You’ve heard it all. Cleveland is the home of rock and roll and, of course, you know that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is located here as well.
Cleveland’s connection to rock and roll doesn’t revolve around one particular event or person. It’s a collection 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”
Image courtesy Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Many claim that the defining moment that makes Cleveland “the birthplace” of rock started back in the early 1950s, with help from radio disc jockey Alan Freed. His radio show on WJW in Cleveland was gaining popularity because of the kind of music he was playing for his mostly white audience.
The music experience in the United States was split in half – by race. White audiences were listening to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, while African American audiences were listening to rhythm and blues, which was referred to as “race music” at that time.
Freed became great friends with Leo Mintz, owner of Record Rendezvous record store. Mintz’s store was making waves as one of few places where white people could listen to and purchase “race music.” Mintz convinced Freed to start playing this music on his radio show, but they changed the genre’s name to a borrowed term from old blues tunes – rock and roll – which was actually a term for fornication.
The results were positively astounding. The audience – particularly white teenagers – were being exposed to a new sound their parents and grandparents often didn’t approve of.
And so began rock music’s faithful marriage to the spirit of rebellion.
Rock and Roll Concerts
Image courtesy Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
On March 21, 1952, Freed hosted the world’s first rock and roll concert – The Moondog Coronation Ball – in Cleveland.
The show, oversold by more than 10,000 tickets, caused an overflow of crowds that broke down doors and stormed the arena, resulting in a full-scale riot and, wouldn’t you know it, the first-ever rock and roll concert cancellation. Now rock music was making headlines across the country and, surprise, controversy ensued.
Three years after the catastrophe of the Moondog Coronation Ball, one of rock and roll’s most controversial musicians made his way to Cleveland: Elvis Presley.
Elvis was an up-and-coming rocker who was singlehandedly responsible for the swooning of teenaged girls with his swaying hips and coiffed hairstyle. He also scared the you-know-what out of the squares. Thanks to local DJ Bill Randle, Elvis played his very first concert above the Mason-Dixon Line at Cleveland’s Brooklyn High School.
Eleven years and the evolution of rock music later, it was The Beatles who found themselves playing in Cleveland’s iconic Public Hall in 1966. The unsurprisingly much-anticipated concert saw crowds swarm the stage several times, leading 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.
From 1973 – 1986, there was a rock and roll phenomenon happening in Cleveland driven by local FM radio station WMMS.
At the time, FM was the redheaded stepchild of the radio world – upstaged by its more powerful AM counterparts – but that lent an outcast, rebellious spirit to the platform. Combined with the growing popularity of free-form radio, where DJs were able to play whatever they wanted, this spirit led to the birth of WMMS.
For almost a decade, DJs at WMMS like Kid Leo and others – who attained rock-star status – programmed the station with a focus on up-and-coming musicians and just plain good. In keeping with this philosophy, the station catapulted the careers of artists like Rush, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac, just to name a few.
The now nationally known radio station broadcast 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 the traditional rock sound associated with the 70s and 80s got its start right here in Cleveland thanks to WMMS.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of Cleveland’s rich connection to rock and roll. If you’d like to learn more, we recommend the following: