Tag Archives: rock ‘n roll history

“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 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, if not inventing.

“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 who were less focused on radio programming and playlists. 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.

That early combination of rock ’n roll music with a movie also caught the attention of Hollywood promoters — and DJ Alan Freed wasn’t far behind. But 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, center, plaid shirt & Alan Freed, upper right. Click for Haley story.
Scene from “Rock Around The Clock” with Bill Haley, center, plaid shirt & Alan Freed, upper right. Click for Haley story.
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.

See also at this website, for example, “Bandstand Performers, 1963″ a story profiling and listing some of the musical guests who appeared on Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand’ TV dance show that year from Philadelphia, or, “Elvis Riles Florida, 1955-56,” a story profiling Elvis Presley in Jacksonville, Florida where he faced an arrest warrant if he “gyrated” too suggestively on stage. For additional stories on the history of popular music, artist profiles, and selected song analysis, see the “Annals of Music” category page. Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 28 February 2014
Last Update: 22 March 2016
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.

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(Cleveland, Ohio), Friday, September 27, 1991.

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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).




“American Bandstand”
1956-2007

Dick Clark at his DJ post in the 1950s.  "I don't make culture," he reportedly said at one point, "I sell it."
Dick Clark at his DJ post in the 1950s. "I don't make culture," he reportedly said at one point, "I sell it."
      On July 7, 1956, a young radio disc jockey named Dick Clark made his first appearance hosting an afternoon TV show called Bandstand.  Broad- cast from Philadelphia, the show had originally begun in 1952.  Bandstand played the new rock ‘n roll music and featured kids from local high schools dancing to the music.  When it first began, the dancing was almost accidental, but local TV viewers called in saying they liked watching “those young people dancing.”  As the show’s new host, Clark made the most of that novelty, and took Bandstand to the national level.

The son of a radio-station owner in Utica, N.Y., Dick Clark had been a radio disc jockey as a student at Syracuse University.  By 1951, when he landed a job at ABC’s WFIL station in Philadelphia, he worked in radio, regarded as too youthful looking to be a credible TV newscaster. Clark’s big break came when the station decided to replace former Bandstand host Bob Horn.  A youngish-looking 26 when he took over, Clark quickly made the show his own. He featured musical guests lip-synching their songs and used his teenage audience to “rate” new records.  Local audiences loved the show.

       American Bandstand, late -1950s-early-1960s.
American Bandstand, late -1950s-early-1960s.
      Bandstand at first was a regional show from Philadelphia. But it soon became the highest rated local daytime TV show in the nation, and that got the attention of network executives in New York. By August 1957, now called American Bandstand, ABC began broadcasting the show nationwide at 3 p.m. for an hour-and-a-half. Within six months of going national, American Bandstand was picked up by 101 stations. Twenty million viewers were now tuning in, half of whom were adult. The show was also receiving 20,000 to 45,000 fan letters a week. Teenagers came to Philadelphia from wide and far for a chance to dance on the show. Bandstand also became known as a place where new talent could be seen; a place where aspiring artists could get their start. On the November 22, 1957 show, for example, two young singers using the name “Tom & Jerry” appeared. The duo would later become known as Simon & Garfunkel. New dances were often introduced on the show. It was on Bandstand that Chubby Checker brought “the Twist” to the nation in the summer of 1960. Bandstand’s “regular” dance couples approached daytime soap-opera fame, and in the 1950s and 1960s they were written about regularly in teen magazines, as was Clark and the show.
Clark interviewing singer Bobby Rydell, 1958.
Clark interviewing singer Bobby Rydell, 1958.
It didn’t hurt, of course, that Bandstand‘s WFIL-TV station was owned by the Walter Annenberg empire, which also included, among other media outlets, TV Guide and Seventeen magazine for girls. Seventeen had a regular column on Bandstand, “written” by one of the show’s regulars. And TV Guide put Clark’s telegenic face on its cover several times during the 1950s (see sample covers below).

 

Brokering Rock ‘n Roll

     American Bandstand also played another critical role —  especially for mainstream culture and the music business. It helped make America more receptive to rock ‘n roll, a music genre not then accepted as it is today.  “From the time it hit the national airwaves in 1957,” observes rock historian Hank Bordowitz, “Bandstand changed the perception and dissemination of popular music.”   The show helped make rock ‘n roll more acceptable to many adults by bringing the music and the dancing kids into their homes every afternoon, with Clark providing the responsible, clean-cut adult supervision.  Clark’s income was soon approaching $500,000 a year.

“We built a horizontal and vertical music situation… We published the songs…, managed the acts, pressed the records, distributed the records, promoted the records… .” – Dick Clark

     American Banstand also helped to open the doors to a new kind of music business.  And along the way, Dick Clark became a wealthy man, buying into music publishing companies, record labels, and promoting “Philly sound” recording artiststs on those labels — stars such as Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, and Fabian.  Clark also became involved in managing the artists, formed a radio offshoot, and conducted live productions.  He also made personal appearances as a DJ hosting live dance events called  “sock hops”  —  as many as 14 a week.  And he also packaged concert tours, taking the music on the road.  He soon had a nice little musical empire in the making.  “We built a horizontal and vertical music situation,” explained Clark of his various businesses. “. . . We published the songs domestically and abroad, managed the acts, pressed the records, distributed the records, promoted the records. . . .”

