The practice of an independent label or producer paying money to a deejay at a radio station in order to increase the number of appearances on his radio play list was common in the early 1950s. Almost every label, including Sun and Chess, found the extra dollars to “promote” the newest cut on the air. While the practice was somewhat unethical, it was not actually illegal. ASCAP, much more established an organization than BMI in the early ‘50s, forced the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), who oversaw the legal actions of radio and television stations, to bring many of the independent record labels, radio stations and deejays in front of a House Subcommittee designed to investigate anti-trust charges.
While the purpose of the 1959-60 House committee was to investigate possible wrongdoing on every level, the radio deejays received most of the attention. Opponents of rock ‘n’ roll, both in Congress and the ASCAP music industry, reasoned that no deejay would willingly play a musical style as debase and tasteless as rock ‘n’ roll unless he was being paid to do so. Witnesses at the hearings gave testimony that rock ‘n’ roll was simply race music modified to stir the animalistic urges in America’s teens.
Of all the individuals embroiled in the “payola” or “play for pay’ scandal, none was so publicly eviscerated as the man who first named the music rock ‘n’ roll: Alan Freed. Refusing to sign a statement of innocence, Freed was grilled by the committee and humiliated in public. As a result, Freed was arrested in 1960 for accepting $30,000 in bribes. Although two years later he was given a small fine and a suspended prison sentence, by this time his career as a radio deejay and promoter of rock ‘n’ roll was finished. He died a penniless alcoholic in 1965.
In contrast with the tragedy of Alan Freed, the career of his contemporary, Dick Clark skyrocketed. Clark, who was no less payola tainted than Freed, but more clean-cut and marketable to his boss, ABC (American Broadcasting Corporation), divested any financial interest in conflicting companies and contracts (he admitted to having 27 percent interest in the songs and artists he promoted on American Bandstand) and received both the blessing of ABC and the House chairman as “a fine young man”.
The persecution of a few rock ‘n’ roll mavericks was only one of a series of tragedies that threatened to silence the new sound at the end of the 1950s. In 1958 Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army, Little Richard left rock ‘n’ roll and returned to the church, and Jerry Lee Lewis was blacklisted after his marriage to his thirteen-year-old second-cousin was revealed. In 1959 Chuck Berry was arrested and eventually sent to prison for transporting a minor across state lines, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and “The Big Bopper” were killed in a plane crash (memorialized in Don MacLean’s song “The Day the Music Died”) and the payola hearings began.
The sound that had so energetically taken off in the early ‘50s seemed to crash and burn in the circumstances of fate and the public criticism that vehemently denounced it. But, like the phoenix, it would rise again.