They call Cleveland, Ohio, “The Mistake by the Lake.” It’s an unfortunate nickname, stemming from their wretched winters, a river that has a tendency to catch fire, and a seemingly permanent place on any Most Miserable Places to Live in America list. But for as much guff as Cleveland takes, it is a rock and roll town, perhaps the rock and roll town. There’s more than one reason the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland, and today we celebrate one of them: the very first rock concert, held in 1952.
His name was Alan Freed, but he called himself Moondog. He started off as a classical music DJ on the Cleveland AM station, WJW. Freed’s friend, Leo Mintz, owned a record store. Mintz was selling more R&B than classical music, and decided to sponsor a three-hour long late night show featuring the music the kids were buying. Freed was the host of that show, becoming the first rock and roll DJ.
The show was a hit, and Freed and Mintz decided to take things to the next level by sponsoring a live concert, featuring some of the artists Freed featured on his show. The performance was called “The Moondog Coronation Ball,” and it was to be held at the Cleveland Arena.
Headlining the bill were Paul “Huckleberry” Williams and the Hucklebuckers, along with Tiny Grimes and the Rocking Highlanders. Those guys were a black instrumental group that played while wearing kilts. The Dominoes, Danny Cobb, and Varetta Dillard were also on the bill. Freed was planning on simulcasting the show directly from the arena.
Great plans, but you know what they say about plans. Sometimes, they don’t work.
The Cleveland Arena held less than 10,000 people. This was in the days before bar codes and Ticketmaster, so there were a lot of counterfeit tickets to the show floating around. Over 25,000 rock and roll fans came rushing through the doors, much to the surprise of local police and Alan Freed himself. The Hucklebuckers got to play one song until the show was closed down by the Fire Marshall.
Cleveland doesn’t like to let a good idea go. They still hold a Moondog Coronation Ball every year in Cleveland, featuring oldies acts, but it’s held at the Quicken Loans Arena, a much larger venue. It may only be rock and roll, but Cleveland likes it.