 

Dick Clark Covers
Annenberg-Owned TV Guide

May 24, 1958
May 24, 1958
October 4, 1958
October 4, 1958
August 29, 1959
August 29, 1959
September 10, 1960
September 10, 1960

 

“Payola” & Congress

August 1958 cover of 'Teen' magazine with Clark & headline: 'Why America Loves Dick Clark's American Bandstand.'
August 1958 cover of 'Teen' magazine with Clark & headline: 'Why America Loves Dick Clark's American Bandstand.'
     In 1960, however, the “payola” scandal broke, a controversy involving prominent radio disc jockeys then implicated in playing records for payment to make them popular. Clark was investigated by Congress during the scandal, along with other prominent DJs like Alan Freed. But Clark, in his appearence before a Congresional committee, was cool and thorough in his testimony, and denied taking “payola.” He emerged from the hearings without lasting harm. However, it was later revealed that Clark had been “given” royalty rights to more than 140 songs.  ABC did require him to divest his outside ventures, more than 30 by one count, including a number of record labels. Still, Clark and American Bandstand held their popularity.

     American Bandstand was broadcast every weekday through the summer of 1963. But in the fall of that year, it became a once-a-week show run on Saturday afternoons. By 1965, Dick Clark, then 35 years old, was making about $1 million a year. By February 1964, American Bandstand moved to Los Angeles, in part to facilitate Clark’s expansion into other TV ventures and film production. It was also easier in L.A. to tap into the recording industry.  By 1965, Dick Clark, then 35, was making about $1 million a year. Musically, the sound on Bandstand changed with the times, featuring the California surf sound in the 1960s, and a decade later, the ‘70s disco beat.  Through it all, dating from the 1950s when Clark took over, Bandstand was one of the few places on television where ethnically-mixed programming could be seen. In fact, Clark later claimed that he had integrated the show in the 1950s when he became host – a claim later challenged by at least two authors.


1962: Dick Clark interviewing recording artist, Mary Wells, a guest on Bandstand.
1962: Dick Clark interviewing recording artist, Mary Wells, a guest on Bandstand.


Bandstand & Race

Dick Clark did feature black recording artists as guests on American Bandstand – and he did so from his earliest days as host. When Bandstand first went national with ABC in August 1957, Lee Andrews and the Hearts appeared among the first guests performing their song, “Long Lonely Nights.” In that year as well, other black artists also appeared, including Jackie Wilson, Johnny Mathis, Chuck Berry, Mickey & Sylvia, and others. African American artists would continue to appear on the show in fairly regular order over the years.

However, integration of the studio audience at American Bandstand – the audience of dancers seen on TV screens across the country – was quite another matter.

The integration of Bandstand’s studio audience appears to have been very selective and highly controlled at best, with outright discrimination practiced by Bandstand’s gatekeepers. And Dick Clark appears to have sanctioned the practice, or at least allowed it to continue.

Research by John A. Jackson in his 1997 book, American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of A Rock `n Roll Empire, and more recently by Matthew F. Delmont, in his 2012 book, The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia, go into the specifics of why only a very few African Americans ever made it onto the American Bandstand show, especially in the 1957-1964 period. According to Jackson, writing in his book: “[B]y the time American Bandstand appeared in August 1957, featuring the largely black-derived idiom of rock `n roll, the show’s studio audience remained segregated to the extent that viewers around the country did not have an inkling that Philadelphia contained one of the largest black populations in America.”

John A. Jackson’s 1997 book.
John A. Jackson’s 1997 book.
Matt Delmont’s 2012 book.
Matt Delmont’s 2012 book.

According to Matthew Delmont, interviewed on the Democracy Now TV program, Dick Clark’s Bandstand had become segregated before Clark took over the show, and before it became nationally televised, when former host, Bob Horn started the show in 1952.

“[T]hey implemented racially discriminatory policies in 1954 and 1955, because they were concerned about fights that were happening outside of the studio,” explained Delmont.

“…Bandstand didn’t want to bring any of that sort of potential teenage violence into the studio and upset advertisers or viewers.”

“So, when Dick Clark took over the program in ’56, it was already segregated. And it remained a segregated program from ’57 until it left for Hollywood in 1964.”

Delmont believes Clark and Bandstand missed an opportunity to have played more of a leadership role advancing civil rights given the show’s national prominence and its tremendous sway over youth culture. See Delmont’s website for details on his book and its findings.

There were a variety of exclusionary methods used by Bandstand that contributed to the practice of keeping black teens off the show. Philadelphia, like other northern cities at the time, was a racially mixed city. And the neighborhood where American Bandstand’s WFIL TV studio was located was also mixed racially. However, the on-screen studio audience of American Bandstand did not reflect that composition. It’s true that for some blacks, the music on Bandstand – especially in the early and mid-1950s – wasn’t their favorite kind of music to begin with, and so there was some self exclusion. But for other blacks who wanted to be on the program, admission was nearly impossible.

1957: Teenagers wait in line for a chance to be admitted to the WFIL studios where ‘American Bandstand’ TV show was broadcast. Researchers have found that discriminatory practices were used to keep African American teens off the show.
1957: Teenagers wait in line for a chance to be admitted to the WFIL studios where ‘American Bandstand’ TV show was broadcast. Researchers have found that discriminatory practices were used to keep African American teens off the show.

