Category Archives: Music Biz

The Brill Building


The Brill building
The Brill building

The Golden Age of Rock site talks about a lot of heroes. We’ve written about musicians and bands, political climate, technology, TV shows, concerts, and here we are going to write about a building. It looks like many other New York City buildings built in the 30s. The Brill is eleven stories high and located in downtown Manhattan at 1619 Broadway on 49th just off Times Square. The name came from a haberdashery that occupied the first floor storefront and subsequently purchased the building.
There is no other single building that has a bigger part in the birth of rock as The Brill. It was the epicenter of the music industry during The Golden Years of Rock. Over time it housed hundreds of music businesses including publishers, promoters, and distributors and fostered an atmosphere of sharing. Musicians and promoters could get together with composers in one office, walk downstairs to their lyricist or arranger, then visit their publisher and distributor all in the same building.

Most importantly, it housed many of the creative geniuses who composed and penned Rock lyrics. The Brill building’s charged and competitive atmosphere produced many of the early trends in Rock music. The technology was never imagined during the Goden Age of Rock, but the Brill Building now has it’s own page on Facebook.

Carole King described the atmosphere at the Brill Building:

“Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific – because Donny (Kirshner) would play one songwriter against another. He’d say: ‘We need a new smash hit’ – and we’d all go back and write a song and the next day we’d each audition for Bobby Vee’s producer.” —quoted in The Sociology of Rock by Simon Frith (1978, ISBN 0094602204).

Famous Brill talent and residents include:

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller Howard Greenfield
Carole King and Gerry Goffin Billy Joel
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil Kris Kristofferson
Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich Joni Mitchell
Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman Neil Sedaka
Hal David and Burt Bacharach Carly Simon
Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart Paul Simon
Paul Anka James Taylor
Jim Croce Gene Pitney
Bobby Darin
Hal David
John Denver
Neil Diamond

Dick Clark

Dick Clark on American Bandstand
Dick Clark on American Bandstand

Probably the best known of the early disk jockeys, in the early 50s Dick Clark was a DJ at WFIL in Philadelphia where he filled in for the host Bob Horn on Bob Horn’s Bandstand at the station’s television affiliate. By 1956, Clark had taken over as the full time host. The show was picked up by ABC and went national on August 5, as American Bandstand. American Bandstand was shown daily until 1963, then weekly until 1989.

American Bandstand featured real kids dancing to Top 40 rock music, sometimes with lip-synched performances by the artists themselves. It is joked that Dick Clark taught the generation how to dance, the girls watched the show and learned the newest dance steps, then they taught the boys (sometimes unwillingly!).

Clark got caught on the fringes of the Payola scandal in 1959 as the U. S. Senate investigated the practice of music producing companies paying broadcasting companies to favor their product. Clark, who had business intersts in music publishing, was investigated and testified before Congress in 1960. Clark was not charged with any illegal activities but he was required by ABC to divest his publishing and recording interests.

He later went on to be involved in a number of other television series and specials as producer and performer including Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, The $10,000 Pyramid (later $20, 000, $25,000, $50,000, and $100,000), TV Bloopers & Practical Jokes, American Dreams, and The Other Half. In 1973, Clark created and produced the American Music Awards show. Originally intended as competition for the Grammy Awards, in some years it gained a bigger audience than the Grammys due to being more in touch with popular trends.

Alan Freed – The Father of Rock and Roll

Alan Freed
Alan Freed

Perhaps the biggest hero in the story the Rock and Roll revolution was Alan Freed. Freed wasn’t a musician, but a disc jockey and promoter who earned the name “Father of Rock and Roll”. Keep in mind that rock was originally known as Race music or African-American Rhythm and Blues and was very rarely played on white radio. Freed wasn’t the first to play rock on the air, but he was a skilled promoter and by calling it Rock instead of Rhythm and Blues, and by playing mostly white covers of black songs. In doing so, he became a pioneer in racial integration at a time when segregation was rampant.

Originally known on the air at radio station WJW in Cleveland, Ohio, as “Moondog”, he set up what was probably the first rock and roll concert and called it “The Moondog Coronation Ball” on March 21, 1952. The event was attended by a racial mix which was unusual for the times. It drew a large crowd but had to be ended early due to overcrowding.

