The history of rock & roll cannot be told without its biggest ally, the radio. It was from its airwaves it got its name and where the public listened to Elvis and Chuck Berry, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for the first time. Radio was the propagator of the rock pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu, causing, for the first time, to break down racial and social barriers, and the whole world to be infected. These are the 5 most important radio voices when it comes to spreading rock & roll.
Maybe Alan Freed (December 15, 1921 – January 20, 1965) wasn’t the father of rock & roll, as some have called him, but he certainly was its boldest evangelist, giving it its name and being responsible for bringing it into white America’s homes. He made his name in Cleveland with his show Moondog Party, where he played mostly R&B music from black artists, after seeing how popular they were among white teenagers. Even so. his audience was integrated and when on March 21, 1952 he organised what many considered the first rock & roll concert, the crowd of 25,000 people who showed up were mainly blacks. The whole country took note and Freed moved to WINS station in New York where he would become the voice that spread the fever of rock & roll, ever defending original artists like Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, before the pale white imitations, Pat Boone and the like. His first New York broadcast was on the 7th of September, 1954, and it was so influential that the word spread that if Freed aired a song, it would sell 10,000 copies the next day. Moondog Party had become Rock ‘n Roll Party giving the style its definitive name, the terms ‘rock’ and ‘roll’ had been used long before that in black slang as euphemisms for sex, but it was Freed who decided to apply it to baptise this new music.
During his peak years he was nicknamed “the undisputed king of radio” and appeared in various films alongside some of the artists he had promoted such as Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. But his main role as promoter of the genre did not go unnoticed by the public authorities and in the late 50s he was tried for the ‘payola’ scandal - taking bribes to play certain songs. This was as old as radio itself, and of course, Freed had been doing it (even taking song credits on compositions like Maybelline by Chuck Berry and Sincerely by The Moonglows) but he never stopped putting on the music he liked most, and it seems clear that behind it there was a clear intention to finish with the wildest side of this new music. There was no way to stop rock music but Freed’s career was sadly affected, the famous DJ ended up drinking heavily and died mostly forgotten in 1965 of cirrhosis. In 1973 Dick Clark, his particular Pat Boone of the radio, had this to say about him, “Without Alan Freed rock & roll music would never have happened”.
Murray The K
Murray Kauffman (February 14, 1922 – February 21, 1982) got his big break after the Alan Freed scandal, radio station WINS decided to offer him the spot left open. From there he would become a star with an innovative, hysterical style. Although it seems his big contribution was as the main impulse behind ‘Beatlemania” in the U.S.. His ardent enthusiasm for the Liverpool lads led to being invited by Brian Epstein to spend time with the band during their legendary first American tour. Murray persuaded the station to broadcast the Beatles from their hotel, and accompanied them to their first show in Washington D.C., and the famous performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, making him the voice that spread the new phenomenon throughout the whole country, besides being given, for a short time, the moniker “the 5th Beatle”. His relationship with the Beatles would carry on, and would be invited to the filming of A Hard Day’s Night, giving his listeners more exclusives on the most popular band at the time. Murray The K also showed his good taste by being one of the few voices within the entertainment industry to praise the electric conversion of Bob Dylan in the mid-60s. This led him to open one of the shows on that iconic tour with the following words, “It’s not rock, it’s not folk, it’s a new thing called Dylan”. His name would be mentioned in songs like Do You Remember Rock ‘n Roll Radio? by the Ramones, and Who Will Save Rock ‘n Roll by the Dictators.
Before people could put a face on that howl of the ‘wolfman’, (thanks to George Lucas and American Graffiti), Bob Smith (January 21, 1938 – July 1, 1995) had already become one of the most iconic voices in radio history. He began his career in Virginia under the name Daddy Jules, using his favourite black DJs slang. Here’s where he started to imitate Freed’s concerts with integrated audiences, causing the Ku Klux Klan to burn a cross in front of his house, something that should be considered a badge of honour.
After working at various stations he began calling himself Wolfman Jack and in 1965 he began to broadcast from the Mexican border, near Tijuana. His gravelly voice drenched in alcohol and his love for the rock & roll that he played attracted a legion of followers who were asking themselves “Who is Wolfman Jack?”. His casual style, his howling, and his complicity with his listeners made him something of a myth, inspiring songs by people like Todd Rundgren, Leon Russell, Taj Mahal, Freddie King, the Doors, and The Guess Who, and articles in magazines like Time, Newsweek, and Life. When he appeared on American Graffiti in 1973, the cult figure became a star with numerous appearances on TV and wide coverage. But the wolfman has always been clear about his main weapon, his voice, something he himself has affirmed, “It's kept meat and potatoes on the table for years for Wolfman and Wolfwoman. A couple of shots of whiskey helps it. I've got that nice raspy sound”.
After the mid-60s rock was expanding as a genre, leaving behind the single format to focus on a larger duration format: the album. Records like Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan, Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and Sgt. Pepper’s by the Beatles were showing that rock had reached a mature age and artists didn’t want to waste a note of their material. Singles also got longer, with examples including Like a Rolling Stone and Light My Fire. Radio, which had bet on the model of the top 40 had to adapt to these changes, and one of the pioneers was Tom Donahue (May 21, 1928 – April 28, 1975) from his KMPX station in San Francisco.
Donahue chose to avoid the hits and centre on album tracks, hidden pearls by local groups like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, besides all the underground and hippie scenes in the city. It was the beginning of the splendor of FM, with Donahue letting the other speakers at the station play the songs they wanted, regardless of the success of the song. His influence was such that he is one of three DJs that has been included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Without any doubt the main figure in British music radio, John Peel (August 30, 1939 – October 25 2004) began his professional career at the legendary pirate station Radio London with his programme The Perfumed Garden, where he introduced progressive and psychedelic music to the country. But it was his move to the BBC after Radio London shut down on August 14, 1967, which made him the man who best knew how to anticipate the movement of rock in the following decades. The very man who in September ‘67 had Pink Floyd in for a session, and would do the same for Nirvana live in October ‘89, more than 2 years before they became globally famous.
His capacity to discover new things has taken him through psychedelia, glam, reggae, punk, and electronic music, attaining new audiences with each new discovery. We’re talking about someone who was Marc Bolan’s friend long before he got famous, who had the band Pulp, with Jarvis Cocker, on his programme 14 years before the appearance of Common People and spun the White Stripes before White Blood Cells. On top of that, his mythic sessions are something of a legend, getting a spectacular sound from his favourite bands, which made that some of that sessions ended on many legendary albums like Hatful of Hollow by the Smiths and Incesticide by Nirvana. We can readily talk about some sessions that tell us who is who in rock music, with Hendrix, Bowie, and Pink Floyd in ‘67, Led Zeppelin and T. Rex in ‘69, Bob Marley with the Wailers in ‘73, AC/DC in ‘76, Elvis Costello in ‘77, Joy Division in ‘79, the Smiths in ‘83, Nirvana in ‘90 and the Whites Stripes in 2001. His death on October 25, 2004 left a vacuum that still can’t be filled. As an epitaph he left in writing that his tomb should read a line from his favourite song Teenage Kicks by the Undertones, “Teenage Dreams, so hard to beat”. A line that perfectly sums up the power of radio to spread the most powerful teenage dream, rock & roll.