Remarkable Tales: The Moondog Coronation Ball



2018-03-23 15:50:15

Our latest edition of Remarkable Tales features the story of how a second-hand record store owner, an unemployed DJ and a minor printing error caused the world's first rock and roll riot. 

This week marks the anniversary of The Moondog Coronation Ball, widely regarded as history's first true rock and roll concert.

Held at the Cleveland Arena on March 21, 1952, the show ended in complete chaos. Rioting teenagers smashed windows, police officers swung clubs, and the local fire department turned on the hoses. 

It was a huge success.

In 1950, the 'Vous was the place to be for Cleveland's hippest music fans.

There were listening booths, a loud sound-system, live appearances by artists, and huge boxes of records to dig through.

Leo Minzt had opened Rendezvous Records in 1948, selling sheet music and second-hand jukebox records. And he watched every weekend as teenagers flocked to the store and danced between the record racks, to the sound of black artists such as Ruth Brown and Fats Domino.

He also noticed the number of young white customers increasing, which was unusual for a store on the edge of the city's black community. But they weren't spending any money.

In America in 1950, black and white culture was strictly segregated. The stigma attached to these 'race records' meant white kids may have loved listening to them, but they were too afraid to take them home – and this bothered Mintz, as both a businessman and a music fan.

He realised that this dichotomy opened up a huge gap in the market for a radio show that played the latest black R&B records.

And if he had a radio show, he could definitely sell more records.

Enter Alan Freed.

Freed was a radio DJ who had made his name across the state in Akron, playing a mix of hot jazz and pop on WAKR (1590 AM).

But he arrived in Cleveland unemployed, and with a non-compete clause from his former employer hanging over him, meaning he couldn't transfer his mainstream success to another radio station.

When Mintz and Freed met, it was clear they shared a passion for music. Mintz convinced Freed that a show dedicated to R&B would be a hit, and that he was the perfect man to host it. 

With a little help, Freed eventually slipped loose of his former contract, and Mintz bought airtime on the Cleveland radio station WJW (850 AM). It was the midnight show – the perfect place for Freed to reinvent himself, and break all the rules.

The WJW Moondog House radio show was a riot.

On air Freed was a fast-talking, beer-drinking maniac. He howled at the moon, rang cowbells, and thumped along to the heavy beat on a telephone directory.

And most importantly, he had all the best tunes – ably supplied to him by Leo Mintz, who sat by his side in the studio and handed him records to play.

These records were wild, a mix of heavy backbeats, jumping rhythms and double entendres. And thanks to Freed and Mintz, this music now had a name. They called it rock and roll.

Freed called himself Moondog, after the instrumental track Moondog Symphony, which became the show's theme tune.

His growing army of fans across the city were known as Moondoggers, and he was their King. By March 1952, he felt it was time for a coronation.

Freed and Mintz chose the Cleveland Arena as the ideal venue, and hired some of the most rocking acts they could find.

On the bill were Paul Williams and the Hucklebuckers, Tiny Grimes and his Rocking Highlanders, The Dominoes, Danny Cobb and Varetta Dillard.

Many of the acts had shared the same stage before, but this was different. This wasn't a nightclub on the chitlin' circuit – it was a 7,500-seat arena.

The scene was set for a live show that would unite black and white music fans across the city, on a scale nobody had attempted before.

Posters went up around town, and Freed promoted the party on his show. It was going to be "the most terrible ball of them all". Be there or be square.

This original ticket for the Moondog Coronation Ball is believed to be the only surviving example from that historic night in Cleveland.

It was the last of the original run which Leo Mintz printed and sold in his record store. Today it can be found on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was donated to the museum by Leo Mintz's family in 2010, during a dedication ceremony of a new gallery named in his honour.

But back then, Mintz had no idea the ticket would become one of music history's most significant relics. He just saved it for himself and framed it as a memento.

When all 7,750 tickets sold out within a matter of days, Mintz and Freed realised they were onto something big and quickly began organising another show to capitalise on the demand.

There was just one problem. Due to a printing error, the tickets for the follow-up concert featured the same date as the first – meaning around 15,000 people now had tickets for the Moondog Coronation Ball.

Add walk-ups on the night, and the bunch of crafty counterfeit tickets that had hit the streets, and you had 20,000 cats ready to party.

And they all wanted in.

On the evening of the show, the Cleveland Arena was packed to the rafters. Inside, the audience was dressed to the nines and prepared to dance.

Outside, they were furious.

Once the arena was full, staff locked the doors, leaving thousands of legitimate ticket holders stuck outside. Tempers soon began to flare. They'd all paid $1.50 to see a rock and roll show, and they weren't going to take 'no' for an answer.

The main doors to the Cleveland Arena were made of glass. They didn't last long.

Back inside, Alan Freed finally strode out onto the stage to introduce the show and the crowd erupted with a mixture of excitement and surprise.

Nobody had guessed that the howling, growling, beat-thumping King of the Moondoggers – the man who championed black music across the airwaves – was actually white.

First up on stage was Paul Williams, whose 1949 hit 'Do the Hucklebuck' had spent 19 weeks at #1 on the R&B chart, selling half a million copies across the country.

The band started playing, feet started tapping, and the first rock and roll show in history was underway.

In a 1992 interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Williams recalled the performance: "Suddenly I looked up, and the doors seemed to be moving. Just like they were breathing...and by the time we finished that first song, people poured into the Arena like water."

With thousands of extra fans streaming through the broken doors, the venue became dangerously overcrowded and the police had no choice. After just one song, they pulled the plug on Paul Williams and the Hucklebuckers, and shut the whole thing down.

The entire concert lasted three minutes. Backstage, the Rocking Highlanders barely had time to get into their kilts.

It took more than two hours and 30 police officers to clear the building, as a horde of disappointed kids shuffled and shoved their way out onto the street.

But like all good shows, the Moondog Coronation Ball had left them wanting more. 

Freed was forced to make a public apology over the airwaves, stating "If anyone ... had told us that some 20,000 or 25,000 people would try to get into a dance — I suppose you would have been just like me. You would have laughed and said they were crazy."

Crazy like a fox, perhaps. That night he had more listeners than ever, and he was just getting started...

The following day, news of the riot spread across the city, then the state, then the country. Suddenly there was a new enemy heading for your town, to corrupt your kids and destroy the moral fibre of the nation.

It was loud, it was nasty and it was dangerous. And the kids loved it.

Look-out America, here comes rock and roll!

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