Rock ‘n roll was banned in Boston and five other Northeast cities in 1958 after an alleged riot broke out following Chuck Berry’s performance on the Big Beat show hosted by Alan Freed.
The News Journal reported the ‘raucous, undulating rhythms that teen-agers call cool’ were banned in Boston and New Haven. New Britain, Conn., banned rock ‘n roll too. Troy, N.Y., and Newark, N.J., cancelled shows and Providence’s mayor said he’d only allow Alan Freed to hold a scheduled concert under severe restrictions.
The May 3, 1958 show at the Boston Arena was the beginning of the end for Alan Freed, the disc jockey who called himself the ‘Father of Rock ‘n Roll.’ He was charged with inciting a riot and quit his job as a WINS disc jockey. A year later, his career would be over in a payola scandal.
Rock ‘n roll would prevail, of course, despite Boston Mayor John B. Hynes pronouncement: “These so-called musical programs are a disgrace and must be stopped. As far as I’m concerned, Boston has seen the last of them,” he said, according to United Press, two days after the alleged riot.
Alan Freed, born Dec. 13, 1921, in Windber, Pa., started out playing hot jazz and pop music on small radio stations in Pennsylvania and Ohio. By 1951 he played rhythm and blues on Cleveland’s WJW station under the name ‘Moondog.’ He staged the first rock concert in March 1952 at the Cleveland Arena. Twenty thousand fans crashed the gates (the Arena held 10,000) at a dance he called the Moondog Coronation Ball.
Freed moved to WINS in New York City in 1954. There, Life magazine acknowledged him as the creator of the rock ‘n roll craze. He was known internationally through rock ‘n roll movies and a half-hour radio show that aired in Europe. The Beatles were introduced to Little Richard and Elvis Presley on the show, called Jamboree.
Freed incited controversy. He hosted a television program on ABC in 1957 that didn’t last long. On the fourth show, African-American singer Frankie Lymon danced with a white girl, which offended ABC’s southern affiliates.
By 1958 he emceed and managed the 17-act Big Beat show. It featured Jerry Lee Lewis, Frankie Lymon, Chuck Berry and Danny and the Juniors.
The Fateful Show
In Boston that Saturday night in May, 20 police were on hand for the 5,000 rock ‘n roll fans who jammed into the Arena.
The first half of the show went smoothly. But during the second half, police interrupted the show several times, forcing Freed to quiet the audience. Jerry Lee Lewis and his bands had the kids dancing in the aisles, but the police again forced Freed to stop the show and make the audience sit down.
Then Chuck Berry came on stage to close the show. Again, the kids danced in the aisles. Again, the police forced Freed to make them sit down. One of the police officers refused to dim the houselights. Freed, frustrated, told the audience, “It looks like the police in Boston don’t want you kids to have any fun.”
At that point, fighting broke out and kids started throwing chairs at each other. Freed got blamed for inciting the melee with his remarks, but the fight may have been a result of gang rivalry. Berry hid behind the drummer to get as far away from the scuffle as possible. The crowd then poured out into the streets.
What happened next is unclear. The newspapers reported stabbings, sluggings, robberies and rapes. Jack Hooke, Berry’s manager, remembers walking out of the Arena a half hour after the show ended and seeing nobody.
The neighborhood surrounding the Arena was then a rough part of town with frequent muggings. A lawyer for Alan Freed said the police simply took everything from the police blotter in the precinct that night and blamed it on his client.
Only two people were arrested, and a news item about the riot described incidents far from the Arena – rock throwing at the Boston Garden and muggings in Roxbury and Back Bay.
Banned in Boston
A few days after the concert, a Suffolk County grand jury indicted Alan Freed for inciting a riot. Suffolk County District Attorney Gabriel Byrne justified the indictments. He said the ‘attitudes of the adults sponsoring the shows’ inspired the ‘juvenile outbreaks.’
Alan Freed, he said, put ’emotional TNT on their turntables.’
On Thursday, Alan Freed announced he was quitting WINS because the station didn’t stand behind him. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges due to lack of evidence.
The Boston show, though, signaled more trouble. In 1959 WABC fired Alan Freed after he accepted payola from record companies. He spent the rest of his career working for small radio stations, and died at the age of 43 from uremia and cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism.
Freed was far more prescient about rock ‘n roll than Mayor Hynes. He once said,
Let’s face it—rock ‘n’ roll is bigger than all of us.
With thanks to Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry by Bruce Pegg. This story about Alan Freed was updated in 2020.