Later concerts were much more successful and continued to draw large mixed crowds. Within a few years, he moved to the big market in New York City where he turned WINS into a rock and roll radio station. Later, he would go on to record programming for Radio Luxembourg whose broadcast covered all of Eastern Europe. It’s interesting to picture The Beatles as youngsters listening to Freed’s show and playing along with the music.

More success followed, as Freed went on to star in several motion pictures featuring many of the new Rock Stars that he helped to create.

Alan Freed at WABC
Alan Freed at WABC

Television followed his movie success, but problems soon arose with the IRS, questions about royalties, and the Payola scandal. His series was cancelled, but interestingly, as Freed left television, the void that was created was filled by another DJ named Dick Clark.
The final blows to his career came as a result of the Payola investigation, when he was accused of accepting bribes for playing records, coupled with accusations that he had been given credit as a co-writer for some songs. As a co-writer, he was able to receive royalties, and this encouraged him to heavily promote the song. Chuck Berry’s Mabeline was a notable example cited.

Freed ended up pleading guilty to commercial bribery and was given a suspended sentence along with a fine. Although the punishment was relatively light, his tarnished reputation prevented the top stations from hiring him and interfered with his concert promotions. Alan Freed died young in 1965 before he was able to fully re-establish his reputation.

In 1978, the motion picture American Hot Wax was released, inspired by Freed’s contribution to the rock and roll scene, leading up to a concert that was held in New York City in 1959. In 1986, Freed was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was built in Cleveland in recognition of his involvement in the birth of Rock. In 1988, he was also posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame and was later recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg

Arnie Woo Woo GinsbergGather ’round everybody, for you’re about to hear,
The show that’s gonna make you, grin from ear to ear,
It’s Arnie Ginsberg, on the Night Train Show.
He plays the old and new, the swinging and the blue,
He plays all the records, especially for you,
It’s Arnie Ginsberg, on the Night Train Show

Hey, Arnie Woo Woo Ginsburg was good, he wasn’t a great up in the same class as some of the others here, but he was my disk jockey growing up in greater Boston. Every major market had a DJ like Arnie, he was hyper, fast talking, and knew his music inside and out.
Every night, we’d crank up WMEX on our radio tubes and listen to his bells, horns, whistles, and “Adventure Car Hop is the place to go for food that’s really great”….and if you said “Woo Woo” when you ordered, you’d get 2 burgers for the price of one!

Mixed in with his chatter was top 20 music, and if you wanted in on the buzz the next day, you had to listen to Arnie at night.

Murray the K

Murray the K
Murray the K

Murray the K worked as a promoter and producer through the 50’s, but he caught his big break in 1958 when he signed on with WINS in New York to do the all-night show. This was just as WINS’s star disk jockey, Alan Freed, was indicted for tax evasion and forced off the air. Freed’s spot was briefly occupied by Cousin Bruce, Bruce Morrow, but Murray was quickly moved into the time period and remained there for the next seven years.

When he left WINS, his next stop was at WOR-FM where. As program director and primetime evening DJ, he created the first FM rock station, setting the pattern for countless other stations that followed, including WNEW-FM and WCBS-FM.

Kaufman reached his peak of popularity in the mid 60s when, as the top-rated radio host in America’s largest market, he became an early supporter of The Beatles. Later, Murray was referred to as the “Fifth Beatle,” by George Harrison during a train ride from New York to the Beatles’ first U.S. concert in Washington, D. C. Their friendship was renewed when they came to NYC in February, 1964 and met again. He was invited to the set of A Hard Day’s Night in England and made several treks to England during 1964, giving WINS listeners more Beatle exclusives.

Following Alan Freed’s lead, Murray produced several concerts each year. Those shows featured the top performers of the era and introduced new acts, such as Dionne Warwick, Wayne Newton, Bobby Vinton (who was the leader of the house band when he asked for a chance to perform as a singer), The Lovin’ Spoonful, Cream, and The Who. Murray the K left WINS in the mid-60s when they switched formats, and worked at stations in Toronto and Washington D.C. before returning to New York to team with Don Imus and Wolfman Jack on WNBC.

