The Black and women artists in Cleveland’s rock origin story: Carl Kurlander

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — Earlier this year, Jann Wenner was removed as president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation because of remarks he made defending why no Black or female musicians were in his book, “The Masters,” featuring rockers like John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Bruce Springsteen. It is time to remind everyone why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland and the role Black and female artists played in igniting a musical revolution that local DJ Alan Freed popularized as “rock ‘n’ roll.”

In 1952, Freed hosted “The Moondog Coronation Ball,” considered the world’s first rock concert. But to understand that event, one must appreciate the changes going on in post-World War II Cleveland.

Before the war, Big Bands were the rage and “Black music” was tracked separately by Billboard as “race records.” By 1947, jazz clubs were becoming popular in Cleveland — such as Club Tia Juana, opened by Catherine Drake after she was refused entrance to a white club. In a still largely segregated city, mixed audiences listened together to greats like Charlie Parker, Lena Horne, and Count Basie.

My grandpa Jack Cohen was a pioneer in the jukebox business during this time when jukebox operators were responsible for over 80% of all records sold in America. In 1941, as president of the Cleveland Phonograph Merchant Association, he invented “The Hit Tune of the Month” campaign where every jukebox in the city would promote the same song. When this began, few Black recording artists were played on radio stations, while jukebox operators like my grandfather were stocking their machines with records from The Ink Spots, Billy Holiday, and Nat King Cole. In 1947, my Grandpa Jack began throwing “Hit Tune of the Month” parties hosted by local disc jockeys like Alan Freed and Bill Randle. The Plain Dealer reported on the thousands of screaming teenagers showing up to vote for the latest “hit tune.”

Some of these young people, including my Uncle Louie, would go downtown to The Record Mart, owned by Jack’s brothers Harry and Ben Cohen, and to Record Rendezvous, owned by his friend Leon Mintz, looking for records like Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Rock Me,” Big Mama Thorton’s “Hound Dog,” and “Rocket 88″ by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, regarded as the first rock n’ roll record.

Freed and Randle were playing these songs on their radio shows, fueling the interest in this new sound. In 1951, Freed started broadcasting his show, “The Moondog House,” on radio station WJW, sponsored by Record Rendezvous. It was so popular that, within a year, it was syndicated around the country.

Parents were concerned their kids were dancing The Hucklebuck to Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams, a Black saxophone player, or listening to Tiny Grimes and the Highlanders, featuring Cleveland’s own Screaming Jay Hawkins singing, “I Put a Spell on You,” not to mention the scandalous lyrics of The Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man.”

Carl Kurlander

Carl Kurlander is a screenwriter and TV writer and producer.Carter Kusner

When Alan Freed hosted his Coronation Ball featuring these artists, so many teenagers showed up at The Cleveland Arena, they broke through doors and the police shut down the concert. Freed apologized the next day, but it was too late. The Rock and Roll Revolution had begun.

In 1955, Randle hosted a TV show at a Cleveland high school with Chuck Berry and a young Elvis Presley. Alan Freed’s tombstone on Mayfield Road is in the shape of a jukebox with an inscription crediting him with promoting music that bridged this country’s racial divide. John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Bruce Springsteen would be the first to admit they would not exist without the Black and female rock pioneers who gave birth to rock and roll in Cleveland.

Carl Kurlander is a screenwriter (”St. Elmo’s Fire”), TV writer/producer (”Saved by the Bell”) and documentary producer who teaches film at the University of Pittsburgh. He grew up going between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and proudly carries a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Archives library card.

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