Schoolhouse Rock

My grandfather coined the phrase "rock 'n' roll." 

As a kid growing up in Cleveland — the Rock 'n' Roll Capital of the World — that juicy chunk of trivia should have been my ace in the hole, my ticket to the sweetest spin-the-bottle parties and popular-kid bar mitzvahs in town. But it wasn't. Truth was, I rarely shared the legend of my grandfather with classmates. Why? Because my grandfather was not Alan Freed — he was Leo Mintz, founder of Record Rendezvous. 

My grandfather died of cancer when I was just 9 years old, but he was larger than life both before and after his death. As my family drove out to the cemetery on the morning of his funeral, I was awestruck by the length of the motorcade. There were Lincolns, Caddies and Buicks, each bearing the little blue flag from the Jewish funeral home. Success, I determined then and there, is measured by the quantity and quality of the automobiles in one's funeral procession. And judging from the one that trailed us, my Papa Leo was the friggin' King of Cleveland.

Even though I wasn't old enough to fully grasp the significance of my grandfather's contributions to rock 'n' roll and to Cleveland, I knew the backstory as well as I knew myself. The subject was a favored topic of discussion at family gatherings, and with each telling the gaps in the narrative grew shorter, filled in by deeper accounts of my grandfather's legacy.

At 28, Leo Mintz, my mom's dad, opened Record Rendezvous on Prospect Avenue. The year was 1939, and while the street wasn't as glitzy as famed Euclid Avenue to the north, Prospect still was decades away from the bleakness it reached in the '70s. To keep his store stocked with music, my grandfather would drive to Columbus several times a week to purchase used jukebox records. Music historians credit Record Rendezvous as being the first record store to permit hands-on customer browsing; other stores kept the inventory behind the counter. Record Rendezvous was also one of the only record shops to provide listening booths so customers could sample the goods before they paid for them. 

Nicknamed "The Vous," the record store began stocking and selling a large selection of rhythm and blues records, dubbed "race" records because of the black artists who recorded them. In addition to the steady stream of black customers at his store, my grandfather began noticing an increase in white teens. Eager to sell more records by reaching a larger white audience, he convinced a new friend, disc jockey Alan Freed, to ditch his classical music format on WJW and exclusively play R&B platters provided by Record Rendezvous. According to rock historian John Jackson, author of "Big Beat Heat," Freed wanted nothing to do with the idea at first. "Are you crazy?" replied Freed. "Those are race records." A week and likely more than a few rounds of drinks later, Freed relented and accepted my grandfather's offer. Calling himself the "Moondog," and playing music hand-picked by Mintz, Freed took to the airwaves with a booming howl in 1951.

Ironically, my grandfather rarely played music at home. He was an entrepreneur in the business of selling records, not a zealous fan of the tunes. And with 11 young grandchildren all eager for his attention, it's not like he had the time to enjoy an LP anyway.

Instead, I received the gift of music appreciation for my 13th birthday, when my oldest brother took me to see Queen at the Richfield Coliseum. That concert indoctrinated me into the world of rock 'n' roll in a way my grandfather's legacy never did. (It also introduced me to the smell of marijuana, rock 'n' roll's next of kin.) The immediacy of Freddie Mercury singing bombastic anthems mere rows away, coupled with the energy of 20,000 keyed-up fans, ignited my infatuation with music.

By that time, the Record Rendezvous chain had grown to five stores, now run by my uncle, Stuart Mintz. On Saturdays, my best friend and I would hop on our 10-speeds and pedal the four miles to the closest outlet, at Richmond Mall. Once there, we'd rifle through a bin containing the latest vinyl singles. Fingering the crisp paper sleeves of the 45s, we would winnow down our choices to a few select gems — passing over the Sheena Eastons and Rick Springfields in favor of Kiss, Rush and Springsteen. We'd hand over our loot-filled bags to my uncle, who held them behind the counter while we killed hours playing Defender and Joust in the arcade.

Like most teens, I made my bedroom my sanctuary, a place to escape the crush of a large family and its demands. It was there that I hungrily devoured the week's supply of fresh tunes, playing the 45s — first the A-side, then the B-side, then the A-side — until I had memorized every single word. It didn't matter that my phonograph, a cheap portable, sounded like it was playing from beneath a down blanket. That rock 'n' roll music provided a level of escape that the four walls of my bedroom simply couldn't approach. 

If it weren't for my grandfather, that music of my youth may have had a completely different name. In the early '50s, the phrase "rhythm and blues" had, at least within the white community, about as much cachet as a case of the clap. To avoid the racial stigma that went along with the name, Freed and Mintz agreed they desperately needed a catchier label. One evening, my grandfather described to Freed how the kids at his store were "rocking and rolling to the music" — I always pictured him wriggling his lanky 6-foot-4-inch frame in the process. Why not use that on the radio? he asked Freed.

Of course, history has a funny way of shaping the truth. It was Alan Freed who was on the radio, not Leo Mintz. So while it was my grandfather who selected and supplied the music, as well as giving the music its name, it was Freed, the ultimate self-promoter, who is widely credited with having coined the phrase "rock 'n' roll." It is also Freed who was ultimately inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not my grandfather.

When I was 10 years old, just a year after my grandfather died, I delivered a report to my fifth-grade history class. I stood up at the front of the classroom, 3-by-5-inch index cards in hand, and proudly recounted the story of my grandfather for the very first time. My teacher's blunt response effectively quelled both my personal pride and my appetite for telling the story for years to come. Alan Freed coined the phrase rock 'n' roll, he declared, not your grandfather. 

Visit the Rock Hall today, and the reality is no different. In an exhibit titled "The Architects of Rock and Roll," my grandfather's involvement appears as little more than a footnote to the saga of Alan Freed:

Freed befriended Leo Mintz, owner of Record Rendezvous. Legend has it that Mintz told Freed that numerous white kids were buying black rhythm and blues records at his store and convinced Freed to begin playing rhythm-and-blues records on WJW. Freed calls his show a "rock 'n' roll sensation" and begins to popularize the term.

The irony of that diminutive, dubious tribute to my grandfather is that without him, Cleveland most likely never would have secured the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A meeting with Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock Hall, confirmed my family's claims. 

"Leo Mintz had the idea to do the radio show and play the music," Stewart told me. "Without him, I think Cleveland would have had an incredibly difficult time making the case historically that the hall should be here. And I doubt there would have been the impetus to even try." 

As a kid growing up in Cleveland, I rarely boasted of my grandfather's legend, for fear that I'd be branded a liar. With age — and a byline — comes the confidence to speak out despite the likely reactions. In fact, it's become a personal mission of mine to increase my grandfather's coverage in the Rock Hall he helped secure. The good news is, I've received new promises from the Hall that we can expect such changes. The bad news is, my family has received empty promises to that effect for years.

My grandfather coined the phrase "rock 'n' roll" — and there's nothing you can say to change my mind. 


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