Don Steele

The Real Don Steel
The Real Don Steel

Don Steele, often promoted as “The Real Don Steele” to distinguish himself from another DJ with the same name, was one of the most popular disc jockeys in the United States, from the mid 60s until his retirement in the 90s.
Steele first fame came as a DJ on Los Angeles radio station KHJ with the “top-40 Boss Radio format” in the 60s. He also appeared on TV in his own programs called Boss City and The Real Don Steele TV Show, a show which ran from 1965 to 1975 on KHJ-TV channel 9 in Los Angeles. When FM stereo radio gained popularity in the 1970s, Steele made the switch and continued his popularity.
In a 1995 interview, his description of Boss Radio was, “Look, you take the Motown sound and the British Invasion and you throw in Elvis and Roy Orbison, and you have a music mix that’s hard to beat at any time or any place”.

Wolfman Jack

Wolfman Jack
Wolfman Jack

In the early days of rock, when all that we had was AM radio, Wolfman Jack taught us how to rock.

Clap for the Wolfman
He gonna rate your record high
Clap for the Wolfman
You gonna dig him til the day you die

These words are from the opening of the song “Clap for the Wolfman” by the Guess Who….and it’s not just any DJ that gets songs written about them!

Bob Smith, aka Wolfman Jack, borrowed some strong style ideas from the king of DJs. Alan Freed. Freed had used the name Moondog at the start of his Rock and Roll career; Smith used the moniker Wolfman. Freed used a howl in his broadcasts, Smith borrowed the howl and took it further adding his low gravely voice.

The Wolfman gained fame while broadcasting from XERF-AM, a super power radio station in Mexico, just over the border at Del Rio, Texas. AM stations in the US were limited at the time to 50 KW, XERF in Mexico was broadcasting at 500 KW and could be received across the US and into Canada. He played a wild mix of music, mixing in rockabilly, blues, doo-wop, zydeco, rhythm and blues, and jazz.  These styles were all the parents of rock. And of course, he played rock and roll.  Wolfman Jack’s nightly show brought them all together and introduced fans of each style to the new rock.

His music selections led many listeners to assume that he was Afro-American, and he did his best to hide his true identity. Some say that if it were known that he was a white boy from Brooklyn, the frequent howls and sexually suggestive persona wouldn’t have had the same effect. The Wolfman passed away in 1995, but reruns of his shows are still being played.

Wolfman Jack’s Honors

The Wolfman is a member of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


Scandal – Payola

Payola newspaper scandal headlines
Payola newspaper scandal headlines

Payola wasn’t new to the music industry when Rock and Roll arrived.  Several factors seemed to come together at the same time, leading to a blowup that radically changed the course of Rock and Roll.

The term Payola is a contraction of the words pay and Victrola, a popular brand of record player. Sometimes called Pay To Play  It’s the illegal practice of record companies paying money for the playing of records. This made a record appear more popular that it might have been, giving the artist more exposure, a better rating on the charts, and influencing other radio stations that might be on the lookout for the next hot record. It’s not as common or outright now as it was in the past, or maybe it’s just hidden better. The law prevents record companies from paying directly, but still allows payments through intermediaries.

  • At most radio stations now, a music director or manager selects the songs to be played and, frequently, the order and time where they will be played. It was mentioned earlier that the Payola scandal arose due to several factors that came together at the same time. Consider these cultural changes:
  • Rock was new, popular with the kids, and generally disliked by their parents.
    The two large music licensing companies, ASCAP and BMI were at odds. They were always competitive, but ASCAP had a slow start in the Rock and Roll business and possibly saw a way to get even with rival BMI. One can only guess that they saw Rock and Roll as a passing fad!
  • Technology was giving power to the independent radio stations. Radio was previously confined to the home where family standards controlled the dial. Introduction of personal radios, clock radios, and the portable transistor radio gave teens their own dial to control.
  • By the late 50s, the post-war baby boomers were a sizeable economic force, and advertisers found that Top 40 radio was a good way to target them, leading to a boom in independent stations.

The inexpensive, newly introduced 45 rpm single allowed teens to purchase popular hits on a limited budget.  Also, consider that the Payola scandal came along at a time that elected officials were just learning how to get free publicity from holding high profile hearings. This was the time of the McCarthy Hearings, and the Payola inquiries were carried out by the same commission that was working on the television game show investigations.

The Payola Congressional Hearings

Twenty-five witnesses were called, the most famous being Alan Freed and Dick Clark, and the list included other notables such as Les Paul, Bobby Darin, and Murray the K. Ironically, at the time, Payola wasn’t actually against the law, although Alan Freed was eventually convicted on 2 counts of commercial bribery.

