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63 Years Ago: Rock and Roll’s First Concert Barely Gets Started

Moondog Coronation

The Moondog Coronation Ball, generally viewed as having been the first ever rock and roll concert, was held in Cleveland, Ohio on March 21, 1952.

Legendary DJ Alan Freed, the proclaimed “father of rock and roll” originally joined Cleveland AM radio station WJW in 1951 as the host of a classical music program. But it wasn’t long before Leo Mintz, owner of Leo Mintz’s Record Rendezvous in Cleveland, told Freed of the growing interest in rhythm and blues music among shoppers in his store.

In the summer of 1951, Mintz decided to sponsor three hours of late-night programming on WJW, dedicated to the music of rhythm and blues artists. The Mintz-sponsored show was known as the Moon Dog House Party, taking its name from a blues record by the group the Vees.

Over the following eight months, the show’s popularity increased. Given the growing success of the show, Mintz and Freed decided to venture into new territory: They would hold a live dance event featuring some of the artists whose records were being played on the Moon Dog House Party.

The Moondog Coronation Ball was to be held at Cleveland Arena and feature headliners Paul Williams and his Hucklebuckers and Tiny Grimes and the Rocking Highlanders (a black instrumental group that reportedly performed in Scottish kilts). Also on the bill were the Dominoes, Varetta Dillard and Danny Cobb.

Tickets to the 10,000-seat arena sold out within a day. However ticket counterfeiting and other factors including a ticket printing error resulted in between 20,000 and 25,000 people turning out for the event. The massive crowds outside the venue that were not able to gain entry (some of whom had legitimate tickets for the event) broke through the gates. This forced the police to shut the concert down after only one song.

Taking to the WJW airwaves the next evening, Freed apologized to listeners for the previous night’s events. “If anyone…had told us that some 20 or 25,000 people would try to get into a dance—I suppose you would have been just like me. You would have laughed and said they were crazy,” Freed told his listeners.

So while the world’s first rock and roll concert was a resounding success in terms of attendance but not so much in terms of content, it unquestionably changed the course of history.

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