’50s Radio Helps the Rock Roll

There were several media that helped drive the success, first of rock & roll and then later the music that eventually came to be known as classic rock. Here is the story of how one such medium – in this case 1950s radio – helped promote the music that it played over the airways.

Around the Dial: Rock & Roll on the Radio

You could say radio made rock & roll, but you would also have to say rock & roll saved radio. Over three decades, rock & roll music prompted three of the biggest changes in the 100-year history of the airwaves medium – the offering of rhythm and blues, then rock & roll to the listening public; the creation of the Top 40 song format, where the top hit singles in a region were repeated over and over again; and the birth of FM underground progressive radio, where the playing of albums replaced the reliance on singles.“Radio and rock and roll needed each other, and it was their good fortune that they intersected at the exact moment when rock and roll was being born and radio was facing death,” says long-time Rolling Stonewriter Ben Fong-Torres. 

Radio was introduced in America in the early 1920s and its popularity with families and the public soared. By 1930, radio entered a true Golden Age. Broadcasts of popular swing bands and comedy, crime, and drama series filled homes across the nation. But, as the 1950s dawned, radio’s domination of home entertainment entered a serious decline as Americans discovered the allure of a new medium – television.

Many feared TV would kill radio. But a new technology and a new type of music arrived in the 50s that revived radio, although instead of a national presence it narrowed to a more local one. With the advent of the tiny transistor, listeners could now take their radios into their bedrooms and anywhere they traveled. Spurred in part by a post-war radio industry campaign slogan “A Radio in Every Room,” by 1954, 70 percent of American households had two or more radios, and about a third had three or more. 

Teenagers, who were growing in numbers and starving for a sound to reflect their own lives, no longer had to sit in living rooms with their parents and younger siblings to hear radio entertainment. And that new sound, first known as black rhythm and blues and by the end of the decade as rock & roll, arrived, brought to teenage listeners by hundreds of disc jockeys, those record-spinning, rapid-jive-speaking hosts who ruled their station’s airwaves for three to four hours at first nightly, and later, around the clock. The disc jockeys became as big, or in many cases bigger, than the artists they played.

            The rock & roll radio revolution started at independent stations – those not affiliated with the national networks – which desperately needed new programming to combat TV. There these DJs, as they came to be known, played a wide range of music geared to both black and white teenagers. “These were the disenfranchised, who felt the popular music of the day spoke more to their parents than to them,” Fong-Torres noted. “What excited them was the music they could hear, usually late at night, coming from stations on the upper end of the radio dial, where signals tended to be weaker. Thus disadvantaged, owners of these stations had to take greater risks and had to offer alternatives to the mainstream programming of their more powerful competitors. It was there that radio met rock & roll and sparked a revolution”.

            Each city had its own radio gurus leading teenage listeners to new music and a new lifestyle. In Memphis, it was Dewey Phillips, who played the first Elvis Presley records ever heard in America. In Cleveland, it was the father of rock & roll Alan Freed. On the West Coast, it was the mysterious Wolfman Jack, whose howls and music selections originated somewhere in the wilds of Mexico. And in my South Jersey area, it was Jerry “The Geator with the Heater”, “the Boss with the Hot Sauce” Blavett, who is still in the music business today as the host of Star Vista’s annual sold-out music cruise Malt Shop Memories and as a record-hop Memories DJ at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.

            Of course, this new music birthed from R&B was still deeply associated with black culture, an association that did not sit well with much of white America. “One mind-set radio increasingly nourished was young people’s urge to rebel against their elders and desire to conform with their peers,” writes Susan J. Douglas in her book Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. “Radio – more than films, television, advertising, or magazines in the 1950s – was themedia outlet where cultural and industrial battles over how much effect black culture was going to have on white culture were staged and fought.  During the 1950s, it had become the most integrated mass medium in the country.”

Alan Freed, Dick Clark, and the DJ Payola Scandal

Of all the DJs in the country, none was more important than Alan Freed. Freed, who began in career in Cleveland, has been credited with coining the term rock & roll (he didn’t) and popularizing the music given that name (he did.) He also staged the Moondog Coronation Ball on March 21, 1952, an event which is heralded as the first rock & roll concert ever staged, although it had to be aborted when a riot broke out because 25,000 tickets had been sold for a venue that only held 10,000.

Alan Freed in Cleveland with his fans.

            Freed was a tireless and enthusiastic advocate of the music he played. He would only play original songs by the black artists who made them, not the white artists who produced toned-down versions of the R&B tunes. He also enjoyed the friendship of the black artists and hung out with them, a move that disturbed Southern segregationists and many older Americans who weren’t yet ready for integration in any form. 

            After conquering Cleveland, Freed took his wildly popular show to radio station WINS in New York City in 1954. His WINS show became syndicated so it was heard in most major American cities. In 1955, Billboardmagazine called Freed “the undisputed king of radio programming”.  

            But in 1959 Freed became embroiled as a central figure in the strong calls for Congress to launch an investigation into the new music industry, specifically looking at disc jockeys who were being accused of taking large bribes to play records on their stations.

            The ensuing Congressional investigation, which involved hundreds of disc jockeys across the country but came to focus on the two most influential –  Freed and American Bandstandhost Dick Clark of Philadelphia – was labeled the Payola Scandal. And, by the end of the investigation, one DJ would emerge relatively unscathed to become perhaps the most well-known, important non-performer in the record business, while the other would be destroyed and die alone in disgrace.

