Before Elvis, the undisputed king of rock & roll was disc jockey Alan Freed, who is brought back to life — and down to earth — in John A. Jackson’s revealing new book, Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll. During his heyday, between 1954 and 1959, Freed popularized the ”big beat” by broadcasting rock & roll over the airwaves of New York City radio stations WINS and WABC. But as every rock fan knows, Freed’s career came to an end in 1959 when he was fired amid charges of bribery and payola. According to popular myth, Freed was the innocent victim of uptight adults who punished him for bringing the glad tidings of black music to white teenagers. Though Jackson agrees that Freed was unfairly singled out in the scandal, he also convincingly demonstrates that Freed was guilty as charged. The disc jockey had a direct financial stake in a staggering number of the records he played: Sometimes he earned a percentage of the songwriting royalties; more often, he was simply given cash by the record company.
Broken by the payola scandal, Freed spent the last years of his life — he died in 1965 — drifting from job to job, and drink to drink. Though Jackson’s prose is often pedestrian, the story he tells is one no rock fan will want to miss. B+