Cleveland's Rock History

February 4, 2015

Cleveland Rock History

The History of Rock and Roll in Cleveland

You've heard the moniker "Cleveland Rocks," you keep hearing us tell you that Cleveland is the home of rock and roll and, of course, you know that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is located in Cleveland.

But, why?

What's probably most interesting about Cleveland's connection to rock and roll is that it doesn't simply revolve around just one particular event or person. It's a collection of all sorts of historical happenings that, in our humble opinion, didn't happen by chance.

After all, this is Cleveland. Much like rock and roll, we know a thing or two about freedom, individuality and, frankly, doing things our way.

Defining "Rock and Roll"

Many claim that the one defining moment that makes Cleveland "the birthplace" of rock started back in the early 1950s with help from a radio disc jockey named Alan Freed. His radio show on WJW in Cleveland was gaining momentous popularity because of the kind of music he was playing for his white listeners.

Much like what the United States experienced on a societal level during that time, music, too, was split in half - by race. White folks were listening to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. On the flip side, African Americans were listening to rhythm and blues, which was referred to as "race music."

It's no secret that Freed and owner of the Record Rendezvous record store, Leo Mintz, had become great friends. Mintz's store was making waves for itself as one of few places where white people could listen to and purchase this "race music."

Mintz convinced Freed to start playing this music on his radio show - but they changed the genre's name to "rock and roll."  Unbeknownst to listeners, the term was borrowed from old blues tunes and not-so-subtly means "to fornicate."

The results were positively astounding. The audience - particularly white teenagers - was being exposed to a new sound of which parents and grandparents often didn't approve.

And so began rock music's faithful marriage to the spirit of rebellion.

Rock and Roll Concerts

On March 21, 1952, Freed hosted the world's first rock and roll concert in Cleveland and called it "The Moondog Coronation Ball."

The show, oversold by more than 10,000 tickets, caused an overflow of the crowds who broke down the doors and stormed the arena where a full-scale riot escalated. And, wouldn't you know it, the first-ever rock and roll concert was ultimately canceled.  

It was at that point that rock music made headlines across the country and (no surprise!) controversy ensued.

Just three years following the catastrophe of the Moondog Coronation Ball, one of rock and roll's most controversial musicians made his way to Cleveland: Elvis Presley. 

At the time, Elvis was an up-and-coming rocker who was singlehandedly responsible for the swooning of teenaged girls with his swaying hips and coiffed hairstyle, while successfully scaring the you-know-what out of old folks.

And, thanks to Cleveland DJ Bill Randle, Elvis played in Cleveland at Brooklyn High School - his very first concert above the Mason-Dixon Line.

Eleven years and the evolution of rock music later, it was The Beatles who found themselves playing in Cleveland in 1966 - inside the city's iconic Public Hall.

It was no surprise that this was a much-anticipated concert. The crowds swarmed the stage several times, which led police to delay the show multiple times before finally cutting the performance short.

The following year, The Beatles were banned from playing in Cleveland ever again.

Cleveland's WMMS-FM

From 1973 - 1986, there was a rock and roll phenomenon happening in Cleveland that was driven by local radio station WMMS-FM.

At the time, FM radio was the redheaded stepchild of the radio world - upstaged by its more powerful AM counterparts. But that disregard led to the creation of WMMS-FM, which played into the growing popularity of free-form radio where the DJs were able to play what they wanted.

For just about a decade, the DJs at WMMS, who attained rock-star status, programmed the station to focus around up-and-coming musicians and just plain good music. By keeping with this philosophy, the station catapulted the careers of such bands as Rush, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac.

The radio station, which acquired national famedom, broadcasted live events called "Coffee Break Concerts." These free, daytime concerts became legendary during the 70s and 80s in Cleveland and often highlighted new musicians to the audience - musicians like Lou Reed, Peter Frampton, John Mellencamp and Kenny Loggins.

It's safe to say that much of that traditional rock and roll sound one associates with the 70s and 80s got its start right here in Cleveland thanks to WMMS.

Learn More

This was just a smattering of Cleveland's rich connection to rock and roll. If you want to learn more about the subject, here are some recommendations:

Have a Cleveland rock and roll memory to share? We'd love to hear!

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