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December 21, 2014
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This weekend Cleveland celebrates a seminal event in the history of contemporary music, the 55th anniversary of the Moondog Coronation Ball. Blood Sweat and Tears, The Buckinghams and the Association will rock the Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night but March 21st is the actual anniversary. WKSU's Vivian Goodman takes the occasion to look back at the glory days of rock and roll on the North Coast.

On March 21, 1952 it wasn't the usual show . It was live from the Cleveland Arena the first ever rock and roll concert

Pandemonium broke out when 25,000 showed up at a venue that could hold only 10,000.

Tickets were $1.50 for the first Moondog Coronation Ball, but nobody got his money's worth because so many fights broke out the police had to shut it down after Paul Hucklebuck Williams had sung only one song.

But WJW DJ Alan Freed and his Moondog Coronation Ball had already succeeded in putting Cleveland on the map as the birthplace of rock .

Cleveland was on a roll a wild decades-long ride that culminated in winning the rock hall.

Over a bagel and coffee at Tommy's in Coventry, former WMMS program director John Gorman reminisces about coming to Cleveland from Boston with his colleague Denny Sanders thirty years ago to pitch a progressive format: They were a couple of long-haired kids who thought they could draw an audience for the new music that wasn't getting played on top 40 radio.

Gorman says, "We had every fm radio station door shut in our face in Boston. So it was actually the format that we wanted to do in Boston was what we did in Cleveland."

Gorman assembled most of his talent from college radio. Jocks like Kid Leo and Matt the Cat from Cleveland State.

Gorman continues, "People who would work almost for nothing to put their brand of music and to do new experimental radio on the FM."

He made sure every deejay got a copy of every new album:

"...And so we were finding some things that were unique the Alex Harvey band, Roxy Music, the New York Dolls, and the labels started realizing 'wait a second we're selling copies of all these obscure artists in Cleveland and no where else, whats going on there?'"

A lot was going on. Station owners were willing to risk being creative with their FMs. Record companies were pushing new bands and Cleveland had a lot of great clubs where they could get exposure. It was what Buddy Maver, who used to book the Agora, calls a parlay.

Maver says, "If I brought an act in it was gonna be an act that was getting hot rotation on MMS and it was an act that had a commitment from the record company where they were going to give them tour support and it was a whole combined concerted effort."

"The scene was incredibly vibrant," says James Gang drummer Jimmy Fox.

He continues, "The first time we toured Europe we phoned back to MMS every day, you know that kind of thing. So I always felt very supported by Cleveland radio and I also felt after having traveled for a couple years that there was no better local radio than Cleveland."

August 9th, 1978, the Cleveland Agora, WMMS put on the concert to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Choosing the headliner was a no-brainer. Murray Saul's Get downs and Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" had been kicking off the weekends at WMMS every Friday night at 6.

Gorman recounts, "People loved Springsteen in this market. He was a blue-collar rock and roller. He did a soundtrack for Cleveland."

It was a concert that rivaled Woodstock, at least in many Clevelanders minds.

WKSUs Bob Burford was then just 21. He remembers it this way: "When Bruce came out and he started out with summertime blues the place just went nuts and you forgot about being ridiculously hot and sweaty because the show went on for three hours and people just walked out of there drained completely and it was a night that those who were there will never forget."

Burford shares his memories of a rabid rock fan in the new Gray & Co. book "Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories."

There's a whole chapter on local legends like the Raspberries, Michael Stanley, the James Gang, and the Outsiders.

Sonny Geraci was a teenager in 1966, playing the Cats Meow and the Hickory Grill downtown, and the Riviera Ballroom in Solon with Tom King and the Starfighters.

They had a great new sound, a blend of Motown and the British invasion. But this was before local bands could get on Cleveland radio. So they changed their name to the Outsiders and lied that they had just arrived from the West Coast.

Geraci says, "...And they started to play the song thinking we were a California group and the song started to take off. Once it took off then they knew who we were and they claimed us Cleveland's own. That's what it took to break through in the Cleveland market and then the song went to number one pretty much all over the world."

Geraci still does 60 one-nighters a year touring with groups like Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago and the Buckinghams. He still lives in Cleveland, but feels his hometown let him and the Raspberries down.

He says, "They might not know who Eric Carmen is, they might not know who I am, but as soon as I did "Time Won't Let He" or "Go All the Way" or "All By Myself" - and I did "Precious and Few" - they know who we are. And, 'Oh, those people are from Cleveland,' that would have been a feather in Cleveland's cap, but Cleveland doesn't look at it that way and I don't know why."

It could be because the parlay no longer exists. Deregulation of radio created conglomerates that stifle creativity. The record industry is in a sharp decline. And the club scene changed.

It's a younger man's game. Now it's the legendary Hank La Conti's son Robert running the Agora:

He's in his mid 20s, but he's seen enough of the dark side of the rock scene.

La Conti says, "...And that's why we have our security here to try to help monitor that and make sure, and a lot of the bands now, too, are straight edge and promoting that and especially now with the new smoking law, that's gonna help out a lot too."

So will the new generation of promoters. We find Mia Marie from Columbia Station and Ashley Mickels from Medina at the Agora on a Saturday afternoon, staging a benefit for St. Judes Children's Hospital. They booked 12 acts and three of them are Christian bands.

Marie and Mickels agree, "It's definitely changed a lot from - it was more like ACDC, Guns & Roses, and now it's come to more louder screaming and it keeps kids busy out of trouble."

And Cleveland is still the heart of rock 'n' roll?

"Definitely! Great city for rock and roll and we love it... wooo!"

Return to the Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories Page

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