Sixty years ago today, March 21st, 1952, Harry Truman was still President. John Lennon was an 11 year old boy living in Liverpool, England. And the first rock concert was staged in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s easy to pinpoint the genesis of certain things, like birthdays and revolutions. Some cultural phenomena defy such hard dating. Rock music, however, is not one of them.
The Moondog Coronation Ball was staged that Friday evening at the Cleveland Arena, a 9,950 seat downtown venue. Leo Mintz, a white music store owner had convinced DJ Alan Freed, also white, to promote and MC the show. At the time, rock was still viewed largely as a ‘black’ thing for the young ‘uns. Mintz persuaded Freed to start playing more of the new rock music records in order to promote sales. The problem was that kids were listening to the music, but they weren’t buying it. Mainstream society still viewed it as prurient, the incarnation of the Devil himself. Freed was the one who coined the term ‘rock ‘n roll,’ which itself is an old blues reference to sex. It was edgy, it was sexual, and it was everything that Cold War suburbia wasn’t. It was also everything that adolescents and young adults craved.
Freed did his job with gusto. He engaged in on-air antics, such as beating a cowbell (More Cowbell!), drinking and beating out the rhythms along on his desk. Freed’s efforts to promote the concert were so successful that the show quickly sold out, and a follow up performance was scheduled for later, the date and time of which weren’t included on the tickets. What happened was that all of the ticketholders showed up at the opening night, over 20,000 for a show in a venue that could seat half of that number.
The night of the show, the predominantly black crowd was shocked, pleasantly so, to see that a honky was actually the voice of the music that they adored. They had assumed that he would be black, of course. Angry crowds broke into the hall after the doors were closed, and, in keeping with some of the themes of rock, the police showed up at the very first rock ‘n roll concert. The fire department opened up hoses on the assembled crowd, Freed was nearly criminally prosecuted, and the FBI opened up a dossier on him.
So, happy birthday Rock. You’ve given us a hell of a sixty years, and you’ll likely continue to do so for a long, long time.