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Alan Freed
Alan Freed

History of Boston Rock
History of Boston Rock & Roll - Chapter 3 - The Alan Freed Riot

1957 saw rock 'n' roll rise into national prominence as Philadelphia's American Bandstand, hosted by Dick Clark, began its national broadcast on August 7,1957 on ABC. Alan Freed, also, hosted a television show, which subsequently was cancelled when he dared to allow Frankie Lyman, a black singer, dance with a white woman on national TV.

Due to Freed's Continuing dedication to black originals rather than white performers' cover versions, many racists in the music business disliked him and forced him to become an outcast who ultimately suffered tragic consequences.

The Boston chapter of his downfall began in the early evening of May 3, 1958, when The Big Beat Show, starring Buddy Holly & the Crickets, Chuck Berry, Jo-anne Campbell and Jerry Lee Lewis, took over the stage at the Boston Arena (which is now Northeastern University's Ice Rink on St. Alphonsus Street.)

What occurred that night is somewhat shrouded in mystery, each version of the story in some way contradicting the others, The date fell on a Saturday and the news was reported so late at night that it didn't hit local papers until Monday morning.

Here, then, is the Boston Globe's day by day account of the controversy that followed, as made obvious by the sensational front page headlines of each edition.

Monday Morning, May 5, 1958:

The details are sketchy, but a confirmed stabbing of a 19-year-old Stoughton sailor did take place"in a wild melee that followed the show," Most of the rioting took place outside of the building.

Tuesday Morning, May 6, 1958:

Mayor Hynes (of Hynes Auditorium fame) made a public statement that rock concerts will no longer be tolerated in his city. "They (the promoters) will not be permitted in Boston and no outside promoters need apply (for a license)."

Paul Brown (manager of the Boston Arena) added, "Kids were standing on chairs and dancing in the aisles the minute the police backs were turned. The building was dark with only the spotlights on. I said, "the heck with that, and I ordered on the house lights."

Tuesday Evening, May 6, 1958:
Satin Jacketed Packs Of Teens Slugged, Beat And Robbed 15.

Paul Brown: "Over my dead body will there be another rock show in the Boston Arena."

Alan Freed: "A police sergeant approached me before the show and said, 'We don't like your type of music. There are nothing but hoods in here.' "

The Big Beat Show traveled to Lewiston, Maine that evening and the performances went smoothly under heavy police patrol. New Haven, Connecticut Mayor, Robert Lee, declared that he would follow Boston's decision and ban a Thursday night show.

Wednesday Morning, May 7, 1958:

Freed announced, "We intend to fulfill our engagement" and filed suit against the ban.

Mayor Hynes then hardened his position on the ban, exclaiming, "I will never permit such a show to be hold In Boston during my administration."

Freed followed by suing the Boston Police, charging them with brutality and libelous reporting of violence. He praised the city's teens and said, "They deserve better than this." (allegedly false reports of rioting and other heinous behavior).

It took the Globe three days to finally come out with its estimate, In this edition, of the crowd's size: 6,000.

Freed denied allegations that, when the house lights were turned on, he took the stage and told the audience, "it looks like the police in Boston don't want you kids to have any fun," which police reported prompted the rioting.

New Jersey officials in turn asserted that they, too, would ban rock n' roll shows.

May 7, 1958 Evening:

Senator William D. Fleming (D-Worcester) charged that narcotics were sold at the show and requested support for prohibiting any rock activities at any state-owned armory or building. "We have enough trouble keeping the good name of the Commonwealth without these New York people."

Alan Freed made another public statement - "These kids in Boston were the greatest - they were wonderful kids. But the police were brutal. They grabbed kids and shoved them back. I saw one of them grab a little 14-year old (not Kathei Logue) and call her a foul name. I was shocked. After all, I have teenagers myself."

The Boston Police embarrassingly admitted that they made no arrests, and Police Supt. Francis J. Hennessy and Comm. Leo J. Sullivan announced that they were "both satisfied the Boston Police acted in their usual good manner in handling the affair."

Thursday Morning, May 8, 1958:

District Attorney Garrett H. Byrne appointed Capt. Francis G. Wilson of Roxbury and Asst. Dist. Atty. Edward M. Sullivan to investigate the situation and present evidence to a jury.

Letters from across the country began to pour into Hynes' office lauding him for his ban. One letter arrived from a Pennsylvanian, a 33-year-old author of children's books. Suggesting that Hynes charge Freed with inciting a riot.

Lo and behold, Thursday evening's Boston Globe headlines screamed -

Suffolk County D.A. Byrne charged Freed with "inciting the unlawful destruction of property" under the Massachusetts anti-Anarchy Law, Chapter 264 Section 11. The Penalty? A fine of not more than $1000 dollars or imprisonment of not more than 3 years of both.

Freed's reaction? "I am being used as a scapegoat for all the crimes in the city on Saturday night."

It wasn't the first time Freed had been used as a scapegoat, and it wouldn't be the last.

Friday, May 9. 1958:

Although the news didn't make the front page, D.A. Byrne made public on page 8 that Freed had four days to voluntarily surrender himself, and Freed's New York lawyer, Mr. Warren Troob, explained, "my client is not an anarchist."

