When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced in 1986 that Cleveland would be home to its multimillion-dollar museum, people around the country bitched. They bitched in Memphis. They especially bitched in New York. But, Clevelanders rightly argued, legendary Cleveland DJ Alan Freed helped spread the word about rock & roll — in fact, he was the first guy to utter the phrase.
Besides, the first-ever rock concert, 1952's Moondog Coronation Ball, was held in Cleveland. So take that, Memphis and New York! It took another nine years before the actual Rock Hall and Museum was built, but once it opened it was clear that the holy temple of all things rock was in the right place. Need more proof? Here's a brief primer on what makes this place so rockin'.
Before his career came to a grinding halt in 1960 because of a payola scandal, Freed was the world's best-known rock DJ. He started playing formative R&B records on Cleveland's AM station WJW in the early '50s and gave many rock & roll pioneers — and future Rock Hall inductees — their first radio spins.
The legendary soul group formed in Canton in the early 1960s. They had their first regional hit in Cleveland soon after, but it would take another 10 years before they became chart-toppers with songs like "Back Stabbers" and "Love Train." O'Jays leader Eddie Levert's sons reached No. 5 in 1987 with "Casanova," before the late Gerald Levert launched a successful solo career.
Cleveland's signature radio station started up in 1968 — around the same time FM radio everywhere was busting all sorts of airplay rules. Fifteen-minute songs with half of their running time devoted to guitar feedback? Not a problem. Deep album cuts you'd never hear in the Top 40? WMMS stacked a bunch of them in a row. The Buzzard helped break tons of artists back in the day, including Bruce Springsteen.
The James Gang
Joe Walsh attended Kent State University in the late '60s, and before long he landed the guitar-god position in this popular Cleveland band, best known for its chunky barroom rock. Walsh eventually left the group for a solo career and later a set-for-life gig with the Eagles.
From 1964 to 1971, Cleveland had its own American Bandstand, a weekly syndicated TV show (hosted by longtime weatherman Don Webster) that included appearances by James Brown, the Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd. Hell, everybody who was anybody made sure to stop by. (Sad trivia: Otis Redding performed on the show shortly before his tragic plane crash in 1967.)
He's not from here, but if it wasn't for Cleveland the world probably would have never been treated to Bowie and his various guises over the years. His first U.S. concert was at the Cleveland Music Hall in 1972 — his Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars tour. It was a monumental show, heralding the birth of a worldwide star.
They're one of the best bands to come out of Cleveland and still a benchmark of chewy power pop the world over. "Go All the Way" is the song everyone knows, but the band's best cut is "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)," a rumination on making the big time. It came out in 1974, the year they broke up and frontman Eric Carmen moved on to a career of extra-pouffy hair and super-sappy solo hits.
Around the same time the Raspberries were making some noise on pop radio, Akron's Devo were making bizarre, synth-based music that pretty much guaranteed they would never share Top 40 airtime with Carmen's crew. Remarkably, they ended up with a hit single in 1980, "Whip It" — still one of the oddest songs to ever soar up the charts.
Out of the same fertile Northeast Ohio pre-punk scene came Hynde, a kick-ass tigress who left Akron for England and formed the Pretenders, one of the most durable bands of the ’80s. But she never forgot her hometown, writing a terrific song about it (“My City Was Gone”) and opening a cool vegan restaurant there in 2007.
These fussy art rockers are one of the most influential groups to come out of Cleveland; bands in Europe still talk about how great they are. And for a while there, nobody else on the planet sounded like Ubu. Thirty-plus years after its release, there's still not a whole lot that sounds like their excellent 1978 debut, The Modern Dance.
This venerable concert club opened in 1966, but it took another decade till it found its footing and became one of the most influential showcases in the nation. Springsteen recorded a historic 1978 show here, which is widely available as a bootleg. If you'd rather go the legal route, artists as diverse as Patti Smith, Paul Simon, and Todd Rundgren have all released recordings from the Agora. Active until recently, the club only sporadically hosts shows these days.
Michael Stanley Band
People outside of Cleveland still scratch their heads when they hear that these '70s heartland rockers played four sold-out shows at the massive Blossom Music Center in 1982. But Stanley was huge in Cleveland — Springsteen huge. After years of struggling to break out nationally, Stanley finally reached the Top 40 in 1980 with "He Can't Love You" ... which was sung by another guy in the band.
Nine Inch Nails
Mastermind Trent Reznor spent his formative years gigging in electronic bands around Cleveland before it dawned on him that he really didn't need anyone else to play with. Cleveland was one of the first towns to embrace the abrasive NIN, a perfect fit for the city's Rust Belt ethos and industrial wastelands. Reznor doesn't give much love to his time here, but we like him anyway.
Reznor's mentor is an entirely different kind of beast — a scrawny, pasty-faced kid named Brian Warner from Canton who transformed himself into one of the '90s' most controversial artists. But he's really into dolling himself up like Liza Minnelli, so how scary can he be?
The popular Cleveland rap group was signed by former N.W.A. member Eazy-E in 1994. A year later he died of AIDS, which prompted Bone’s biggest hit, “Tha Crossroads.” The song, a tribute to a bunch of dead people various Bone members knew, reached No. 1 and ended up as one of the decade’s biggest songs.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
It finally opened in 1995 with a star-studded concert at Cleveland Municipal Stadium featuring tons of legends like Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen. Since then, the annual induction ceremonies have been held here twice. The third takes place in 2012.
One of the best rappers of recent vintage grew up in Shaker Heights. Palling around with Kanye West helped break him, but his wicked rhymes about weed and women eventually sealed the deal. His two albums — 2009's Man on the Moon: The End of Day and last year's Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager — flow like little else in hip-hop these days.
The Black Keys
Akron's bluesy indie rockers have since left the Rubber City, but not before recording parts of their best album — 2010's Brothers — in their old studio. You could credit the Keys (and the White Stripes) with spearheading the guitar-drums duo trend of the past decade. Or you could just credit them with keeping alive a long tradition of great Northeast Ohio rock & roll.
The Newest Batch
Cleveland has a long history of great music. But you don't have to hit the musty record bins or classic rock stations to hear them. There's plenty of great sounds being made by local kids these days. Here are a few of our favorites. — Gallucci
Chip Tha Ripper
The Washington Post recently singled out Chip's latest mixtape, Gift Raps, as must-hear hip-hop. If he keeps making music like this, it won't be long before he's playing big venues like his hometown pal Kid Cudi.
These low-fi indie rockers, led by 20-year-old Dylan Baldi of suburban Westlake, have been heralded by The New York Times and Pitchfork. Their new self-titled album sounds like Guided by Voices after five boxes of Cocoa Puffs.
Machine Gun Kelly
The white rapper has been building tons of buzz lately with his show-stopping performances at South by Southwest and Bamboozle. His hometown of Cleveland plays a big part in his hard rhymes.
Jessica Lea Mayfield
This 21-year-old Kent singer-songwriter got a big boost from the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who produced and plays on her terrific new album, Tell Me. It's a set of late-night confessions told in Mayfield's dark, sexy twang.
The Bay Village singer-songwriter (pictured right) is a regular on One Tree Hill. But her best work can be found on her albums, like the just-released Gravity Happens, in which the 24-year-old toughens up her hooky pop.
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