This month marks an obscure but important rock & roll anniversary. 55 years ago (5/3/58, to be exact) Alan Freed’s “Big Beat” tour—featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and others—rolled through my hometown. Unfortunately the show at the Boston Arena that night precipitated a “riot” (reportedly) in which several concert-goers were hospitalized. It was evidence to our cultural gatekeepers that “the devil’s music” was leading our youth down the road to perdition.
Combined with a series of other events in a 12-month period (including Buddy Holly's death in a plane crash, Elvis Presley's draft into the army, and Little Richard's show biz departure to become a preacher) this incident helped drive R&R underground for several years, until rock was finally resurrected by The Beatles and the “British Invasion.”
The business lesson? That innovation can be a serious threat to the nabobs of normalcy. As a musical, technological, and cultural innovation, rock & roll—by 1958—had already put many white-bread pop acts out of business, decimated the hit parade, transformed the radio and recording industries, and begun to shift attitudes about sexuality and race. (White girls were dancing to black performers!) The creative destruction it unleashed in the last half of the 50s was terrifying to the high priests. No wonder they tried to shut it down on every occasion.
The stories of fans rioting during the concert—and a white gal groping Chuck Berry—are now considered apocryphal, as well as tales of Alan Freed taunting the Boston police. There were scuffles that broke out in the crowd as kids danced in the aisles, but they were quickly contained. After the show, there were neighborhood gangs who picked fights with concertgoers as they left the area. But not one arrest was made by the police that night. That didn't prevent authorities from indicting Alan Freed for inciting a riot (under an old anti-anarchy law), but the charges had to be dropped when no evidence could be found that he was...(pause for effect)...trying to overthrow the United States government!
But that didn't mean the music he was promoting was not subversive.