In this extended excerpt from my book, Godfather of the Music Business, I tell the story of how Morris Levy partnered with Alan Freed to create the first successful rock ‘n’ roll stage shows.
It is probably through booking his Birdland tours that Levy became aware of a young deejay who was shaking up the airways in Cleveland named Alan Freed. Freed was among the first to play R&B markets—typically marketed only to African-American audiences—on a mainstream radio station. He also adopted an on-air personality to go along with the music, perhaps inspired by the recording “Moondog Symphony”; he howled as records played, and rang a cowbell and pounded on a phone book to emphasize the “big beat” of the records he liked best. Freed extended his popularity by coproducing and emceeing a live stage show, “The Moondog Ball,” in 1952, credited by some as the first rock and roll show. Twenty-five thousand fans showed up to an arena that seated 10,000; without reserved tickets, some fights broke out, giving a black eye to the young musical style.
Freed’s radio show was picked up by a small station in Newark, New Jersey, in 1953, giving him a toehold in the New York market. A concert emceed by Freed in Newark attracted landmark crowds, showing the previously unknown popularity of R&B in the New York region—and the potential for the music to generate big money for concert promoters. Billboard estimated the crowds at over 11,000, with about 20 percent of the audience being white—a significant number in the period when most R&B concerts drew only small audiences outside of the African-American audience. It also attracted the attention of New York radio station WINS, then struggling to build listenership. Bringing the popular deejay to New York was the obvious solution.
Soon after bringing his Moondog persona to New York, Freed hit an unexpected roadblock. A blind streetsinger named Louis Hardin had already recorded under that name, suing Freed for infringement. Hardin appeared in court like a biblical prophet, wearing long robes and appearing every bit the street person that he was. Nonetheless, because he could show he was using the Moondog name years before Freed adopted it, Hardin won an injunction against Freed. WINS was anxious to put the case behind them, so they urged Freed not to appeal. Morris Levy recalled a meeting where they discussed a new name for the Moondog radio show:
Alan was having a few drinks and bemoaning the fact that he had to come up with a new name. To be honest with you, I couldn’t say if Alan said it or somebody else said it. But somebody said “rock and roll.” Everybody just went, “Yeah, Rock and roll.”
Still smarting from the incident with Hardin, Freed and Levy formed a corporation together to copyright the term “rock and roll.” Although much has been made about this move over the years as a brazen attempt to cash in on a new musical style, Freed more likely just wanted to avoid future lawsuits. As the term increased in popularity, Levy realized that it would be impossible to police it and, even if they could, their claim to have originated the term probably wouldn’t hold up in court.
Soon after coming to the city, Freed asked Levy to help him produce a live stage show like the ones he had previously hosted in Cleveland. Most likely Freed lacked the finances and connections to book a hall in New York and looked to the more experienced Levy to put up the cash and handle the details. Levy agreed to work with the deejay, saying that he would split the proceeds 50-50 with Freed. However, he soon realized that Freed was not above selling more than 100 percent of his ventures:
About five days [after they made their agreement], the manager of WINS says, “Moishe, was have a problem. Alan Freed’s been in town a week now, and he’s already given away a hundred and twenty percent of himself!” He had a lot of talent, but he was also a little nuts.
Perennially in need of cash, Freed would often make overlapping deals with several different people to fund his many side ventures. Levy also believed that Freed “had to be protected from people who would play up to him. . . he had his needs and his weaknesses. One of these was to be told how great he was. If people did that, they could get to him.”
