The Home of Rock and Roll
A historical look at one of the most well known landmarks in Cleveland
February 3, 2011
BY LARA DE ALBA
From the very beginning, Cleveland has been at the heart of the history of rock and roll music and culture. The Rock and Roll of Fame, built in 1993, honors the key role played by Cleveland in the history of popular music in its formative years in the 1950s. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has also been designated as a historical landmark by the city and the state because it was here that local deejay Alan Freed coined the famous term.
The use of the phrase “rock and roll” has historical roots in the euphemistic reference to sex in rhythm and blues music, which was known for its youth-inspired lyrics and electric guitars. The term’s sexual connotation comes from the 1922 Trixie Smith song “My Baby Rocks Me with One Steady Roll.”
With loud music that was easy to dance to and performers such as Elvis Presley, known for his provocative gyrating movements onstage, parents heavily criticized the new genre and linked it with juvenile delinquency. Teens, on the other hand, found rock and roll to be an outlet, and were able to connect with the lyrics and the bands. Rock and roll music had a strong influence on clothing style, popular cars, and eased racial tension through the common interest in the music.
In 1939 Leo Mintz opened The Record Rendezvous at 300 Prospect Ave. in Cleveland that specialized in what was known as “race” music, or rhythm and blues. But it wasn’t until 1951 that Mintz convinced a new friend, WJW-AM (known today as ESPN 850-WKNR) deejay Alan Freed, to reformat his classical music show to exclusively play rhythm and blues music that would be provided by Mintz himself.
Freed accepted the offer and began a new program called “The Moondog House Rock and Roll Party.” It quickly gained popularity and on March 21, 1952 Freed hosted the “Moondog Coronation Ball,” which featured The Dominoes, Veretta Dillard, Tiny Grimes & His Rockin' Highlanders featuring Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams.
The concert sold over 16,000 tickets at the Cleveland Arena, which could only accommodate 10,000 people. A riot broke out as those who paid for tickets demanded entry. That chaotic evening would go down in history as the first rock and roll concert.
Although not in attendance at the “Moondog Coronation Ball,” three days after that fateful night, Lakewood High School graduate Jane Scott joined the staff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Plain Dealer was the first major American newspaper to have a full time music critic on its staff, making Scott the very first rock critic in the world.
In the 1960s, Leo’s Casino at 7500 Euclid Ave. served as a popular nightclub where famous musicians would play for mixed audiences during a time of high racial tension. It was also the venue of Otis Redding’s last performance before being killed in a plane crash in 1967.
Many recording artists were from Cleveland, among them The Raspberries, The Pretenders, The Glass Harp and Pere Ubu. The song “Play That Funky Music White Boy” was recorded in Cleveland at Sweet City Records. Even to this day, the Cleveland area continues to produce musical talent including Kid Cudi of Shaker Heights and Solon, Kate Voegele of Bay Village and The Black Keys from Akron.
Cleveland State University music professor Frank Vazzano includes Cleveland in his curriculum for the course “Roots of Rock and Soul.” It is not hard to see why, considering the role the city has played in the history.
“Of course, Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed was the first person to refer to R&B music as "rock and roll" on the air, and it caught on,” says Vazzano. “That's pretty significant. Sure, he ended up in New York, but that would never have happened had he not made such a huge impact in Cleveland first. That was in the 1950s, when rock and roll was still new; but even throughout the 1970s, after rock had become "big business," Cleveland remained a very important market for recording artists and record companies to crack. New York and L.A. weren't enough...you needed to break the Midwest as well, and Cleveland was a kind of gateway to that. Cleveland represented that "heartland" rock audience, to use the cliché.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation has been in existence since 1983, and was originally proposed to be built in New York. However, several other cities including New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland all made offers and campaigned for the coveted location.
A 1986 USA Today public opinion poll showed Cleveland in the lead by 110,000 votes when asked where the Hall of Fame should be located. Cleveland’s business and public leaders worked hard to ensure that the funds were available to build the Hall of Fame in Cleveland. On May 5, 1986, it was announced that Cleveland would be the permanent home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
June 7, 1993 was the day the groundbreaking ceremony took place, with artists Billy Joel and Chuck Berry present. On September 2, 1995, the museum opened with Little Richard and Yoko Ono participating in the ribbon cutting ceremony.
Rock and roll and the city of Cleveland have come a long way from being played on a local radio station, having since evolved into a billion-dollar industry.