Cleveland, of all places, has long been hailed as the birthplace of rock and roll. The style upended traditionally held racial lines in music and entertainment.
In the early 1950s, rock music poured out over the Cleveland airwaves due to one rebellious DJ. With the help of a local record store, this man brought the genre to the nation.
Far from a cultural hotbed, Cleveland’s usually associated with Lake Erie and the failed steel industry in America. But today will find out how the city helped change the music playing on our radios.
Let’s tune in!
About Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland is an inland port city founded in 1796 by Moses Cleaveland on the banks of Lake Erie. Situated near the headwaters of the Cuyahoga River, the town grew up with shipping in its blood. Blending middle American culture with maritime influences, this burg became the sixth-largest hub by 1910.
In the late 19th century, Station Hope, as folks called the city along the Underground Railroad, connected people on the run to Canada. Home to a vocal group of abolitionists, the town established itself as a place of freedom.
In the 1930s, the city hosted the Great Lakes Exposition, which drew four million visitors in its first year. Following the period of growth after World War II, the city’s economy slowed in the 1960s.
By the 1980s, defaulting on federal loans led to restructuring. Decades of population decline reversed in the 2010s when the city finally saw growth again. Legacy arts institutions continue to rise, and the area’s known for progressive environmental policies. Poised on the edge of a new boom, Cleveland is also home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Let’s look at how the Sixth City became the first capital of this American sound.
What Is the History of Rock and Roll in Cleveland?
In the 1940s and 1950s, music was as segregated as the American south. Black artists played rhythm and blues, called “race music,” while White groups played mainstream hits. Often, White DJs played covers of songs by Black musicians recorded by White bands. Without DJ Alan Freed, the world might’ve never discovered rock and roll.
Freed’s radio show exposed audiences to the original versions of the genre. Inspired by a line in the song Sixty Minute Man by Billy Ward and His Dominoes, it’s a code phrase for sex. Young audiences loved the music, but older generations hated it. Either way, Freed opened Pandora’s Box, and there was nothing to do but dance.
When Elvis came to Ohio, he played in Cleveland. The Beatles played in the famous Public Hall. And rock and roll in the 1970s blasted over the airwaves, introducing audiences to David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, and Fleetwood Mac.
In 1983, when Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun decided where to put Rock Hall, Cleveland lept at the chance. Every year, a new class of royalty gets crowned at the city’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. If there’s a place more connected to the genre’s history, we haven’t found it.
Who Promoted Rock and Roll in Cleveland?
In 1951, when Alan Freed started his radio show on WJW in Cleveland, he decided something needed to change. Freed partnered with Record Rendezvous owner Leo Mintz to explore Black artists’ original work. White teenage listeners tuned in to the new genre, rock and roll, to the dismay of their parents.
Freed celebrated Black musicians on his radio program, something unheard of then. Primarily for White audiences, his show tore open the undercurrent of racism that plagued the industry. Freed decided to bring together several performers in 1952 for the first rock concert in the world.
Like any good show, Moondog’s Coronation Ball overflowed the Cleveland Arena and got shut down early. Freed moved to New York City and a bigger market shortly after the event. But the world heard the call, and Cleveland’s rock scene continued to grow from then on.
What Other Cities Claim to Be the Birthplace of Rock and Roll?
For a genre that blends rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz, and folk music, finding the birthplace is a challenge. To say one location is where all these elements came together ignores the melting pot of American music. Several other cities claim the sound as their own. Let’s take a look.
Another port city, New Orleans’ relationship with music is undeniable. Home to the most famous jazz families in the world, the Big Easy also seems to have a history with rock and roll. Along La Salle street, the Dew Drop Inn played an essential role in the Chitlin Circuit.
In the segregated south, Black musicians couldn’t play in White clubs. Chitlin Circuit clubs catered to Black audiences, and the Dew Drop Inn is where the players stayed. Currently under renovation, the hotel and venue hosted musicians who developed a sound we’d recognize as early rock and roll.
Fats Domino is usually credited with recording the first actual rock song in 1949. Fat Man has all the elements associated with the genre. A New Orleans native, Domino’s record seems to place the city at the top of the list.
Home to Sun Studio, arguably the first label to promote rock and roll records, Memphis also claims the crown. The studio opened in 1950, releasing Jackie Brentston and his Delta Cats’ first single in 1951. Historians frequently cite Rocket 88 as the first song in the genre, but that’s up for debate.
Memphis is also the hometown of Elvis Presley, one of the first White artists to embrace the new sound fully. From the age of 13, when his family moved to the city, Presley explored the clubs on the Chitlin Circuit. When he decided to pursue music as a career, he took on the style of his Black neighbors.
Sun Studio served as a home for artists like Howlin’ Wolf, James Cotton, and B.B. King. And for Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll, Memphis always felt like the genre’s birthplace.
Where Is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
In the 1980s, rock and roll dominated the music scene. For several decades, listeners chose these records over everything else. Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun decided to create a central place to celebrate the genre’s icons.
He formed an exploratory committee and sought applications from cities that might host the building. Cleveland put together the package that they liked best. Combined with the storied history of the area’s music, and a $65 million commitment, Ertegun broke ground in 1985.
Since opening in 1995, Rock Hall’s played host to luminaries like Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Aretha Franklin. Attached to the concert venue is a museum exploring the music’s history.
Designed by architect I.M. Pei, the hall features five floors of rock memorabilia. Visitors can interact with video installations and exhibits spanning the genre’s entire history.
Rock Hall is open seven days a week from 10 am to 5 pm, with late nights on Thursdays until 9 pm. Tickets for adults are $35, and kids 6 to 12 are $25.
Whether or not Cleveland is the birthplace of rock and roll, it’s played an essential part in its history. Alan Freed ensured that local audiences paid attention to the genre’s founders. And DJs in the 1970s brought seminal artists to the airwaves.
With the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it seems Cleveland’s title as the birthplace is, well, rock solid. But if you doubt it, we think every location on the list is worth a visit.
Check them out and let us know in the comments what you think!