Slowly, Levy expanded from being Freed’s partner in concert promotion to being his manager, partnering with him in all of his activities beyond deejaying, including music publishing and eventually proposing that they start a record label together. Despite this unwritten management arrangement, in October 1955, Billboard announced that Gaetano (aka “Corky”; “the Big Guy”; “The Galoot”) Vastola was Freed’s manager. Vastola was a member of New Jersey’s DeCavalcante gang, as well as the second cousin of Dominic Ciaffone, another mobster who would be an early investor in Levy’s Roulette Records. Vastola was an intimidating figure; Ciaffone said, “This kid could tear a human being apart with his hands.” Levy claimed that he met Vastola through Ciaffone, and originally hired him to work “as a bouncer in a couple of clubs I owned. … And then later on he was trying to get into the business, so he worked with me on shows that I did with Alan [Freed].” Levy said he also gave Vastola “some acts to manage.” As late as 1958, Vastola was quoted in the trades commenting on Freed’s career. Whether Levy was fronting for Vastola when he claimed to be Freed’s manager, or Vastola was protecting Levy’s investment in Freed, is unknown. The Galoot certainly had the muscle to keep would-be “friends” of Freed from gaining access to him.
R&B shows were not the easiest sell to local ballrooms, which were leery of the bad publicity that occurred when crowds got out of control. The music itself was under attack for its sexual lyrics (Variety magazine stuffily tagged them “leer-ics”), heavy rhythm, and “juvenile” appeal. The only hall Levy could find for the first Freed show was at the St. Nicholas Arena located on the corner of West 66th Street and Columbus Avenue. A run-down ex-ice rink converted to a boxing arena, the hall was located far west of New York’s prime entertainment district. Drawing a large crowd to this off-the-beaten path location would be a struggle. The show was produced under the new name of a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ball,” although much of the press still referred to the music played there as R&B. According to Levy, Freed made just six brief announcements on air before the show to solicit advance ticket sales; almost immediately, $38,000 in advance sales flooded in. Levy was stunned:
I says, “Oh my God. This is crazy.” Well, it was two of the biggest dances ever held. The ceiling was actually dripping from the moisture. It was raining inside the St. Nicholas Arena. I’m not exaggerating.
It was estimated that the audience was nearly evenly split between white and black teens, one of the early indications of the crossover appeal of R&B music and Freed himself.
The industry journal The Cash Box reported that the show:
had to be seen to be believed. A total of about 12,000 people jammed the hall on both nights. When we say jammed we must add that the word hardly describes the solid mass that stood for five hours to see the wonderful r&b show that Freed had arranged. Seen from above, the enthusiastic teeners seemed to be jelled into one swaying body with thousands of heads. That they adored Freed was evident from the uproarious welcome with which they greeted his appearance.
The success of this first show gave Levy the leverage needed to book a better hall for the next Freed revue. Not able to convince the owners of Manhattan’s Paramount Theater—where Frank Sinatra had left bobbysoxers swooning in the mid-‘40s during his appearances there—he booked the next best location in the chain, the Brooklyn Paramount. Located in the then still thriving area of Flatbush Avenue, the lavish movie palace was among New York’s finest. Usually, the Paramount kept half of the ticket income over $30,000 in return for a guaranteed payment of $15,000 to the promoters, a fairly health sum for the time. Cannily, Levy negotiated different terms, forgoing the guarantee in return for an escalating portion of the box office that would reach 90 percent if the gross topped $60,000. The Paramount’s owners—having never seen a show gross anything near that high—were happy to accept his offer. Freed, however, was more skeptical and was furious that Levy made this deal; Levy said:
Alan stopped talking to me, because people had steamed him up that I sold him down the river by not taking a guarantee. As a matter of fact, one big agent bet me a case of Chivas that we’re gonna get killed. Well, we opened up the first day, and there’s lines in the streets, and the pressure’s so great at the door that we start to cut out the movie. Alan and I pass each other in the hallway. I says, “How’s it goin’, Alan?” He makes a face. I says, “Hey, Alan, let me ask you a question. You want to sell your end now for twenty thousand?” He says, “What do you mean? We’re making money?” … And I told him what we’re gonna make for the week. And he started talking to me again.
