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The Death of Alan Freed

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When we look back at the rise of R&B in the late 1940s and its manifestation as rock 'n' roll in the 1950s, the music and energy were mesmerizing. We see electrifying optimism on the faces of artists and hear a huge beat, horns waiting, flamboyant artists hollering and hyperactive disc jockeys in claustrophobic studios spinning 45s and creating a private world of excitement for teens. The film American Graffiti (1973) caught some of this energy and teen wonderment about the music, albeit in a laundered and cliché sort of way.

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Sadly, the truth about the record business back then was much less romantic. Artists were not only chiseled out of payments, their royalties were often seriously and irrevocably compromised by payola practices. To push disc jockeys to play records repeatedly during key times of day, record distributors typically showered disc jockeys with cash, favors, low-interest loans, cases of alcohol, prostitutes, part-ownership of record labels and even full or partial songwriting credits for songs they never thought twice about until the single arrived.

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As I write on today's Arts & Review page in The Wall Street Journal (go here), Alan Freed was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to what was going on with payola in  the 1950s. Despite Congress naming dozens of disc jockeys around the country who were tied to payments during its hearings in late 1959 and early 1960, including Dick Clark, Freed wound up the fall guy. Maybe it was because his name rhymed with "greed" or he was too strident an advocate for rock and black artists or because he didn't have a better lawyer or he thought he was bigger than the problem. Whatever the reason, Freed became the poster boy for the payola blowout that gave rock 'n' roll a bad name. When the dust settled, Freed couldn't find work and what his reputation didn't comromise, his drinking did. He died on this day 50 years ago at age 43.

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Today, when Freed's name is mentioned, it's often in connection with payola—with the caveat that he also coined the term "rock 'n' roll." While Freed received his fair share of "consulting" payments as he became the country's most influential disc jockey, he also deserves a large slice of credit for helping to make many artists household names, for fusing rock with the youth culture, and for helping to change teen views about integration.

 

 
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None of this excuses having his name added to songwriting credits, including Chuck Berry's Maybellene, a travesty that only was rectified by having Freed's name removed in 1986. Rationalizing this royalty by saying his hype and endless airplay resulted in massive visibility and sales isn't an excuse. But demonizing Freed to the point of extinction also is grossly unfair. To judge, we have to look at the entire landscape, how business was conducted and who else was involved up to their necks in conflicts of interest.

 

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A couple of ironies also come to mind. First, payola never went away when Congress ended the hearings. It just had to be better masked. As recently as 2006, three major record labels pleaded guilty and paid a multimillion-dollar fine when New York State discovered that their labels had engaged in pay-for-play schemes. And last year, Hannah Karp of the Wall Street Journal wrote a terrific piece (go here) on how top artists who slash their fees to play at radio-sponsored festivals and holiday bashes do so with the expectation that their latest songs will be played on the air, whatever that means these days.

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The second irony is that while Congress was beating its chest over evil disc jockeys who accepted payments and gifts to play records, the same Representatives expressing outrage over the practice having lunches, accepting trips and perhaps more from lobbyists hoping to win their votes. Alan Freed deserves better in history's eyes.