Those who stood on line outside the studio hoping for admission, could be eliminated for “dress code” reasons. Tickets to get on the show were handed out on the basis of advance written requests made by the teenagers. However, the station screened those requests, some by area of the city, and others on the basis of the last names submitted on the requests – with Polish, Itallian, and Irish sounding last names receiving preference. Later, “Bandstand memberships” were used, and when maxed out, no new folks could get on the show. Blacks did get on the show, but in very sparse numbers. News accounts about the difficulty of blacks getting on the show were reported, but mostly without effect.

Sept 1956: Philadelphia Tribune headline about the lack of African American teens on the ‘Bandstand’ TV show.
Sept 1956: Philadelphia Tribune headline about the lack of African American teens on the ‘Bandstand’ TV show.
There was also another Philadelphia area teenage dance show, sometimes called, “the Black Bandstand” – The Mitch Thomas Show (also named Delaware Bandstand ) – which was broadcast from Wilmington, Delaware. Thomas was a black DJ from Philadelphia, and all of the teens on that show were black. This show didn’t have the national exposure that Dick Clark’s American Bandstand had, yet it influenced Clark’s show with its dances, sometimes copied by Bandstand dancers after they saw them on The Mitch Thomas Show. After 1971, Dick Clark had a new black TV dance show rival, also televised nationally – Soul Train – hosted by black DJ, Don Cornelius. By that time, Clark’s American Bandstand had more black dancers on the show. In other arenas of American Bandstand-related operations, however, Clark appears to have stood up for fair African American treatment.


1959: "Caravan of Stars."
1959: "Caravan of Stars."

Caravan of Stars

In 1959, initially with the help of a promoter named Irvin Feld, Dick Clark began what would be called the “Caravan of Stars” show – an annual rock ‘n roll road show featuring some of the biggest names in the business, taken to various parts of the country for a series of shows. The Caravan road shows ran for several years, through the early 1960s.

Like Bandstand, the Caravan shows had black and white performers, but ran into overt segregation issues when the show went south. The Caravan performers traveled together and spent many hours in a cramped and uncomfortable bus.

However, there are reports that when Clark took these tours into towns where segregation was still practiced – he insisted on equal treatment of his performers at those venues, otherwise he would threaten to pull the show.

Bruce Morrow, known as DJ “Cousin Brucie” in the 1960s, noted in a later interview at Clark’s death in 2012, that when Clark was confronted with such practice he would say: “ ‘If we don’t go all together, we go out. We will pull the show out’,” explained Morrow. “And he meant it. He put people back on the bus….” A similar account was reported in John Jackson’s book:

…On more than one occasion Clark’s entourage slept on the grass under the stars next to the parked bus after being refused lodging at a hotel. Bookers in many Southern cities were loath to have black acts and white acts perform on the same stage, and when showtime approached , “Dick would look them in the eye and say ‘Listen, we either all go on, or we don’t go on’,” recalled [singer, Lou] Christie.

During the 1964 “Caravan of Stars,” tour member Bertha Barbee-McNeal of The Velvelettes recalled that Clark pulled the whole entourage from a restaurant in the south where they had stopped for food, as Clark was told by the restaurant’s owner they did not serve Negroes. “Then you can’t serve any of us,” Clark told the owner, according to Barbee-McNeal, signaling the group to leave the restaurant and get back on the bus. Of the Caravan shows held in some parts of the south, John Jackson would note in his book: “Although the performers on Clark’s ‘Caravans’ did not conduct sit-ins or demonstrations, simply by having whites and blacks sit together at concerts, they helped pioneer integration in the south.” Jackson also noted that in order to keep racial confrontations to a minimum with his Caravans, “Clark did not tour in parts of the Deep South.”

Dick Clark shown in American Bandstand's 'rate-a-record' segment sometime in the 1970s.
Dick Clark shown in American Bandstand's 'rate-a-record' segment sometime in the 1970s.

Changing Scene

     In the 1970s, with the rise of disco, Bandstand began to become something of an artifact rather than a trend-setter, although still netting its share of popular guests.  By the mid-1980s, with the rise of MTV and other music video channels, American Bandstand’s format became dated. In September 1987 Bandstand moved to syndication, and in April 1989 it ran briefly on cable’s USA Network with a new host and Clark as executive producer. The show ended for good on October 7, 1989.  Yet over its three decades, American Bandstand played a key role in the music business.  Not only did it become the place where major record labels sought to showcase their songs and artists, it also generated millions in record sales each year, plus millions in advertising revenue for ABC.  As for recording artists — with the notable exceptions of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones — most of the major rock ‘n roll acts from the 1950s through mid-1980s appeared on the show.

     Sonny and Cher made their first TV appearance on American Bandstand, June 12, 1965.  The Jackson 5 made their TV debut on the show February 21, 1970, as did Aerosmith in December 1973.  In January, 1980, Prince made his TV debut on BandstandBy the mid-1980s, with the rise of MTV and other music channels, American Bandstand’s style and for-mat became dated.Among others appearing during the show’s 33-year run were: Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, James Brown, the Beach Boys, the Doors, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Temptations, the Carpenters, Van Morrison, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Neil Diamond, Ike & Tina Turner, Pink Floyd, Creedance Clearwater Revival, George Michael, Rod Stewart, Bon Jovi, Gloria Estefan, Michael Jackson, and last but not least, Madonna, who appeared January 14, 1984 singing the tune “Holiday.”  But even after the show’s on-air demise, American Bandstand did not die. In early 1996, MTV’s sister network, VH-1 began broadcasting old Bandstand episodes, mostly from the 1975-1985 period. Within three months, these reruns — called the Best of American Bandstand, with taped introductions by Dick Clark himself  — became one of VH1’s top-rated programs.

