Cleveland, 1951: A Shot Heard ‘Round the World?

At age 30, on July 11, 1951, Alan Freed looked about 40. But everyone in those days looked 10 years older than their birth certificates. He played records during the late shift on WJW in Cleveland—late shift being 11:15 p.m. Who’s awake and listening to the radio at 11:15 p.m. in 1951? The hep teens. They’re listening.

Record Rendezvous was located at 300 Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. It’s about two blocks from the city’s Public Square in one direction and two blocks in the other direction from Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. That’s to say that Record Rendezvous was in the middle of Cleveland, at the center of the action with its human-sized window displays, its racks upon racks of 45s and long players, and its owner Leo Mintz. That’s a very 1951 name: Leo Mintz.

Sometime before 1951 when Freed was working as a disc jockey in nearby Akron, Freed met Mintz. The latter was peddling jumpy songs labeled as “rhythm and blues” because they were targeted to Black people, an improvement from the pre-World War II term of “race records.” Freed was noticing that white teenagers were buying the songs meant for Black people. That meant there must have been other teens out there who’d buy them, which meant there must have been more money out there to make.

It’s possible Mintz saw into the future, at the scores of white people who would gladly appropriate and revise this sound for millions of dollars. But he probably didn’t—he probably just saw short-term money.

In 1951 in Cleveland, a city north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Black people of course weren’t actually considered equal to white people. Pay wasn’t the same. Job opportunities weren’t the same. We were three years away from Brown v Board of Education and in the very early stages of white flight. Highways were being threaded right through Black neighborhoods. And we were 22 years from a lawsuit brought on by the NAACP against Cleveland schools and the State of Ohio aiming to integrate those schools. Cleveland was still very racist in 1951, but Mintz noticed that Black and white hep teens were coming into Record Rendezvous and buying rhythm and blues records. It’s 1951—small things had to happen as much as big things.

So once Freed got to WJW in Cleveland, Mintz started pushing those rhythm and blues records to Freed. And that’s a literal push—Mintz sat next to Freed in the studio and gave him the vinyl records he’d play. Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Paul Williams and His Hucklebuckers. Tiny Grimes, who played with Art Tatum, who influenced Les Paul. It wouldn’t all be rhythm and blues at 11:15 p.m., since Freed still had to ensure radio listeners were getting a full spectrum of songs, from hits of the day to showtunes and novelty fare, to occasional jazz and whatever else came about. But when rhythm and blues records came on, the white kids responded. Immediately.

By fall 1951, Freed had a large audience following him late at night. He called himself the Moondog, possibly after a song he may have used as his theme, or possibly after the man who performed the other song he may have used as his theme. The truth is blurred because it’s 1951, but the point is Freed became an overnight sensation on the radio. WJW’s reach gave Freed an audience that spanned the Midwestern United States. By the end of 1951 thousands of hep teens were jamming out to the Moondog and the rhythm and blues records fed to him by his small business owner friend.

At some point during all this, Freed is said to have used the term “rock ‘n’ roll.” He didn’t invent that— “rocking and rolling” had been used as a way to describe the activity in Black churches, and in some places it was used as a sexual term—but like the music that he played, Freed was the one who got it out to the white teens. The hep ones. Freed called himself a “hep” guy, too.

When we talk about rock ‘n’ roll, we start with 30-year-old 40-something Alan Freed and his buddy Leo Mintz because it’s the closest we get to a big bang, a shot heard ’round the world. They’re the guys who realized that the records made by Black performers and marketed to Black audiences by white executives could actually make a lot more money because the music was really good. Freed and Mintz deserve credit for seeing a trend, for believing in the music, and for I assume rightly thinking the music was really good. But they’re just two guys who steered something in another direction. If anything, rock ‘n’ roll was always there in the sounds of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Robert Johnson, and of Roy Brown and most certainly of the Dominoes and the Hucklebuckers.

Cleveland is where rock ‘n’ roll became an idea celebrated by the entire country. That’s no small feat. But we don’t need to continue lifting Freed up to an impossible plateau. We don’t need to continue crediting a city by building shrines designed to be the new center of the action. (Record Rendezvous is no longer inhabited, and WJW is now ESPN Cleveland.) The best way to honor the roots of rock ‘n’ roll is to play those songs as loud and as often as possible. Blast those Dominoes. Higher on the Hucklebuckers. That’s the idea.

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