learned the ins and outs of record production, and after hearing “Come Softly” she agreed it had “a hit sound.”  The song was recorded on February 18th, 1959 at the Seattle studio of Joe Boles Custom Recorders, with Bonnie Guitar helping in production.  She trimmed the song’s length to a shorter pop form and contributed her own background guitar work to the song.  A sparse musical arrangement was also used to highlight the innocent sound and harmonies.

     The newly-minted Dolphin single (Dolphin label later became Dolton) was then taken around to Seattle’s King radio stations and others, including KOL, KJR, KUTI, and KAYO.  “Come Softly to Me” soon built to a statewide following becoming a hit, and then proceeded to move down the West Coast.  As “Come Softly To Me” rose on U. S. national pop and R& B charts, and also abroad in the U.K., it became the first million-seller ever in the Pacific Northwest. Bob Reisdorff of the Dolphin/Dolton label then cut a distribution deal with a Los Angeles-based label, Liberty Records.  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote that the song had become a surprise-hit, shipping over 100,000 copies.  It was also No. 1 in the Miami and Cleveland markets.  The Fleetwoods, meanwhile, quit their day jobs and college courses in order to begin their first national tour.  Suddenly, they found themselves making TV appearances on American Bandstand, The Dick Clark Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show.  They made their first national appearance on March 14, 1959, on The Dick Clark Show.  They appeared on the Sunday night Ed Sullivan Show on April 5, 1959.  “Come Softly To Me” now started to sell in even larger quantities.  It moved swiftly up the charts, into the Top Twenty in two weeks and to No. 1 by mid-April.  As “Come Softly To Me” rose on U. S. national pop and R& B charts, and also abroad in the U.K., it became the first million-seller ever in the Pacific Northwest.


An album of Fleetwood songs titled “Mr. Blue” was also released by Dolton Records.
An album of Fleetwood songs titled “Mr. Blue” was also released by Dolton Records.
“Mr. Blue”

     The Fleetwoods weren’t able to immediately produce a follow-up single as successful as “Come Softly,” but they soon found another hit in their third single, “Mr. Blue.”  Released in August 1959, this song, written by DeWayne Blackwell, also became a million seller.  “Mr. Blue” became a No. 1 pop hit and No. 5 R&B hit in the U.S., staying near the top of the charts through the end of 1959.  “Mr. Blue’s” ascendancy to No. 1 helped mark the Fleetwoods with a singular distinction at the time, becoming the first vocal group to have multiple No.1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 in single year.  Other individual singers and groups in the 1950s had accomplished that prior to the onset of the Billborad Hot 100, among them Eddie Fischer and Pat Boone.  The Everly Brothers also had two No. 1 hits in 1958, straddling the Billboard era.  Elvis Presley, of course, also pre-Billboard Hot 100, had multiple No. 1 hits in a single year – five in 1956, four in 1957, and two in 1958.  By 1962, the Four Seasons would also notch two No. 1 hits – “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”  And in 1964, the Beatles would set a new record, posting six No. 1 hits in a single year.

Music Player
“Mr. Blue” – 1959
The Fleetwoods

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     Back in 1959, however, at the height of the Fleetwoods’ popularity, Gary Troxell was drafted into the Navy.  He was replaced for a time, by Vic Dana, who would later have a string of his own hit singles.  In the spring of 1961, The Fleetwoods had another Top Ten hit with “Tragedy.”  Troxel, during his Navy hitch, was stationed alternately at San Diego and Alameda near Oakland, and had been meeting the other Fleetwoods in Hollywood for recording sessions during shore leaves.  This arrangement lasted until 1962, as the quality of their recording material faltered, unable to spend the time needed to assure top hits.  The group would disband in 1963 after releasing their final single, a cover of Jesse Belvin’s “Goodnight My Love.”  The British Invasion of the mid-1960s ended the public’s taste for sweet, melodic music.  An album attempt by the Fleetwoods in 1973 was unsuccessful. 

A Capitol Records CD featuring ‘the very best of’ the Fleetwoods, issued in 1993, decades after their big 1959 hit, ‘Come Softly To Me.’
A Capitol Records CD featuring ‘the very best of’ the Fleetwoods, issued in 1993, decades after their big 1959 hit, ‘Come Softly To Me.’
     By the late 1970s, Gary Troxel was working in a plywood plant, Ellis was managing a trailer park in Canada, and Christopher was a housewife and modern dance teacher.  Ellis later retired from performing.  In the 1980s, Troxel formed a new Fleetwoods group and Christopher also resumed her music career as “Gretchen Christopher of the Fleetwoods.”

     Over the next three decades, the Fleetwoods reunited occasionally to perform at concerts and in oldies revues.  In 1990, a reassembled Fleetwoods group featuring Christopher and Troxell, plus new member Cheryl Huggins, played a round of American cities on an oldies tour after Rhino Records released their compact disc collection, The Best of the Fleetwoods.

     The Fleetwoods’ two big hits have had periodic revivals through their use in various film soundtracks.  “Come Softly To Me” was used in Stand by Me (1986), Clean and Sober (1988), and Crossing Delancey (1988).  “Mr. Blue” was used in American Graffiti (1973), Return to Macon County (1975), American Hot Wax (1978, in which The Fleetwoods are portrayed as “Timmy & The Tulips”), and Diner (1982).


Made Their Mark

Studio photo of the Fleetwoods from the 1950s.
Studio photo of the Fleetwoods from the 1950s.
     In the pantheon of pop music, the three high school kids from Olympia, Washington had their moment in the sun, and they left their mark on popular music.  “The Fleetwoods had a sound and it was unique,” explains radio dis jockey, Brian Lee, also a historian of that period.  “There were certainly other groups before them that had a soft and sweet sound: The Paris Sisters, Teddy Bears, and several un-credited vocal groups… But it wasn’t the same.  The Fleetwoods had a new sound. …Their own sound.  And, it took the country by storm…”

     For more stories on the history of pop music at this website, see the “annals of music” category page, or go to the Archive for a broader selection of stories.
Thanks for visiting. - Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 6 June 2011
Last Update: 6 June 2011
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Come Softly to Me, 1959-1963,”
PopHistoryDig.com, June 6, 2011.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Cover of Fleetwoods’ “Runaround” EP issued under the Dolton record label.
Cover of Fleetwoods’ “Runaround” EP issued under the Dolton record label.
45 rpm of the Fleetwoods' "Come Softly to Me" on the Liberty record label.
45 rpm of the Fleetwoods' "Come Softly to Me" on the Liberty record label.

Charles Russell, “Teenagers Set To Start 3-Week Tour,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 1959.

Peter Blecha,”Dolton: The Northwest’s First Rock ‘n’ Roll Record Company,”March 14, 2006, at: HistoryLinks.org, Essay #7636, Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation.

“The Fleetwoods,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 337-338.

“Come Softly to Me,” Wikipedia.org.

“Fleetwoods Record Label Shots,” Color Radio.com, Disc jockey Brian Lee’s “Color Radio” is heard every Saturday evening from 4-6 PM Pacific coast time on community radio KVMR-FM. Nevada City, CA.

Howard A. DeWitt, “Teen Angst and Soft Rock ‘n Roll,” Rock & Blues News, 1999 (good, detailed article on The Fleetwoods’ history).

Steven Thomas Erlewine, “The Fleetwoods,” All Music Guide.

“The Fleetwoods,” HistoryofRock.com.

TheFleetwoods.com, Website (G. Christopher).

The Fleetwoods.us, Website.

“List of Number-One Singles of 1959 (U.S.),” Wikipedia.org.

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