Much has been written about the difference between Freed and Clark. Alan Freed resisted testifying on principle, claiming that he never played a record he didn’t actually consider worthwhile, no matter what was given to him. His attitude didn’t play well with the industry, and he was essentially blackballed, ending his DJ career. Freed died a few years later, broke, alcoholic, and depressed in 1965.

Dick Clark, on the other hand, testified freely and even brought a statistician with him to prove that payola had not affected the sales of records with which he was affiliated. He had sold his music related interests before the hearings.

His testimony included “I have not done anything that I think I should be ashamed of or that is illegal or immoral,” Mr. Clark said, “and I hope to eventually convince you of this. I believe in my heart that I have never taken payola”. At another point in the hearing, Representative Steven B. Derounian quipped “You say you did not get any payola, but you got an awful lot of royola”.

Others caught in the fray include Les Paul and Bobby Darin, both charged with paying to perform on Freed’s ABC television show, and DJs Joe Niagara (WIBG, Philadelphia), Tom Clay (WJBK, Detroit), Murray “The K” Kaufman (WINS, New York), Arnie “Woo Woo Ginsberg WMEX, Boston), and Stan Richards (WILD, Boston).

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation was created in 1983 and the museum opened in 1993. It’s located in Cleveland, Ohio where disc jockey Alan Freed is credited with popularizing the term “Rock and Roll”, and where the first rock and roll concert was held.

The museum documents the entire history of rock and roll, not just the inductees who are honored in a special exhibit inside the museum.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame states their goal is to honor the bands and artists that have “influence and significance to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll”.  Artists and bands become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. A nominating committee selects each year, and ballots are sent to a team of experts. Nominees who receive the most votes and at least 50% are selected. Additional categories exist for non performers, early influences, and sidemen. The annual induction ceremony is held each Spring in New York City.

There has been a lot of controversies over the inductees, with some complaining that entire genres have been left out. Most notable is Chubby Checker who has staged several good natured protests, but it’s been noted that there have also been very few or no nominees from doo-wop, progressive, or hard-rock bands.

The first group of honorees were inducted in 1986. They included:


  • Chuck Berry
  • James Brown
  • Ray Charles
  • Sam Cooke
  • Fats Domino
  • The Everly Brothers
  • Buddy Holly
  • Jerry Lee Lewis
  • Elvis Presley
  • Little Richard

Early Influences

  • Robert Johnson
  • Jimmie Rodgers
  • Jimmy Yancey

Lifetime Acheivement

  • John Hammond


  • Alan Freed
  • Sam Phillips

The Sun Studio

The Sun Studio
The Sun Studio

Is this the birthplace of Rock and Roll?

If not, Sun Studio comes very close. In January 1950, Sam Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Studio in this building at 706 Union Ave. in Memphis, which later became Sun Studio. Sun Studio specialized in rhythm and blues recordings.

In the early years of Rock, Sun Studio recorded many of the early stars, but two stand out as historic.

In 1951, Sun recorded “Rocket 88,” sometimes regarded as the first Rock and Roll single. The group was listed as Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, but it was actually performed by Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm.

Elvis Arrives at Sun Studio

Then, on June 18, 1953, truck driver Elvis Presley paid $3.25 to record a birthday present for his mother, returning again on January 4th, 1954 to record a second disk. Later that year, Sam Phillips asked Elvis to fill in for a missing ballad singer.

The Million Dollar Quartet at Sun Studio
The Million Dollar Quartet at Sun Studio

The rest is history.  Elvis’ first stint filling in for the ballad singer didn’t work out, but Sam Phillips matched him with two local musicians for another try. In July of 1954, Sun released a 78 of Elvis singing “That’s All Right” with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the back. The record became a local hit and it started Elvis’ career.

Sam Phillips and Sun Records went on to bring us Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. There’s an interesting story about a jam session that happened by chance when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash met by chance in the studio in December 1956. They ended up jamming just for fun in the studio. Tapes were recorded and put in storage whwere they sat until 1981 when a new owner reviewed the tape library. Seventeen tracks were released as the album “The Million Dollar Quartet”. The songs were mostly gospel and spiritual tunes that the 4 were all familiar with. More recordings were discovered and released in 1987 and again in 2006, the 50th anniversary of the session.

The Sun Record Company, Memphis Recording Service building was designated a National Historic Landmark on July 31, 2003. The story of Sun Records was documented in a TV Special and CD called “Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy Of Sun Records”.