The First Rock Concert, Censorship and the Fuzz

March 30, 2014 | By:

The First Rock Concert, Censorship and the Fuzz

We don’t really know if rock ’n’ roll will never die, like Neil Young suggests. What we do know is that the term originated in the sweltering urban jungles of the US as slang for sex. After the ’40s, “rocking and rolling” took on a new meaning in large part because DJ Alan Freed used it to describe the new flavor of rhythm and blues that was simmering over into the mainstream. Some music historians view the birth of rock as concurrent with the birth of the one and only Elvis Presley—a messy claim, no doubt. If the King had never been born, rock would have found expression through others. Many historians go even further back in the quest for a precise date, citing Henry Thomas’s song “Bull Doze Blues.” Take a listen, and compare to anything from the early ’50s. Hips will swing. Rock purists claim that the genre had its birth in 1952, with Clyde McPhatter’s cover of “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.”

Without a doubt, though, it was World War II, with its mixed-raced armed forces, that drove the creation of rock ’n’ roll. As racial walls in the armed forces came down, soldiers of all races felt free to share their cultural riches. It wasn’t long before civilians got in on the act, setting the way for a true paradigm shift. By 1948, juke joints and truck stops were alive with rhythm and blues fusion. At the same time, a formalized version of rhythm and blues was developing in Detroit. Country music was melded with guttural instrumentals and given a faster beat. Rock ’n’ roll was born.

DJ Alan Freed

Before the infamous Payola incident, Alan Freed was something of a rock ’n’ roll folk hero. Aside from giving the genre its name, Freed popularized rock in a time when it was risky to do so, to say the least. Ol’ Moondog, from his pulpit at WAKR radio, lovingly shoved blues, country and the upstart known as rhythm and blues under one heading, offering the fusion to the public as a single genre. He actively encouraged artists to further blend their sounds. The effect this had on the culture of ’50s America was astounding. Suddenly, whites and blacks enjoyed the same kind of music, and it was “cool” to be counted among their ranks. Freed described rock ’n’ roll as a “river of music that has absorbed many streams,” and he was so pumped about it that he suggested something unheard of: a live rock concert.

When record store owner Leo Mintz of Cleveland Ohio expressed surprise to Freed that his customers were asking for rhythm and blues music, Freed took notice. He decided to expand on his groundbreaking rock ’n’ roll show, The Moondog House Party, by holding a live concert that would feature the artists whose records he’d spun most often.

The Moondog Coronation Ball

Held at the Cleveland Arena, the Moondog Coronation Ball was an ill-fated first for the rock ’n’ roll revolution. In attendance were the likes of Tiny Grimes, Paul Williams, and the Rocking Highlanders. Over 20,000 tickets were produced and sold—many of those by counterfeiters—for an arena with a maximum capacity of 10,000. Historians point to this as one of the first examples of a major multi-race concert. Sadly, the concert was brought to a halt after headliner Paul Williams’s first song.

It wasn’t Williams’s kilt that brought the show to a stop. Instead, over 20,000 people had forced their way in to the Cleveland Arena, leaving the venue’s gate in tatters. As they packed into the arena, the air grew thick with smoke and the slightly acrid aroma of booze. Fearing for the safety of the crowd and predicting a riot, firefighters rushed the venue. The police joined in, taking the stage and commanding the tumultuous crowd to disperse.

The next day, Alan Freed took to the air and apologized to the thousands of people who had bought legitimate tickets to the event. Though the concert wasn’t technically a concert at all, it set the stage for what would become a cultural event: the mass rock festival. Woodstock, Austin City Limits, Crüe Fest and the Rockstar Mayhem Festival all owe Moondog Coronation Ball a debt of gratitude.

The Man

Whether or not the authorities were looking for a reason to shut the Moondog’s concert down, as some contend, is unknown. What is clear is that rock ’n’ roll is the most censored music form in the world. Rock has been vilified since its inception, and it’s been blamed for everything from drug use to sexual promiscuity. Chances are good that your grandparents knew someone who believed that if a person liked rock, they were an agent of the devil.

In 1952, rock group The Weavers was blacklisted because of their “leftist” political beliefs. As a result, the group lost its contract. In 1955, the citizens of Chicago sent local rock stations around 150,000 letters. Fan mail? Hardly. The letters requested that the stations stop playing “dirty” music. Consequently, the major newspapers spearheaded a campaign to get stations to censor all forms of rock. By 1956, ABC had joined in on the censoring, cutting Billie Holiday’s “Love For Sale” from rotation. Hilariously, in ’57, The Ed Sullivan Show agreed to let Elvis Presley on the show only if he agreed to be filmed from the waist up. His hips were a danger to the fabric of society. Moscow recently used the same reasoning to sentence most of Pussy Riot to two years in a penal colony. Social progress, surely.

More recently, rock has come under scrutiny for its apparent penchant for hiding delivering subliminal commands. In 1990, Judas Priest was dragged into court because the band’s record “Stained Glass” supposedly prompted two young men to beat a woman and walk around with their bregenwurst swaying in the wind. Ironic, then, that rock ’n’ roll was born out of a strengthening sense of social community. That night at the Cleveland arena, with its multi-racial, raring crowd, sparked a music revolution that has flourished and evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry.