On this day in history, March 21, 1952, first rock concert held in Cleveland ends in chaos, conflict

The first rock ‘n’ roll concert, the ill-fated yet legendary Moondog Coronation Ball, pulsed from the stage of the former Cleveland Arena amid chaos and controversy on this day in history, March 21, 1952.

“There was a sense of dynamite going off,” Indiana University professor emeritus and rock ‘n’ roll historian Glenn Gass told Fox News Digital.

“Right from the start, it was seen as dangerous music. Kids loved it. Parents hated it. Great. What a way for rock ‘n’ roll to get its start.”


The oversold show ended early and, fittingly, in a conflict with authorities — which quickly became a hallmark of the explosive, controversial and bawdy new musical art form.

“Described as the ‘Big Bang of rock ‘n’ roll,’ the concert was organized by DJ Alan Freed and music store owner Leo Mintz and was headlined by saxophonist Paul Williams and his Hucklebuckers,” writes Guinness World Records in its confirmation of the show’s pioneering status in live-music history.

R&B pianist and singer Amos Milburn with Paul Williams (baritone sax, center), Eddie Silver (tenor sax, left), Jimmy Brown (trumpet), Belton Evans (drums), and Steve Cooper (bass), circa 1950. Paul Williams, performing with the Hucklebuckers, co-headlined with guitarist Tiny Grimes the first rock concert in Cleveland on March 21, 1952.  (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“The event was credited with ‘bringing Black and White kids together to dance in post-war America, but was abandoned after approximately 30 minutes due to overcrowding and rioting after more than 20,000 revelers stormed the 9,950-seat venue.”

The concert was co-headlined by guitarist Tiny Grimes, according to promotional posters from the landmark event.

Apparently only Williams, the opening act, got to perform before the show was cut short in haste by local officials as crowds of ticket holders gathered on Euclid Avenue were unable to get into the arena.

“In 1948, at the age of 33, Williams recorded ‘The Hucklebuck,’ an instrumental considered by many music historians to be an important precursor to rock ‘n’ roll,” writes Blackpast.org.

Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland, March 21, 1952, organized by DJ Alan Freed and record-store owner Leo Mintz, is regarded as the first-ever rock ‘n’ roll concert.  (GAB Archive/Redferns)

“At a time when record companies promoted ‘race’ records only among African Americans, Williams’ song became a major crossover hit among both Black and White audiences.”

Fellow headliner Grimes recorded with artists such as Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday and pioneered rock sound with his up-tempo jazz-guitar style, according to various sources.


DJ Freed proved the real breakout star of the first rock concert.

He was “the boundary-smashing, trend-setting evangelist of rock ‘n’ roll,” writes the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which made him a member of its charter class of 1986, alongside the genre’s greatest early icons, including Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Little Richard.

Freed, among other claims to fame, is credited with popularizing the phrase rock ‘n’ roll as its aggressive beats and sexually suggestive lyrics swept over American radio in the 1950s and soon conquered pop culture.

“Freed was the most effective proselytizer rock ‘n’ roll has ever known,” writes the Rock Hall.

American disc jockey and radio performer Alan Freed (1921-1965), who popularized the term rock ‘n’ roll, sits in a 1010 WINS sound studio during a radio broadcast, 1950s.  (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Spreading the word from a radio pulpitthat kicked off nightly to the strains of Freddie Mitchell’s ‘Moondog Boogie,’ Freed kept time to the music by smashing his hand on a telephone book. He first conquered Cleve­land over WJW, and then moved his show to NewYork’s flagship WINS.”

Freed’s celebrity soon extended far beyond the radio studio.


He appeared in numerous movies that popularized rock’s earliest stars, including “Go, Johnny, Go,” alongside American music icons Berry, Jackie Wilson and Ritchie Valens.

The movie was released in June 1959, four months after Valens was killed in a plane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.

Chuck Berry performs his “duck walk” as he plays his electric hollowbody guitar at the TAMI Show on Dec. 29, 1964 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Santa Monica, California. Rock promoter and DJ Alan Freed appeared with Berry and other rock icons in the 1959 movie “Go, Johnny Go” — the title taken from the lyrics of Berry’s rock hit “Johnny B. Goode.”  (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Freed has also been celebrated on TV and in various rock songs.

“He had an amazing ability to find new music and new artists,” Jason Hanley, vice president of education for the Rock Hall, told Fox New Digital.

“He got rock ‘n’ roll to reach a much bigger audience than it would have otherwise.”

Freed’s career ended in disgrace, however.


He was indicted on charges of tax fraud in 1964 and became the center of the “Payola” scandal in which radio stations were accused of taking money from record labels to play their music.

The legend of the Moondog Coronation Ball, and Freed’s ability to see the future of music, changed global pop culture forever.

Photo of marquee at unspecified theater promoting a rock ‘n’ roll concert hosted by DJ and early rock figure Alan Freed. The marquee also highlights “Don’t Knock the Rock,” a 1956 movie about a town that bans rock ‘n’ roll.  (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Metallica, Motley Crue and AC/DC, among others, played before 1.6 million people in Moscow in 1991, in what’s widely proclaimed the largest rock ‘n’ roll concert in history.

“Crocodile Rock” crooner Elton John recently wrapped up his COVID-interrupted global Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, in July 2023.

Billboard last year proclaimed it the biggest selling concert tour of all time, with 330 concerts in all, including two festival shows.

Cleveland rose to prominence as a birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, and became the home of the Rock Hall of Fame in 1995, thanks largely to Freed’s impact, said Hanley.

“Cleveland has always been a rock ‘n’ roll town, and a gospel town, an R&B town and one of the great music towns,” he said.

For more Lifestyle articles, visit www.foxnews.com/lifestyle

Kerry J. Byrne is a lifestyle reporter with Fox News Digital.

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