News also leaked in from Now York that Freed had sent a letter of resignation to WINS, his radio headquarters. because he felt that WINS had "failed to stand behind my policies and principles."

Freed's resignation remained unknown to everyone over the weekend due to the fact that news of our beloved vice president, Richard Nixon, took over the headlines. It seemed that Dick was being stoned by Peruvian leftist sympathizers on his South American visit. Hilarious headlines such as Pat Nixon Says 'I'm So Proud of Richard I Could Bust' and other reports of his stamina during the rock-throwing incidents took precedent over all other news.

Monday Morning, May 12, 1958:

Freed was nowhere to be seen but the article announced that Boston lawyer Paul T. Smith had been chosen to represent Freed in the pending trial which was set for November 17th. The case never came to court for the charges were dropped when Smith filed for a dismissal. The following statements, observations and events have occurred since that time and shed more light on the whole fiasco.

1) In an excellent recent Goldmine article about Freed written by Jeffrey L. Rutledge, Jo-anne Campbell, a female singer on the Big Beat Tour stated that no stabbings ever took place. Kids were merely getting rowdy in the balcony, and Freed was forced to stop the show three or four times to quiet them down.

2) The anarchy laws that Byrne charged Freed with were leftovers from the 19th century. And not content with a mere "Inciting a riot" allegation, the City of Boston lost its head and charged Freed with trying to overthrow the United States government!

3) Goldmlne's article also reports that the Worcester senator who charged that narcotics were used and who banned rock parties" from public buildings was merely seeking to gain publicity and votes (at the time, Worcester was being considered as a site for future concerts).

4) After looking at many pictures of Freed, who was a pleasant, kindly man resembling a young Tom Bosley on Happy Days, we don't know how the Boston Globe found the picture of Freed that they continually printed - in which he looked demonic, with teeth bared and eyes rolling In weird directions. When we asked Freed's lawyer, Paul Smith, about this selective and distorted editing, he told us, "You should see some of the pictures of me that the Globe has printed when they haven't liked one of the cases I was representing!"

5) At this point, the F.B.I. began keeping tabs on Freed: the beginning of a very long surveillance.

6) The Boston City Council called upon the clergy of Boston to back the decision and asked them to corroborate a list of "approved DJ's." The clergy in town collaborated nationally and damned rock n' roll. Boston and its churches were the first to exploit the record hop back in 1952, but by 1958 attendance had begun to dwindle at the church dances. Since the money wasn't there anymore, the Boston archdiocese had nothing to lose by putting its own "Banned In Boston" into effect.

At the Annual Teachers Institute of the Archdiocese of Boston, the Very Reverend John P. Carroll made the following statements: "There's nothing wrong with D.J.'s. Many of them are helpful guides of youth. But others refuse to face their responsibilities and opportunities (obviously referring to Freed). Rock n' roll influences and excites youth like jungle toms readying warriors for battle. Inject a wrong word or misunderstanding and the whole place blows up. The suggestive lyrics on r&b records, of course, are a matter of law enforcement." (sex being considered a crime back then).

7) Freed's financial backers were incensed by the fact that they lost an estimated $200,000 when the tail end of The Big Beat Tour was cancelled.

8) Two other sources said that Freed was not even the spokesman who told the audience "the police don't want you to have any fun" but that it was instead either a Boston D.J. who helped emcee the show (Freed's N.Y. lawyer Troob) or Jerry Lee Lewis, according to a fan who attended the show and heard "The Killer" say these words.

9) The issue pertaining to the petitioning of the license suggests that a "witchhunt" had occurred and some type of dishonor within the police force had occurred as well.

In conclusion

Paul Smith still practices low in Boston, and we were able to talk to him about Freed. "The whole thing was totally absurd," he told us. "Everything was totally blown out of proportion. The laws didn't even exist, really, and the charges were quickly done away with when I filed for the case's dismissal. After this happened, it was very hard for Freed to find work. He couldn't get the contracts he was once getting.

"At the time he was having some domestic problems, and the whole thing really hurt him (spiritually). The entire thing was really a shame. He was a very decent man. It wasn't fair."

Less than a year and a half later, Freed would be indicted once again. This time under U.S. Sen. Oren Harris' Investigation of commercial bribery (payola) and corruption. Along with New Yorker Freed, Boston and Cleveland D.J.'s made a trip to Washington D.C. for the trials to testify. These trials would literally put the nails in Freed's coffin.

The effect of this event did slow down concerts in Boston until the early 1960's, but the ban didn't actually quell any enthusiasm for rock n'roll. However, the red tape involved with obtaining police and/or fire permits made large rock concerts impractical to attempt.

NEXT TIME: Local hits and bands of the late 1950's, including the Jamies' "Summertime," the MIT car smashing riots, Arnie "WooWoo" Ginsburg's Night Train begins on WMEX. COMING SOON: Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon, Payola Trials, and the Birth of Club 47

This article originally appeared in The Beat in 1985
(c) Charles William White III

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