 

Dick Clark’s Empire

     In addition to American Bandstand, Clark amassed a portfolio of other TV and movie productions, among them, numerous TV specials and awards shows. In the late 1960s he did various television series, talent shows, and also hosted TV game shows, culminating in the late 1970s with The $25,000 Pyramid. In the 1980s and 1990s, his Dick Clark Productions, Inc. turned out more than a dozen made-for-television movies, at least 60 TV specials, several Hollywood films, and radio shows. By 1986, Clark had made the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans. By 1986, Clark had made the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans. In recent years he continued his TV productions, landing a prime time TV series, American Dreams. That show was set in 1950s-1960s Philadelphia and used American Bandstand footage in its storyline. It ran for three seasons on NBC during 2002-2005. Clark also parlayed the American Bandstand name into other businesses, using it as a brand and capitalizing on its nostalgia cache. He opened a chain of music-themed restaurants using the name Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Grill. Several of these have opened at airports — Indianapolis, Indiana; Newark, New Jersey; Phoenix, Arizona; and Salt Lake City, Utah. Two others are located in Overland Park, Kansas and Cranbury, New Jersey.

One of Dick Clark's 'American Bandstand' Grills. Similar themed venues have also opened in airports.
One of Dick Clark's 'American Bandstand' Grills. Similar themed venues have also opened in airports.
      In June 2006, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater — which uses some now-senior performers from the 1960s era in its acts — was opened in Branson, Missouri. An American Bandstand Grill opened there as well. In 2007, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Music Complex, with restaurant, opened in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

     Throughout his career, Clark kept one foot in the world of radio, and would later focus some of his business interests there, also using it as a platform for rock ‘n roll nostalgia.  In 1981, he created The Dick Clark National Music Survey for the Mutual Broadcasting System, which counted down the Top 30 contemporary hits of the week.

Sample recording from one of Dick Clark's radio programs, May 1985.
Sample recording from one of Dick Clark's radio programs, May 1985.
Beginning in 1982, Clark also hosted a weekly weekend radio program distributed by his own syndicator, United Stations Radio Networks. That program focused on oldies, called Dick Clark’s Rock, Roll, and Remember — also the name of a 1976 autobiographical book he wrote with another author. This radio program would also sell recordings of its shows, some of which involved Clark interviews with, and/or features on, current and former music stars. By 1986, he left Mutual Broadcasting to host another show, Countdown America. In the 1990s, Clark hosted U.S. Music Survey, which he continued hosting up until 2004, when he suffered a stroke. Although he recovered partially from his stroke, his public appearances thereafter were limited. On April 18th, 2012, following a medical procedure, Clark died of a heart attack at the age of 82.

 

Bandstand Acquired

     In June 2007, Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins professional football team and Six Flags amusement parks, and also a partner with Tom Cruise in a film venture, announced the purchase of Dick Clark Productions for $175 million. In the deal, Snyder became the owner of American Bandstand‘s entire library of televised dance shows stretching over 30-plus years. In addition, Snyder is also acquiring other Dick Clark assets, including the New Year’s Rockin’ Eve broadcast from Times Square, the Golden Globe Awards show, the American Music Awards, the Academy of Country Music Awards, and the Family Television Awards. In 2007, Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, acquired Dick Clark Productions for $175 million including Band- stand‘s 30-year library of TV shows. The Dick Clark properties also include the Bloopers television shows and Fox’s popular reality TV show, So You Think You Can Dance. Snyder, who will take over as chairman of Dick Clark Productions, said in a press release, “This was a rare opportunity to acquire a powerhouse portfolio and grow it in new directions.” It was not entirely clear at the time of the deal’s announcement, exactly what Snyder would do with the American Bandstand material, other than mention of possibly using it visually on television screens throughout Six Flags amusement parks while patrons were standing on line. On September 4, 2012, Daniel Snyder’s Red Zone Capital Management reached an agreement to sell Dick Clark Productions to a group partnership headed by Guggenheim Partners, Mandalay Entertainment, and Mosaic Media Investment Partners for approximately $350 million. On December 17, 2015, in response to losses across Guggenheim Partners, the company announced that it would spin out its media properties, including Dick Clark Productions, to a group led by its former president Todd Boehly. In all of these transactions, it’s not exactly clear where the American Bandstand materials are, or what they are being used for.

Still, the legacy of American Bandstand is alive and well, and can be found in various venues, including the internet, YouTube, and various fan websites. There are also a number of books on Dick Clark and the show, some already mentioned, as well as Clark’s 1976 autobiography written with Richard Robinson. Additional Bandstand stories at this website include, “Bandstand Performers, 1957;” “Bandstand Performers, 1963;” and “At The Hop, 1957-1958.” See also “Moondog Alan Freed, 1951-1965,” for a somewhat related story about a popular disc jockey, or visit the “Annals of Music” page for additional story choices. Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle.

