By now, you’re likely no stranger to Cleveland’s legendary status in rock ‘n’ roll history. And while the story typically begins in the 1950s with a white Cleveland disc jockey named Alan Freed — who is credited for popularizing the term “rock ‘n’ roll” on his popular local radio show — we know there’s more to that story.
Freed was actually playing the new Rhythm & Blues records released by Black artists. (In fact, he was a champion of musicians such as Chuck Berry. ) And his show drew listeners from Cleveland's white and African American communities. Today, you can still experience the best live Hip-Hop, Jazz, R&B and Rock at venues throughout the city from Bop Stop to the Beachland Ballroom.
In Cleveland, take a deep dive into rock’s important connections to many legendary Black artists by visiting the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, exploring the city's music history, and learning about the lives and careers of Cleveland born-and-bred musicians.
Rock 'n' Roll On Display
The very core of rock ‘n’ roll music is derived from Black styles of music such as blues, gospel and R&B. It is the very essence of the Black experience that we have to thank for what we recognize as rock music today.
The Rock Hall’s numerous and constantly evolving exhibits, which include costumes, instruments and artifacts made famous by Black artists, illustrate this rich history. Rock ‘n’ roll owes much to the foundational music of pioneers such as guitarist (and 2018 Rock Hall Early Influences inductee) Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who is highlighted in permanent exhibits.
Elsewhere, the Rock Hall celebrates Motown and soul legends (including Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin) with memorable artifacts. Fans can also see some of the most iconic clothing from musical greats: Michael Jackson’s sequined glove, James Brown’s rhinestone jumpsuit, the beautiful dresses worn by Diana Ross & The Supremes, and Beyoncé’s gold dress from the "Run the World (Girls)” video. There's also an entire area of the museum dedicated to the artistry of Jimi Hendrix, featuring his guitars, outfits he wore on stage, song lyrics and even his childhood drawings.
"It's Been Said All Along: Voices of Rage, Hope & Empowerment" is a journey through the history of music and visual artists creating art as a response to unspeakable tragedies and to promote social justice, while also fighting for equal rights and opportunity elsewhere out in the world. And "Hip Hop at 50: Holla If Ya Hear Me" showcases the deep cultural impact of the artform.
Cleveland Artists Make an Impact
As the rock 'n' roll age dawned, Cleveland's African American community also had a thriving music culture.
Leo’s Casino, the site of Otis Redding’s last concert in 1967, was one of the most racially integrated venues in town and played host to the likes of Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, The Temptations and The Supremes. Boddie Recording Co. was Cleveland’s first African American-owned and operated recording studio whose lower rates allowed hundreds of Gospel, Soul, R&B, Bluegrass and Rock groups to record demos to send to Motown Records and other labels.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins was best known for his single "I Put a Spell on You,” which has been covered extensively and was named as one of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" by the Rock Hall. A 45 pressing of the record and Hawkins’ zebra-print cape are on display.
Local hip-hop luminaries Bone Thugs-n-Harmony shot into the stratosphere with their second album, 'E. 1999 Eternal,' largely fueled by the chart-topping "Tha Crossroads." The song spent eight weeks atop the Billboard 100 and was certified double platinum. A skull pendant from group member Krayzie Bone hangs in a display focused on Cleveland and other Midwest cities.
Cleveland's Own Inductees
Being the very place where the term “rock ‘n’ roll” took off, it should be no surprise that artists from Cleveland and its surrounding areas have been inducted into the Rock Hall.
The O'Jays formed in Canton, Ohio, while still in high school, taking their stage name from a local disc jockey. Their biggest hits were "Love Train," "Back Stabbers" and "Use Ta Be My Girl." Founding member Eddie Levert's late sons Gerald and Sean, both Cleveland natives, went on to musical success of their own in the R&B group LeVert. The O'Jays were inducted in 2005 by pop superstar Justin Timberlake. An outfit worn by group member Walter Williams is on display inside rock’s hallowed halls.
Singer-songwriter Bobby Womack, known for the soulful numbers "Across 110th Street," "If You Think You're Lonely Now" and "That's the Way I Feel About Cha," was born and raised in Cleveland. Womack's talents stretched across genres from classical, soul, rock and even country music. He was inducted into the Rock Hall in 2009 by Rolling Stones guitarist and vocalist Ron Wood.
There are plenty more incredible Cleveland artists who may be inducted soon. Tracy Chapman, best known for her songs "Fast Car" and "Give Me One Reason," is one such example of an incredible multi-platinum, Grammy-winning artist in addition to being an outspoken human rights activist.
Black History in CLE
Visit our Black Culture page and immerse yourself in Cleveland’s Black history.