            The payola investigation resulted from a convergence of several factors, but, as so often is the case in America, three of the biggest were money, power, and race. In the 1950s, individual disc jockeys, not record executives, station managers, or program directors decided which records would be played on the air. The small labels quickly recognized the power of the DJs, which like their nationwide numbers, was rapidly expanding. For example, in 1950 there were only 250 DJs playing music. Seven years later, that number had grown to more than 5,000. These DJs had so much clout with young listeners that Timemagazine called them “the poo-bahs of musical fashion” and “the pillars of low and middle brow culture”. 

            Each week, these DJs sorted through all the newly released records, deciding which few they wanted to play on their shows. The labels realized how much these popular DJs could influence sales, so they began offering incentives to make sure these trend-setters would at least listen to their records, and, even better, introduce them to their listeners. 

            Most DJs, who were notoriously low-paid at the local stations where they worked, could receive as much as $50 a week in cash to ensure that they would give a single record they liked a minimum amount of spins on their program. The more influential jocks, like Freed and Clark, could command percentages from local concerts, lavish trips, free records by the boxful which they could resell, and even have their name listed as cowriter on certain popular tunes, which would allow them to receive royalties, or hold financial interest in record companies themselves. 

            The big record companies were convinced it was these bribes that drove the success of rock & roll, not the fact that teenagers were completely rejecting the old sounds these companies offered in favor of the new sounds of the smaller labels. These large companies were joined in their opposition by leaders of the song-writers’ protection agency ASCAP, the organization that represented almost all of the older performers. Virtually all the rock and rollers, however, had signed with ASCAP’s only competitor, BMI. The long-established ASCAP was irate that the fledgling BMI was handling the young artists who now were bringing in most of the money on record sales.

            With their combined power, the big record companies and ASCAP, joined by other groups opposed on all types of grounds to rock & roll, lobbied for a national investigation. And Congress, which had already in the 1950s engaged in probes of alleged communists, organized crime, and fixed TV quiz shows, quickly agreed to assume the task in 1960. 

            Almost immediately, the probe came to focus on Freed and Clark, who in fundamental ways were complete opposites. An alcoholic and insomniac, Freed truly loved the music he was promoting, talked jive, smoked constantly, was argumentative to power, and would only play rock & roll from genuine performers, most of them black artists whom he liked and hung out with. Clark, on the other hand, appeared squeakily “Bryl-creamed” clean, handsome, and polite. Realizing that the nation was not yet ready for integration (Frankie Lymon of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers had his popular television show abruptly cancelled when he dared to dance with a white girl on the air), Clark didn’t include any black dancers on Bandstand, and often favored remakes of black artists’ songs by white artists like Pat Boone over the originals, although he did allow some black artists to perform to keep the ratings up. 

            Clark hired a high-priced public relations firm to help him with his testimony. Prior to appearing before the House Oversight Committee, he had divested himself of all the incriminating evidence which included part ownership of seven indie record labels, six publishing companies, three record distributors, and two talent agencies. Clark escaped with a minor slap on the wrist and was deemed “a fine young man” in the committee’s findings.

            Freed’s outcome was much different. His coarse style and immense ego offended many of the House members. It didn’t help his cause when he attacked disc jockeys who played white versions of black songs. “They’re anti-Negro. If it isn’t that what is it?” Freed charged. “Oh, they can always excuse it on the grounds that the covers are better quality, but I defy anyone to show me that the quality of the original ‘Tweedle Dee’ (by LaVern Baker) or ‘Seven Days’ (by Clyde McPhatter) is poor”.

            During the hearings, Freed remained contentious and refused “on principle” to sign an affidavit saying he’d never accepted payola. The committee charged him with 26 counts of commercial bribery. He escaped with fines and a suspended jail sentence, but his career was ruined. He was fired from his high-profile New York City radio job and struggled to find work. He died of uremic poisoning just five years later at age 43 in Texas,

            Matt Dorff, who adapted the bookThe Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock and Rollfor a two-hour television drama in 1999, talked to Bernard Weinraub of the New York Timesabout his view of Freed and his legacy. “This obsession with youth culture we see now is a direct result legacy of Alan Freed,” Dorff said. “He believed that teenagers needed a culture of their own, and he gave them the kind of music that they could claim as theirs alone. He was also color-blind – he loved the beat, he loved the people who made the music, and the fact that they were black made no difference to him”. (NYT, “The Man Who Knew It Wasn’t Only Rock ‘n’ Roll)

But Freed’s downfall didn’t stop the rock. “With rock and roll broadcasts over car radios and transistors, it was the mobility of the music, not its fidelity that mattered,” Douglas maintains. “By the mid-1960s Top 40 radio was deeply interwoven into teenage life and daily practices. It summoned up teens as a distinct social group, apart from their parents yet united across geographic boundaries and differences. It accompanied driving around, making out, doing homework, working summer jobs, and going to sleep. 

            The classic movie American Graffiti, set in California on a single night in 1962, clearly shows the power of AM radio over young people. “American Graffiti captured the exhilaration of bombing around in your car with the radio turned up, living absolutely in the present and using that radio to announce and cement a group identity at odds with and hostile to official, grown-up America,” explained Douglas.

            Until the last part of the 60s, the Top-40 formula continued the success established by the independent DJs. But by 1967, the lack of song freedom, changing times, changing music, changing tastes, and a changing youth culture began to show the inherent weaknesses in Top-40 radio. Once again, it was time for something new.

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