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Date Posted:  25 March 2008
Last Update:  9 June 2016
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “American Bandstand, 1956-2007,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 25, 2008.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Late 1950s: Dick Clark reviewing weekly “top hits” during a segment of the American Bandstand TV show.
Late 1950s: Dick Clark reviewing weekly “top hits” during a segment of the American Bandstand TV show.
Late 1950s: Dick Clark interviewing guest singer, Bobby Darin. Click for separate story on Bobby Darin's life & career.
Late 1950s: Dick Clark interviewing guest singer, Bobby Darin. Click for separate story on Bobby Darin's life & career.
April 1960: Dick Clark testifying at U.S. Congressional hearing on “payola” issue; here before House committee.
April 1960: Dick Clark testifying at U.S. Congressional hearing on “payola” issue; here before House committee.
1975: Dick Clark interviewing famous blues guitarist, B.B. King, with what appears to be a birthday cake.
1975: Dick Clark interviewing famous blues guitarist, B.B. King, with what appears to be a birthday cake.
1981: Los Angles Times photo of Dick Clark seated among show attendees in “Bandstand” bleachers as he introduces a guest act.
1981: Los Angles Times photo of Dick Clark seated among show attendees in “Bandstand” bleachers as he introduces a guest act.
January 1993: Dick Clark with Michael Jackson paging through American Music Awards booklet.
January 1993: Dick Clark with Michael Jackson paging through American Music Awards booklet.

“Challenging the Giants,” Newsweek, December 23, 1957, p. 70.

“Drive, Talent, Hits, Clark Help Make Philly the Hottest,” Billboard, March 10, 1958, p. 4.

“Dick Clark – New Rage of the Teenagers,” New York Times, March 16, 1958, Section 2, p. 13.

“Tall, That’s All,” Time, Monday, April 14, 1958.

“TV Bandstand: Teenagers’ Favorite,” Look, vol. 22. May 13, 1958, pp. 69-72.

“Newest Music for a New Generation: Rock ‘n’ Roll Rolls On ‘n’ On,” Life, December 22, 1958, pp. 37-43.

“America’s Favorite Bandstander” (Dick Clark cover story), Look, November 24, 1959.

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

“Teen-Agers’ Dreamboat,” New York Times, March 5, 1960.

Arnold Shaw, The Rockin’ ’50s: The Decade That Transformed the Pop Music Scene, New York: Hawthorn Books, 1974.

Dick Clark and Richard Robinson, Rock, Roll & Remember, Thomas Y. Crowell, Publisher, 1976.

Robert Stephen Spitz, Rock, Roll & Remem-ber, Book Review, New York Times, October 24, 1976.

Michael Shore with Dick Clark, The History of American Bandstand, New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.

“Clark Around the Clock,” Newsweek, August 18, 1986, pp. 26-27.

Summary of the National Register of Historic Places Nomination for American Bandstand building, WFIL and WHYY studios, 4548 Market St., Philadelphia., Pennsylvania, July 28, 1986.

“American Bandstand” and “Dick Clark,” The Museum of American Broadcast Commu-nications.

Dick Clark,” The Radio Hall of Fame.

“American Bandstand,” Wikipedia.org.

“Dick Clark,” Wikipedia.org.

“Dick Clark Productions,” Wikipedia.org.

Ginia Bellafante, “Ultrasuede Is Funny – VH-1’s Reruns of American Bandstand Prove the Hootie Network Can Outwit MTV,” Time, Monday, April 22, 1996.

John A. Jackson, American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Empire, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Fred Goodman, “Roll Over, Beethoven: How Dick Clark Taught American Parents not to be Afraid of Rock-and-Roll and Made a Fortune in the Process,” Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Empire, Book Review, New York Times, October 26, 1997.

Richard Corliss, “Philly Fifties: Rock ‘n Radio,” Saturday, July 14, 2001.

Hank Bordowitz, Turning Points in Rock and Roll, Citadel Press, 2004.

Thomas Heath and Howard Schneider, “Snyder Adds A TV Icon To His Empire, “Washington Post, Wednesday, June 20, 2007, P. D-1.

Ken Emerson, “The Spin on ‘Bandstand” – Music, TV and Popular Culture Learned to Swing to the Beat of a Different Drummer: Big Bucks,” Los Angeles Times, August 5, 2007.

Becky Krystal, “Dick Clark, Host of ‘American Bandstand,’ Dies at 82,” Washington Post, April 18, 2012.

Matthew F. Delmont, The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia, Berkeley: University of California Press, February 2012.

Matthew F. Delmont, “The America of ‘Bandstand’,” Washington Post, Sunday, April 22, 2012, p. B-2.

Democracy Now, “Despite Rep for Integration, TV’s Iconic ‘American Bandstand’ Kept Black Teens Off Its Stage,” YouTube.com, Mar 2, 2012.

Alex Alvarez, “DJ ‘Cousin Brucie’ Recalls Dick Clark’s Commitment To Racial Integration: ‘If We Don’t Go All Together, We Go Out’,” Mediaite.com, April 19th, 2012.

John Liberty, “Dick Clark Remembered: the Velvelettes Say Icon Defended Them in Segregated South, Share Memories of 1964 Tour,” Mlive.com, April 20, 2012.

