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Legendary DJ Alan Freed Received a Strange Form of Payola

Henry Stone is one of those legends in the music biz; he ran ventures including the mega-successful, disco-heavy TK Records (responsible for KC & The Sunshine Band and many more), and helped pioneer the way popular music is distributed and promoted. Hint: In all the sleazy ways you can imagine.

In any case, he's now 91, has squandered most of his fortune, and has a billion stories. Many are collected in his new book, The Stone Cold Truth on Payola In The Music Biz, co-written with Miami New Times scribe Jacob Katel. The below excerpt focuses on Alan Freed, the legendary DJ whose career included stints at Los Angeles stations including KDAY, before he was brought down by the '60s era payola scandal.

From The Stone Cold Truth on Payola In The Music Biz, by Henry Stone:

In the mid-to-late '50s there were three big disc jockeys in this country. There was Alan Freed in New York, Dick Clark In Philadelphia, and Bob Green in Miami. These three controlled all the hit records of the independents, and the majors too, 'cause there weren't that many big hits on the majors at that time, it was all the independents.

I had a lot of influence on the Dick Clark and Alan Freed playlists in Philly and New York. See, we had like a network set up for national airplay, and Miami was one of the most important markets in the country because basically I totally controlled it. The best record distributors in the country were the ones who controlled radio in their market.

When you hear the word payola, the name you hear most is Alan Freed, the New York disc jockey who they made the patsy for the whole thing. Freed is the guy who took the fall for everybody. My buddy Morris Levy managed Freed's career up there in New York, told him what to play and when to play it, where to go and what to do.

I directed the career of a disc jockey in Miami by the name of Bob Green. We became real tight. I told him what to play and he played it. And while he was playing all these great records, he became the number one disc jockey down here. I never had to pay Bob to play anything on the radio. He used to like steak and eggs three times a day, that's it. I had all the best records and he was happy to play them because it made him look good to do it. Me and Morris had DJs, and we managed their shit. Bottom line. We took care of it. So when everything went bust with the payola scandal, I got a call from Morris who says, "Henry, can you put Alan Freed up and get him a job in Miami?" So I got him a place here in Morton Towers, on the beach.

Steve Alaimo, the famous singer (and later my VP at TK Productions), had an apartment, so I gave Alan Freed an apartment there and got him a job at the pop radio station WQAM for about a year. And you know, he didn't do as well as he did in New York. He was drinking heavy. I used to send him up a case of Scotch a week. He used to beat the shit out of his wife. Then he moved to Palm Springs and drank himself to death.

When they had the big payola bust, that was a big thing man. They tried to bust Dick Clark too, but he got out of it. He worked his way out. He had a lot of songwriting credits for songs he didn't write registered through his publishing company and record label Swan, but he sold off all his association with it before they could nail him for it. See, as a big disc jockey, having a label and publishing gave him a hell of a reason to play certain records. Cause songwriters get paid every time their records get played on radio, and label guys collect on record sales, which radio play pushes. Dick Clark ended up moving out to Hollywood, and Steve Alaimo went out there and hosted a big show for him called Where The Action Is.

Henry Stone and a young James Brown
Henry Stone and a young James Brown

I asked James Brown to do the show as a personal favor, and it ended up being his first TV exposure to the black and white kids, 'cause before that it was mostly older folks buying his records.

Anyway, payola was a normal thing. Everybody was doin' it. It's the way we did business. We took care of business. We took care of disc jockeys. And we got our records played.

The major record labels (RCA, Decca, Columbia) did it the most. They were the biggest in payola, they even outdid me. Big time. They did a lot of free records through their salesmen and stuff like that. Salesmen used to come around to my one-stops and to my Tone Distribution and sell us records at a good price to give to the promotion people to give to the disc jockeys. The major record companies were in it big time.

I'll give you one instance of how the majors did business. Much later on, in the 1970s, all my TK records were going through Columbia Worldwide distribution. And you know they'd do their thing with the bookkeeping and everything. This guy was tellin' me, after he left the company, he said, "Henry I wanna tell ya somethin' man. Your records in Nigeria were so huge, you can't believe it. And you never got a penny out of Nigeria from Columbia because Columbia never got any money either. They got all theirs in oil." So they never had to report it. Let's say they made 10 million dollars. Then a couple million dollars was mine. But they got it all in oil. Things like that happened.

So much money. So fuckin' much money went down the tubes somehow.

The major labels by the way still do payola to this day. They control radio. They buy time, and advertising. The major record companies. I mean people spend. The public doesn't have any idea. Let's take Taylor Swift, because she's big. In order to get her started and get her goin' they probably had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on radio advertising. Even though she had the quality, the talent, whatever she had.

I mean, I was a great believer then, and I still am. To make a dollar, you gotta spend a dollar. You can't have it all.

So did I ever deal with Alan Freed like that? Absolutely I did. Course I did. I paid him.

Like I said before, I would get to know all the DJs when I travelled, and I'll tell ya what I paid Alan Freed. In 1955, when I was on the road with my record "Hearts Of Stone" with The Otis Williams and The Charms on DeLuxe Records, he was working as a disc jockey in Akron, Ohio. He wasn't even in Cleveland yet.

I told him, here's 50 bucks to play the record. He said "Nah forget it, I can't take your money, but will you take me and my wife to the supermarket to go get some groceries?" So we went to the supermarket. I spent about $75 dollars on food, which was a lot of money back then. He put my record on the radio and he was doing so good on the air that he moved to Cleveland and then New York City.

Later on, around 1958, '59, when I had a group called The Champions on my Chart label with a song called "Mexico Bound," I remember bringing my doo wops up to New York City to get some airplay. Alan was a big man then. To get to see Alan Freed, forget it, you had to go through the whole routine. I remember walkin' in that radio studio and sitting there in the studio were all the top promotion guys like Jerry Blayne, Juggie Gale, and Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic, just sitting there waiting, and they all knew me: "Ey, Henry, man! How ya doin'? I understand ya started your Chart Label. Yeah man good for you."

So Alan Freed saw me and called me in, and in those days you had to pay him $1000-$5000 to get a record played. But he never forgot when I bought him those groceries. And I always had a good relationship with him. All the other guys looked around like..."Motherfucker. What the hell, man?" All these powers sittin' there and Henry Stone walks in and Alan Freed goes like this, waves his hand, and says "C'mon in," and he takes my record and puts it right on. "Mexico Bound," pa pa padda pa. It wasn't that big, but it was a doo wop and he put it right on the air. For nothin'.

So people can say what they want about Alan Freed, but as far as I'm concerned he was a pretty good guy. Actually, I know for a fact, 'cause Leonard Chess told me himself that they put Freed's name down on "Goodnight My Love" by the Moonglows as a songwriter. Leonard was very close with Alan Freed, and helped him to get into NYC from Cleveland.

Songwriter credit is an old perk, but Allen Freed never had nothing to do with writing "Good Night My Love."

Follow Ben Westhoff on Twitter @brwestho and @LAWeeklyMusic, and like us at LAWeeklyMusic.

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