In 1949 Freed moved to WXEL-TV in Cleveland, and later to WJW radio. It was while there that a local record store owner named Leo Mintz convinced him to emcee a program of rhythm & blues records and on July 11, 1951, calling himself "Moondog," Freed went on the air. Playing rhythm-and-blues for an audience that consisted primarily of white teenagers was something new and exciting for his young audience and it caught on quickly.
Freed would wait until 1:00 AM when he thought the station manager was asleep to play some of the music he selected. In the music business in the 1950's, it was a common practice for a white artist to cover a song that had originally been recorded by a black artist. Many of Pat Boone's early recordings were such covers. Alan Freed made a lot of enemies in the music business by refusing to play the white singers versions.
Alan Freed is often credited with coining the term "rock and roll" to describe the rhythm-and-blues records he played, however that expression had been around for years among the black musicians of the day. The phrase "rockin' and rollin'" referred to having sex, as in " we were rockin' and rollin' ". Freed, however, attached the term to the music he played on his radio program and soon, his listeners were using the phrase too.
As his popularity grew, Freed started to promote live shows. In March of 1952, he put on the "Moondog Coronation Ball" at the 10,000-capacity Cleveland Arena. To his surprise, 25,000 fans showed up, resulting in a near riot when they could not all be admitted.
In September 1954, Freed was hired by WINS radio in New York. The following January he held a landmark dance there, promoting black performers as "rock & roll" artists. Within a month, the music industry was advertising "rock & roll" records in the trade papers.
By 1957, Alan Freed had became so popular that he signed a $29,000 per day deal with Paramount Studios to make a teen oriented movie called "Don't Knock the Rock." His co-stars were Bill Haley and the Comets, the Treniers, Little Richard, Allen Dale and Dave Appell.
In the spring of 1958, when violence occurred outside the Boston Arena after a Freed stage show, local authorities indicted him for inciting to riot. The charges were eventually dropped, but WINS declined to renew Freed's contract and he moved on to WABC in New York, where he hosted a radio program and a locally televised dance show called The Big Beat on WNEW-TV.
Up until then, things had been going pretty well for Alan Freed, but on November 26, 1959, two New York detectives showed up to serve Freed with a subpoena to appear before the N.Y. District Attorney. The nature of the inquiry would come to be known as "Payola", a combination of the words "pay" and "Victrola", meaning that he had accepted money for promoting certain records on the air.
WABC asked him to sign a statement confirming that he had never accepted payola. Freed claimed payments he'd received from record companies were for "consultation," not as an inducement to play their records. He was promptly fired from both his radio show and the TV program.
From there he was hired by Los Angeles' KDAY radio in 1960, but when management refused to let him promote live rock & roll shows, Freed left the station and returned to Manhattan to emcee a live twist revue. When the twist craze died, he signed on as a disc jockey at WQAM in Miami, FL. Realizing that his dream of returning to New York radio was just that, Freed's drinking increased and the Miami job lasted only two months.
When his court case came to trial in 1962, Freed pleaded guilty to 26 counts of commercial bribery and received a suspended sentence and a $300 fine. Although he faced no prison time, his career was ruined. Other DJ's and promoters who had performed their jobs in a similar manner, escaped unharmed. Freed however, held his head high, maintaining that he had never played a record that he didn't like. What seems curious about his arrest is that the charges stemmed from 1959 and payola wasn't illegal until 1960.
In the following years, things went from bad to worse for Allan Freed. In 1964, the N.Y. Federal Grand Jury indicted him for $37,000 of income tax evasion stemming from the years 1957, 1958, and 1959. Living in Palm Springs, California at the time, Freed was broke, unemployed and unemployable. Before he could answer the charges, he entered a hospital suffering from uraemia and cirrhosis of the liver. Alan Freed died January 20, 1965 at the age of 43.
A movie based loosely on Freed's activities in the early days of rock-and-roll was made in 1978. Titled "American Hot Wax" , it features Tim McIntire in a stellar portrayal of Freed. Although the film is short on historical fact, it succeeds admirably in capturing the mood that was created in rock-and-roll by Alan Freed in the 50's. A book called Big Beat Heat by John A. Jackson explores Freed's role in the evolution of rock-and-roll and the lasting effect that he had.
In 1986, Freed was among the original inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and in 1991,
he received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.