In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, during a time of shifting cultural identity, many Americans who held conservative views found themselves caught in a socio-cultural predicament. The social dynamic of urban communities had begun to change as more African-Americans moved from the Southern United States into the Northern and Western regions of the country. This diaspora meant better jobs and homes for African-Americans and ultimately translated into more spending power among this portion of the population.
While many sectors were positively impacted by this increase in African American spending power, participants of exclusionary practices were destined to suffer.
An example of this suffering was evident in the music industry where the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) had monopolized the music licensing industry until the Broadcast Music Incorporation was formed and began to provide affordable music licenses to those musicians previously excluded by ASCAP.
This development signaled a “changing of the guard” and the ASCAP found that the change was ultimately not in their favor (Hood-Ancklewicz 3).
The individuals who supported and encouraged the proliferation of this social revolution were labeled responsible for the growing lack of “social stability” and would be contended with under the guise of a quest for morals and justice. In 1959 the House Subcommittee launched an investigation into the existence of rigging in popular game shows and at the urging of ASCAP expanded that probe into the music industry.
Given his nonconformist attitude, unapologetic support of rock n’ roll music, interracial dance parties and “frenzied” stage shows, Alan Freed became the most popular fatality of the payola scandal. Alan Freed was not the only person guilty of accepting “payola”, but he was among the most visibly linked to the promulgation of rock n’ roll. Alan Freed has been credited with being the first to popularize the title Rock n’Roll in relation to this particular music genre.
Additionally, he was the first to encourage integration by hosting wildly successful interracial Rock n’ Roll stage shows with solely African American performers. Freed also made no attempt to control the pandemonium created by his exhilarating lineup of performers, which generally resulted in teens dancing in the aisles, screaming wildly at performers and storming venues for the opportunity to participate by any means necessary. The “firsts” associated with Freed helped to solidify his image as the Father of Rock n’ Roll and conversely sealed his fate as the scapegoat of the payola scandal.
Mainly targeting radio stations and well known deejays and record executives, including Freed, the “clean cut” Dick Clark and, others linked to the popularization of rock n’ roll music. The payola investigations made radio executives across the nation nervous. Many of the stations began to enact measures to ensure that they would not be implicated in any wrong doing and as a result began to require that their disc jockeys sign disclosure statements, divest themselves of questionable outside interests and cooperate with investigators as necessary.
Those disc jockeys that refused to do so were fired. Many deejays resigned some suggesting that payola was as much a part of the system as any other widely held production practice, while others simply confessed to accepting cash and other gifts in exchange for promoting records. Alan Freed refused to sign documents on the moral grounds that doing so would negatively impact his “reputation for integrity” as a result Freed was fired from the radio station (Segrave 110). Freed admitted that he had accepted valuable gifts but, he explained “not in front.
If I’ve helped somebody, I’ll accept a nice gift but I wouldn’t take a dime to plug a record. I’d be a fool to; I’d be giving up control of my program” (Segrave 80). The end of the payola scandal dawned with Alan Freed disenfranchised from his livelihood. Freed was forced out of the concert promotion business, blacklisted, arrested, fined three hundred dollars and given a six month suspended sentence and though by modern standards this punishment may seem mild, compared to the punishment of other deejays it was among the most calculating and exacting punishments delivered.
While some critics argue that the scandal did not end Freed’s career it is clear that “justice” was not doled out equally among all offenders (Palmer 136). Dick Clark, who was also investigated, was questioned about outside interests that he held with various publication houses, record presses, talent firms, etc. Clark minimized the number of investments reported to the committee, his employers supported his claims that he had divested those interests. Following the investigation it was learned that the claims of divestment were not only false but that Clark had also deflated the number reported to the subcommittee.
Clark was ultimately exonerated and never seemed to be in any real danger of losing his livelihood, while Alan Freed was left destitute (Segrave 110). By many accounts Freed’s success in the music industry was instantaneous and was bolstered by the unwavering support of his interracial teen audience. In 1952 when Freed held the Moondog Coronation Ball an estimated 30,000 teens stormed the venue causing the event to be closed down by the local police department.
Soon after this incident Freed took his stage shows on tour and was arrested and charged with inciting a riot after a similar occurrence in Boston. Freed moved from Ohio to New York where his success continue to grow exponentially (Palmer 23). Of note among Freed’s perceived “shortcomings” was the fact that all of Freed’s performers were African-American and even when “sanitized” versions of African-American songs were available Freed still preferred and continued to promote the original versions (Palmer 136-139).
The image of rock n’ roll (leather jackets and sideburns) upset the sensibilities of larger society and as a result when the investigations into payola, a practice that had existed in various formats for years, became public knowledge and the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight had the support and the fuel necessary to effect change, Alan Freed became target number one. Rock n’ roll was shunned by the more conservative personalities in American society and as a result was blamed for many societal ills.
Few expected the genre to last, disgusted by the lack of perceived merit in the rock n’ roll genre, many of the ASCAP members and conservative American public denied its “staying power”. In her1956 article for the Miami Herald, Phyllis Battelle quotes an unnamed source as saying “Perhaps the only hopeful thing about rock n’ roll is that it’s so bad. It cannot endure indefinitely” (Batelle 4C+). This sentiment comforted few Americans while others focused on the reasons why rock n’ roll was not a viable music form.
Rock n’ roll on the other hand continued to reinvent itself, to influence and morph into different genres. The influence of rock n’ roll is heard clearly in other genres now and has become as intrinsic to the American cultural legacy as payola in the music industry. Though rock n’ roll waned for a short period of time it ultimately was revived by the British invasion which also revived the folk and R&B genres (Hood-Anklwicz 4).
Ironically the integrationist mentality that was once a part of rock n’ roll music faded in the early sixties undoubtedly influenced by the newly sanitized radio and broadcast environment, the loss of charismatic personalities such as Alan Freed and the stress of the continuously changing cultural dynamic in American society. Fears like those expressed in segregationist propaganda like the American Nationalist went unfounded as rock n’ roll eventually became racially segregated once more.
Dick Clark’s clean cut presentation of rock n’ roll minus the tilting pelvises and gyrations, minus the dancing in the aisles and frenzied pandemonium, minus the leather jackets and sideburns was to become the popular music among whites while African American performers performed for largely African-American audiences (Palmer, 146). Many African American performers of the rock n’ roll era have credited Freed with the breaking of social barriers and have recognized his attempt to encourage integration among young Blacks and Whites.
Before concluding that Alan Freed was ultimately made the example for being all things rock n’ roll, it is imperative to note that the practice of payola was never absent from the music industry, it “has never been and is not now illegal”. The 1960 law passed, did not make the practice illegal but made the failure to report payola illegal (Segrave,vii). While the concept of payola presents an ethical flaw in the system it is nonetheless a flaw that is as inherent to the music industry as is manipulation to the industry of politics.
The great professor and historian, Lord Acton, is quoted as saying, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. This notion is evident on both ends of the rock n’ roll spectrum on one end Alan Freed was said to “be drunk with power” (Palmer 23), so much so that he failed to see the danger in overbooking venues, was charged with encouraging riotous behavior among teens and a general failure to realize the detriment that would come to his livelihood if he continued to challenge the prescribed social norms of the 1950’s.
On the other end of the spectrum is the American government who continues to support censorship and participate in the creation of scapegoats when suitable to the larger political agenda. Overall, Alan Freed was a trendsetter who was perhaps “before his time” and thereby was punished accordingly for going against the grain. He lived as the champion of rock n’ roll firsts and died tormented by opportunities unrealized.