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Monday, March 21, 2022

March 21, 2022: Rock and Roll Groundbreakers: The Moondog Coronation Ball

[On March 21st, 1952, Cleveland Arena hosted the Moondog Coronation Ball, an event widely considered the first major rock and roll concert. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that concert and other groundbreaking rock and roll figures and stories, leading up to a special weekend post on 21st century rockers carrying the legacies forward!]

On three layers to a foundational concert (beyond the role of organizer and DJ Alan Freed, on whom more in tomorrow’s post).

1)      The Controversy: It’s strikingly telling that the first rock and roll concert ran into problems with the authorities, setting the stage for decades of such conflicts. In this case, the issue began with ticketing errors that led to roughly twice as many tickets being issued as Cleveland Arena could hold; when those roughly 20,000 ticket-holders understandably tried to stay in the arena, the event was eventually shut down (although the exact details of when and by whom remain uncertain and debated, setting the stage for the kinds of mythic stories/lore that have also accompanied rock concerts and rock and roll overall ever since). One thing’s for sure, though: the planned “coronation” of a teen king and queen at midnight, a clear reflection of rock music’s youthful appeal and audience from the jump, sadly did not take place.

2)      The Performers: While exactly when that shutdown occurred remains disputed, there’s no doubt that many of the night’s later acts, including Billy Ward and His Dominoes and Varetta Dillard, unfortunately did not get to perform. But as journalist and radio pioneer Valena Minor Williams recounted in her coverage of the event, the first two headlining acts did get to play, and each represents a unique thread to the history of early rock and roll. There was Paul Williams, the saxophonist turned R&B band leader whose signature sax sound, developed in hits like “The Huckle-Buck” (which gave his band The Hucklebuckers their name), embodied the evolution of jazz, blues, and R&B into early rock and roll. And following them were Tiny Grimes and His Rocking Highlanders, like Williams’ an all-Black band but in this case a group who performed in kilts, had scored a huge hit with their cover of “Loch Lomond,” and truly embodied the cross-cultural origins and evolution of early rock.

3)      The Legacy: There are all sorts of ways to remember a historic concert, including reading back into the coverage by Valena Minor Williams (and listening to as much of those artists/bands as we can, natch). But one of my favorite rock traditions is to keep concerts going, and starting with 1992’s Moondog Coronation Ball ’92—organized by Cleveland radio program director and legend John Gorman and featuring other legends including Ronnie Spector (rest in peace) and The Drifters—that’s been the case here. For decades after that 1992 revival radio station WMJI hosted an annual concert, although it seems to have paused (and perhaps stopped for good) a few years back. Those concerts could be labeled nostalgia, which of course has been a powerful force in rock (ie, “classic rock”) for a long while—but to my mind, live music is never simply nostalgic, and always a way to extend the legacy of the foundational such events like the Moondog Coronation Ball.

Next rock and roll remembrance tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other rock and roll pioneers you’d highlight?

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