A documentary film entitled The Wages of Spin, focuses on the history of American Bandstand, the 1950s payola scandal, and Dick Clark.  A preview clip from that documentary is available at YouTube and additional information is found at Character Driven Films.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Selling Janis Joplin”
1995

Cover photo of Janis Joplin on a 1972 album
Cover photo of Janis Joplin on a 1972 album
     In 1995, Mercedes-Benz, the German luxury car maker, used a song by ‘60s rocker and blues singer Janis Joplin in one of its TV ads.  The Joplin tune — which includes the famous refrain, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” — was used by Mercedes to push a new line of sedans.  At first, the use of the song — which Joplin intended as a sarcastic piece on the pursuit of material happiness — seemed a risky if not an odd marketing strategy for the conservative German automaker.  Yet there was a method to Mercedes’ madness, and it involved the “maturing” Baby Boomer market.  First, consider Ms. Joplin and the times that helped produce the music.

     Janis Lyn Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas on January 19, 1943.  By most accounts, she loved her home and family, but Joplin was an unhappy soul in Port Arthur, especially as a high school teenager.  By then she had been singing folk music and blues locally.  She later made her way to California and into the 1960s’ music and Hippie scene in San Francisco. In 1966, she teamed up with a band named Big Brother & The Holding Company, and at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival she captured national attention with a stunning blues performance of “Ball and Chain.”  A first album by Joplin and her group, titled Big Brother & The Holding Company, was re-released following the Monterey Pop Festival.  The next album, Cheap Thrills, topped the charts in 1968. Joplin then moved on to a solo act, producing another album in 1969 with the Kozmic Blues Band which included one of her famous tunes, “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”.

Music Player
Janis Joplin – “Mercedes Benz”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

 

     Joplin’s personal life, meanwhile, was  troubled, with drug addiction, alcoholism, and unhappy personal relationships.  Still, by 1970, her musical stars seemed to be aligning with a new group of musicians backing here — the Full Tilt Boogie Band.  She had also made a new attempt at beating her drug habit.  In 1970, Joplin and her group produced the album, Pearl, which included the songs “Mercedes Benz,” “Get It While You Can,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”  But tragically, Joplin relapsed into drug use and died of an overdosed in October 1970.  Her newly-made album had yet to go to market.  But four months after her death, Pearl topped the album charts for nine weeks, and “Me and Bobby McGee” became a No.1 single in 1971 and one of her biggest hits.

Mercedes Benz

Joplin: “I’d like to do a song of great social
and political import. It goes like this:”

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV ?
Dialing For Dollars is trying to find me.
I wait for delivery each day until three,
So oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV ?
 
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town ?
I’m counting on you, Lord, please don’t let me down.
Prove that you love me and buy the next round,
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town ?
Everybody!
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
That’s it! (giggle)

     The “Mercedes Benz” song in that album was something of a playful throw-away at the time.  It was written by Joplin with Kansas-born Beatnick poet Michael McClure and recorded in a style that was pure Joplinesque, complete with giggle at the end.   Joplin can be heard on the version above talking in the studio, saying she could do the song in “one take,” which she did.  The point of her tune — befitting the 1960s’ values around her — was to mock the notion that happiness could be found through material things. Joplin recorded the song a capella, with lyrics that made her message pretty transparent, along with her sarcastic on-air introduction (see sidebar).

 

25 Years Later

     Nearly 25 years later, with Joplin safely in a better place, Mercedes-Benz struck a deal to use the song with Janis’ step-sister.  Mercedes then had a marketing problem.  It’s line of upscale vehicles were perceived as stuffy — cars that only rich “suits” would buy.  The average age of its buyers was getting older, a problem for the future.  And the competition was tougher too.  The Japanese, with their own new lines of luxury cars, were eating into Mercedes’ turf.  So Mercedes decided to work on its image, seeking to dispel the reputation that its cars were only for rich older guys.  The New York-based ad agency Lowe & Partners/SMS, known for work on brands such as Grey Poupon mustard, was brought in to help overhaul Mercedes’ sedate image.  “The median age of Mercedes buyers is 51,” said veteran adman Marvin Sloves, then chairman of Lowe & Partners/SMS, who explained that Mercedes needed to begin talking to a whole new generation. “I don’t know the generational names,” he said.  “Whatever every-one calls people 35 to 45 who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s is the generation we are targeting.”  That’s when they made the TV ad using the Joplin tune.

Janis Joplin on a 1976 Rolling Stone cover.
Janis Joplin on a 1976 Rolling Stone cover.

     The TV spot became known in the industry as the “Janis ad,” and was designed to soften Boomers’ perception of the Mercedes brand by making it seem less stuffy and more approachable.  Mercedes and their admen wanted to show that Mercedes cars could be accessible and fun for younger, successful professionals.

     “Mercedes is making a concerted effort to attract nontraditional buyers,” observed Ray Serafin, in February 1995 for Advertising Age.  “They’re looking to the future when they’re going to be bringing some different vehicles to the market.  They’ve got a sport utility vehicle, to be made in Alabama, coming out in a couple of years, and also a smaller urban type vehicle.  So they’re looking at freshening up their image.”  Mercedes was also trying to convince Boomers that despite its luxury image, its new line of C-Class and E-Class vehicles in the $32,000 to $40,000 range, were really good, economical buys.  So the Janis TV spot ran with those models.