In those days, it was common to have 6 or 7 performances a day before each showing of the movie. However, no one came to see the movie with Freed in the house; instead, the film was used to clear the house between shows, as a means of moving in the next crowd of teenagers. Many of the kids booed loudly during the showing of the film. Cash Box reported that the total take for the week was $178,000, topping the previous record holders, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, who took in $147,000 at the Manhattan Paramount.
Freed and Levy would produce several more shows in Brooklyn; the New York Times’ reported that their Easter 1956 show grossed $204,000 over 10 days and their following Christmas revue racked up $180,000 over 8 days. The shows attracted wide press attention, with the Easter show rating a half-page photo of the cheering teens in the audience in a Life magazine feature on the popularity of the new rock music style. Not surprisingly, while praising the music’s danceability, the Life reporter raised questions about its “suggestive and occasionally lewd” lyrics. Nonetheless, these were record-breaking takes for the theater, and Levy and Freed’s portion of the gross was far more than any previous promoter/artist team had been able to negotiate.
The duo’s successful shows in Brooklyn enabled Levy to score his biggest coup, a booking at the Manhattan Paramount for the Alan Freed Rock ‘n’ Roll Show during the Washington birthday week in early 1957. And while the movie was often an afterthought, in this case the performances were complemented all week by the premiere of the latest Alan Freed movie, Don’t Knock the Rock. The result was throngs of teenagers crowding New York’s Times Square, the heart of the entertainment district, attracting coverage in “respectable” media like The New York Times. The crowds began gathering as early as 4 AM for the opening of the box office that was scheduled for four hours later; the box office was continually busy with new ticket buyers through 1 AM the following morning. All in all, over 15,000 teens saw one of the six stage or seven movie shows on the first day, with a total take of $29,000, a record for a single day at the theater. This record attendance occurred despite the fact that kids seated in the second balcony “stamped their feet so vigorously . . . that firemen became alarmed and sent for inspectors from the Fire and Buildings Departments at 5 PM. The management cleared three-fourths of the 1600 youngsters from the second balcony as a precautionary measure.” It wasn’t until 8 PM that the balcony was reopened when it was deemed safe.
Freed’s previous Brooklyn shows had been timed to occur during major school holidays (Easter Break; Christmas) so that he could maximize his audience. His concern in coming to midtown was that the shows were scheduled for a time when most teens were in school and he was afraid that adults wouldn’t let their teenage children go out on school nights. His fears turned out to be ill-founded, as the attendance all week was strong for all the shows. The financial arrangement was amazingly generous: the Paramount kept the first $50,000 in admissions, but then Freed and Levy took 90 percent of the take above that. Admission prices began at $1.50, but increased as the day went on, so that the charge reached $2.00 at 10 AM and $2.50 after 2 PM. According to ledger notes that Freed kept, his take from the show was almost $109,000.
In a review headlined “Frenzy and Furor at the Paramount,” the New York Times critic assessed the show:
A so-called “rock ‘n’ roll” musical program opened yesterday on the Paramount’s screen and stage. And somehow . . . the roof stayed on. … this spectator watched the stage platform rise from the pit, as the entire, chanting audience mounted seats. . . The stage portion… was obviously what the spectators had come for, and they thumped it on down with the whole performing gang.
And O-Daddy-O, those cats had it! Anybody above 30 who elects to brave the Paramount’s new program may find himself amid a composite of a teen-age revival meeting and the Battle of the Bulge. And O-Daddy-O, with a slight case of St. Vitus dance, compliments of the house—if it’s still standing.
The stunning success enjoyed by Freed and his meteoric rise to fame and power in the New York pop music scene was not lost on Levy. Clearly there was big money to be made on the new teenage music. Levy was well-positioned as a publisher, artist management, promoter, nightclub operator, and tour manager, but he lacked one key ingredient for maximizing his profits: a record label. His success with Freed gave him the financial ability and the inspiration to go into the record business big time. This would become the focus of his energy in the years to come.