It was on Friday, March 21st, 1952, that history would be made when the world’s first rock concert was held in Cleveland.
That night, around 20,000 swarmed to the Cleveland Arena for the Moondog Coronation Ball, even though the venue only held 9,950 seats. Due to a ticketing error, more than twice that amount were trying to cram into the venue. Before the show even began, many ticket holding concert go-ers had the doors closed on them, leaving them very unhappy. Pandemonium ensued and Police Captain Bill Zimmerman watched glass panels being broken and teens force themselves into the concert.
There were two men behind the historic event, Cleveland DJ and concert MC Alan Freed and Leo Mintz, owner of a music store. Mintz convinced Freed to give airplay to the music he noticed young kids “rocking and rolling” to in his store’s aisles. Using the on-air name King of the Moondoggers, Freed would coin the term ‘rock n’ roll’ on his WJW radio show, a program very popular with young black and white listeners.
As the program gained popularity, Freed and Mintz decided to showcase some of the talent with a live concert. Performing at the first Moondog Coronation Ball were Paul Williams and his Hucklebuckers, Tiny Grimes and his Rockin’ Highlanders, the Dominoes, Varetta Dilliard, and Danny Cobb. Tickets cost only $1.50.
As soon as Freed appeared on the stage to introduce the acts, uproar and disbelief followed when the mostly black audience could not believe the show’s popular host was white. With the over-crowding and ticket issues, a riot began. Firefighters opened the hoses on the crowd in order to gain control. The musicians were ordered to stop playing so police could gain control. One man was stabbed.
Several years would follow before the eventual downfall and demise of the King of the Moondoggers. In 1957, Freed’s nationally televised rock n’ roll show on the ABC network was canceled when Southern affiliates became outraged after witnessing a black performer dance with a white girl on stage.
Five more years would pass and Freed would be convicted of commercial bribery in the midst of the payola scandal. Three years later, he would die at the age of 43 from complications from alcoholism.
Still, the imprint of the first Moondog Coronation Ball is present in the modern rock concert and festival, even setting the foundation for Woodstock, Glastonbury, Isle of White, and more.
The Cleveland Arena was demolished in 1977. Today, an American Red Cross building stands on Euclid Avenue in the place that housed the first rock concert.
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