     “The campaign revolves around establishing relevancy,” explained Donna Boland, director of public relations for Mercedes-Benz of North America.”The Janis ad fits within that nostalgia mode. It evokes the memories of the ’60s and brings back a good feeling…”  Time magazine ranked the Janis ad as the 8th best in 1995.  “Sure, sure, it prostitutes the spirit of the 1960s,” said Time in a year-end review of ads, “but the finest car ad of late achieves perfect-pitch simplicity.“The Janis ad fits within that nostalgia mode. It evokes the memories of the ’60s and brings back a good feeling . . .”
     – Donna Boland, Mercedes-Benz
  A new model E-class coasts toward us on the TV screen.  The only sound we hear is Joplin belting her classic Mercedes Benz.”

     “We’ve been asked why we didn’t use it before, because it seems so natural,” said Boland of the song.  “The reason is that the people who really appreciated that music are only now in the right income bracket for our product.”  Lee Garfinkel, Lowe & Partners/SMS chief creative officer, explained, “We couldn’t have used this song 25 years ago.  Our target audience knows that, and that’s one of the reasons it works so well in the strategy.”  A few years after the ad had run,  in 1998, Mercedes’ Michael Jackson, then about to become CEO, looked back on the Janis ad and the intent of the campaign in an interview with Brandweek:

. . .Certainly, ‘Janis’ spurred a great deal of conversation internally, as well as through the dealer organization and even customers.  But you have to go back to the original plan.  The purpose of the brand campaign was to, yes, launch the C-Class and a value story [ i.e., a good buy], but it was a first step in defining Mercedes-Benz in a new way.  And the single goal of ‘Janis’ was to communicate that something is changing at Mercedes.  Open your mind.  We didn’t say how we were changing, or what the meaning was.  It was simply a signal that change was taking place.  And it was absolutely the most effective TV commercial that we could have run at that time. It achieved the objective of [getting people thinking], “Hey, something changed at Mercedes while I wasn’t looking.” 

          But what about the fact that Joplin intended the song as a critique of the very thing the ad was now being used for?  “These lyrics are certainly among the best known in the rock world,” said Mercedes’ Donna Boland, acknowledging when the ad first came out that there were people upset with it.   “. . . There’s always going to be people who are going to dissect something like this . . . “[W]hat’s most annoying about the use of Joplin’s song is the fact that she is dead, and the integrity of her art is all that she has left. Joplin didn’t really want to help sell a damn Mercedes.”
            – Dean Bakopoulos, 1996
[B]ut I think most of our buyers will understand that we’re harkening back to the ’60s as a whole.” Janis’ fans, however, weren’t so understanding.

     While using the Janis ad may well have proved a clever re-casting of a calcifying corporate image — and Mercedes’ sales did increase in the first few years following the Janis ad –it also provoked outrage among music fans and others who felt it a transgression on the emotional connection to the music and the artist’s intent.  Among the critics was Dean Bakopoulos writing for the Michigan Daily after he saw the ad in 1996.  “What’s most annoying about the use of Joplin’s song,” wrote Bakopoulos, “is the fact that she is dead, and the integrity of her art is all that she has left.  Joplin didn’t really want to help sell a damn Mercedes.”  But the use of ad, he explained, underscored a bigger issue.  “There’s a business culture and an artist culture at work in America,” Bakopoulos wrote, “. . . and they don’t fit together.  When their paths cross it comes off as vulgar, disrespectful,” Bakopoulos also offered this:

…What the folks who designed the ad want you to believe is the antithesis to Joplin’s song.  They want you to believe that a Mercedes Benz is a reward for all your hard work.  But what they really mean is the following:  Mercedes Benz is a sign that says, “Look at you.  Look at me.  Look at my car.  Look at your car.  Look at my car, again.  Ha, ha, sucker!  That’s what you get for getting a stupid liberal arts degree.”  Mercedes Benz is a sign that you’ve kissed enough ass, lost enough friends and stabbed enough backs to make six figures a year. Well, congratulations….

Early 1970s’ single cover.
Early 1970s’ single cover.
     Another critic, Lael Ewy, writing in EastWesterly Review, offered the view that the Mercedes ad actually “makes fun of the song, saying, in essence, ‘Remember back when we were idealistic and thought materialism was bad?  How foolish we were!'”  Continues Ewy:  “In other words, this is advertising critiquing art, advertising embracing, and indeed celebrating, superficiality and dumbness.  It is, in other words, meant to make the viewer more comfortable in having sold out. . .  The ad says it’s o.k. to be a capitalist pig since the Mercedes Benz company gave you permission to do so.  It makes palatable a difficult problem in social ethics at the personal level.”

     Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile — at least in the afterglow of their corporate makeover using Janis Joplin and other strategies — did well in the sales department.  By late 1996, the launch of their new E-Class sedan targeting 40-plus Baby Boomers with Janis’s help seemed to be paying off.  In fact, during the first eight months of 1996, the entire Mercedes-Benz line — C-Class, E-Class, S-Class, SL-Class and 600 Series — saw a U.S. sales jump of 19.3% to 58,486 vehicles.  And the growth continued in following years, with the targeted baby boomers also helping to seed the launch of other new lines such as Mercedes-Benz’ new “cute ute,” as it was called, its M-Class SUV.  The Janis message, in fact, rubbed off on other car dealers.

