The tenuous claim Cleveland has often made for being the “birthplace of rock and roll” is that the “first rock concert” took place here. That event, known as the Moondog Coronation Ball, after the local radio show of DJ Alan Freed who promoted it, took place on March 21, 1952 at the long-demolished Cleveland Arena at E. 36th and Euclid.
With the sponsorship of Record Rendezvous, Freed started at WJW-AM in July 1951. His 11:15 P.M. to 2 A.M. radio program, “The Moondog Rock & Roll House Party,” started as a mixture of popular hits and R&B records. With Leo Mintz sitting in the studio at his side, handing him records, the music mix evolved into the first rock ‘n’ roll radio format. Although disc jockeys across the country were playing R&B records on the radio, Freed was the only one calling it rock ‘n’ roll. Freed’s radio style, howling and yelling “rock & roll,” while pounding on a telephone book, his wit and his ambition were the sparks that fueled his popularity with the teens in the black neighborhoods. They were attracted to the music, but it was Freed’s Moondog persona that created a very loyal audience, the Moondoggers.
After several months at WJW, Freed began promoting dances that featured the R&B bands he played on his radio show. After a few events, with promoter Booker Brooks, Freed formed a partnership with Lew Platt. After a few dances in Akron, Canton, and Vermillion, they promoted a large show at the ARENA on 21 Mar. 1952. Advertised as “the most terrible ball of them all,” the event was called the “Moondog Coronation Ball” because Freed intended to crown himself the “King of the Moondoggers.” The show featured Paul Williams & The Hucklebuckers, Tiny Grimes & The Rockin’ Highlanders, the Dominoes, Danny Cobb, and Varetta Dilliard.
Neither Freed or the Arena staff were prepared for the large crowd that showed up the night of the concert. After admitting the capacity of the hall, there were still thousands outside waiting to get in. When the music started, the huge crowd outside broke down the Arena doors. Inside, fighting broke out in the audience and the concert ended after the first song. It took the CLEVELAND POLICE and the CLEVELAND FIRE DEPARTMENT several hours to clear the Arena and to stop the fighting. City Council immediately passed an ordinance making it illegal to oversell the capacity of a public building. Despite Freed’s denial that the show was oversold, he was accused of exposing his young audience to danger. The local newspapers gave the incident front page coverage and the wire service spread the story around the world. Suddenly, the press was talking about rock ‘n’ roll and its evils.