 

Ruthless People rip

More Use of Janis

     In 1999, a print ad for one of Ford’s new Lincoln LS luxury sports sedans used a headline next to a photograph of one of the Lincolns that read:  “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a . . . My, my, my, what have we here?”  The familiar verse from the Joplin song was seen as helpful attention getter.  Using the verse this way, explained Dave Allen, a senior VP at Young & Rubicam in Irvine, Calif., “allows us to competitively position the Lincoln LS in a smart, surprising way.”  Defending the song’s continuing ironic use to sell cars, Allen explained:

Mercedes logo
Mercedes logo
“‘The satire and the little bit of irony are part of a strategy to make ourselves more relevant to consumers today by ‘de-starching’ ourselves.”  Executives at Lowe, the ad agency that originally did the Janis ad, took Ford’s copy-cat behavior as a complement.  “Obviously, they’ve noticed something that was effective in the past and are attempting to recycle it,” said Gary Goldsmith, vice chairman and executive creative director at Lowe.  Mercedes, for its part, also returned to the Joplin song a decade after its first use.  In 2006-07, another version of the Mercedes-Benz TV ad, using the same Joplin tune, began appearing on the web.  In this version,  the viewer is positioned inside the car as a back-seat passenger looking out at the world through the front windshield.  As the car rides silently along through daytime and night-time scenes in rural and urban settings, Joplin is heard crooning her a capella tune with no other sound apparent.  As the music plays, the camera fixes on the scenes rolling by, centered over the hoodline and the familiar Mercedes-Benz logo hood-ornament, giving the feel of a gunsight viewfinder. 

 

Joplin’s Legacy    

     It is not known, of course, what Janis Joplin might have thought about all of this.  But in one sense, some of the airing of her name and her song in the “Mercedes” ads may have brought more people to her music and also to learn about her life.  And there is a fair amount of material in print and other media about her.  In 1973, she was the subject of a feature documentary film, Janis, and there have also been several TV documentaries made about her, including one in VH-1’s “Legends” series.

Greatest Hits album, 1996 version.
Greatest Hits album, 1996 version.
  The 1979 film, The Rose, starring Bette Midler, was allegedly based on Joplin’s life.  There is also Janis, With Janis Joplin, released by MCA Home Video in June 1987.  Other films on Joplin are also being planned. In the summer of 2001, the musical play Love, Janis won acclaim and played to packed houses Off Broadway in New York, but only for a brief run.

     Joplin’s music, meanwhile, has also had a steady following.  A number of her albums have gone gold, platinum, and triple-platinum.  Her Greatest Hits album, first released in 1973, and is still popular in the Billboard catalog.  The boxed set, Janis, was received with wide acclaim when it was released in 1993.  In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Joplin at #46 on their 50 Greatest Artists of All Time.  In 2005 she was awarded posthumously a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

     See also at this website “Joplin’s Shooting Star, 1966-1970,” which covers more of her career with three song samples and a number of photos.  Other story choices can be found at the Annals of Music category page or the Home Page.  Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support this website.  Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted:  10 March 2008
Last Update:  20 April 2013
Comments to:   
jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Selling Janis Joplin, 1995,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 10,2008.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

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Associated Press, “Please, Don’t Tell Bobby McGee Advertising: a Janis Joplin Tune Is Reborn in a Mercedes Commercial,”San Jose Mercury News (CA), March 11, 1995, p. D-1.

Marli Murphy, “Is Janis Joplin Laughing From Her Grave or Rolling in It? Who knows? But It is Strange to Hear Her Shilling for Mercedes,” The Kansas City Star, May 29, 1995, p. D-2.

Stuart Elliott, “Middle Age Catches Up With the Me Generation; Getting the Message To Aging Consumers,” New York Times, January 2, 1996.

“Best of 1995,” Time, Monday, December 25, 1995.

David Kiley,  “Benz in the Road,” Brandweek, October 26, 1998.

“Mercedes Benz” (song), Wikipedia.org.

Dean Bakopoulos, The Michigan Daily, 1996.

Lael Ewy,  “Moulin Rouge, the Erasure of History, and the Disneyfication of the Avant Garde,” East Westerly Review, Issue 7,  PostModernVillage.com, Fall 2001.

Lowe & Partners/SMS, “Mercedes Facts”.

Patricia Winters Lauro, “Joplin’s Song In Use Again,” The Media Business: Advertising, New York Times, August 20, 1999.

Jim Burt, “On Chrysler’s Daimler Gambit: You Can’t Please Everyone with Every Ad – and You Shouldn’t Try,” TheCarConnection.com, July 29, 2002.

“Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin in video/commercial with a Mercedes driving through rural and urban parts of America, produced by the DNA Production Co., Director – Keir McFarlane, Adcode: benz.drive.68.

Robert Shelton, “Janis Joplin Is Climbing Fast In the Heady Rock Firmament; Singer Makes Her New York Debut With Big Brother & the Holding Company,” New York Times, Monday, February 19, 1968, p. 51.

Mike Jahn, “Janis Joplin Gives A Rousing Display Of Blues and Rock,” New York Times, Saturday, December 20, 1969, p. 36.

Reuters, “Janis Joplin Dies; Rock Star Was 27,” New York Times, Monday, October 5, 1970, p. 1.

Don Heckman, “Janis: She Was Reaching for Musical Maturity,” New York Times, Sunday, May 21, 1972, Arts & Liesure, p. D-30.

Janis, MCA Home Video, Directed and edited by Howard Alk and Seaton Findlay, 1987, 96 minutes.

Janet Maslin, “A Prim Little Girl,” (Review of film, Janis), New York Times, June 7, 1987.

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