Filed Under Rock and Roll

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

After Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation leaders visited Cleveland in July 1985, they were very impressed with the city's rock roots. But rather than picking Cleveland right away, they decided to hold a national competition to pick the location. The race to land the Rock Hall was on.

In 1979, the year that Ian Hunter released “Cleveland Rocks,” the Wall Street Journal proclaimed Cleveland the nation’s “Rock and Roll Capital.” The city had earned this reputation through the influence of WJW disc jockey Alan Freed, Record Rendezvous owner Leo Mintz, jukebox supplier and, later, Agora Theater operator Hank LoConti in breaking emerging talent. It didn’t hurt that downtown Cleveland also housed many of the leading record companies’ warehouses, which supplied a seemingly insatiable demand for rock among Cleveland youth. Despite the city’s strong reputation as a rock and roll town in the 1970s, Cleveland was suffering a dismal decade economically. At a time when Cleveland had become the butt of jokes on national television, few could have imagined the city’s landing one of the world’s most iconic shrines to rock and roll.

The idea for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was conceived by Atlantic Records founder and R&B producer Ahmet Ertegun. Ertegun and other music industry luminaries formed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation in 1983 in hopes of creating a permanent shrine to rock music. The Foundation planned to locate the new facility in Manhattan, close to the heart of the recording industry, and at first few outsiders had any inkling of the plan. In Cleveland, Agora Theater owner Hank LoConti and his friends separately envisioned a museum to honor the city’s seminal role in popularizing rock music, particularly local disc jockey Alan Freed’s coining of the term “rock and roll” and hosting the first rock concert, the Moondog Coronation Ball, in 1952.

Through Norm N. Nite, a Cleveland native with close ties to New York’s music scene, LoConti learned of the Foundation’s plan for a rock and roll shrine. Nite agreed to present Cleveland to Ertegun as an alternative site for the Rock Hall. Nite opened the door for a contingent of Cleveland boosters to present their case to the Foundation. Armed with letters of support from Cleveland’s leading cultural institutions, the group highlighted Cleveland’s claim as the cradle of rock—including Freed and the Moondog Coronation Ball; the role of LoConti’s Agora and radio station WMMS in breaking new talent (including David Bowie, Rush, and Bruce Springsteen); and longtime music businesses like Record Rendezvous and Record Revolution—as well as the fact that a Rock Hall would be a singular tourist attraction in Cleveland but only one among many competing points of interest in Manhattan.

After a July 1985 visit to Cleveland by Foundation leaders, the Foundation decided to hold a national competition to host the venue. The race to land the Rock Hall was on, with Cleveland, Memphis, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Philadelphia as leading contenders. All cities vying for the Rock Hall pointed to the star power behind their respective bids. San Francisco used (Jefferson) Starship’s hit “We Built This City” as a theme song for its bid. Cleveland claimed support from Michael Jackson, the Kinks, and some 50 other musicians. As the selection process progressed, the choice narrowed to Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. Spurred by WMMS, 120,000 listeners voted for Cleveland as the Rock Hall site in a USA Today poll. Then Cleveland backers gathered 600,000 signatures on a petition that the Greater Cleveland Growth Association presented to the Foundation in New York. They banked on more than just the city’s preeminent historical stake in the genre—turning to the city and state governments and local Foundations, which collectively raised $26 million to lure the Rock Hall. Thanks largely to these efforts, the Foundation selected Cleveland in May 1986.

Once Cleveland got the nod, attention turned to a site. Early prospective locations for the Rock Hall included the lakefront, Public Square, the Flats, Playhouse Square, the Mall, and a couple of sites along Huron Road behind the Terminal Tower. Ruling out the adaptive reuse of an old building, Rock Hall officials opted for a “signature building” at the urging of architect I. M. Pei, whom the Foundation retained to design the hall despite his public admission that he knew little about rock music. The Foundation selected Tower City as the preferred site. Pei’s original design included an 18-story glass tower overlooking the Cuyahoga River with a concourse connecting to the Tower City Center complex.

Relations between Cleveland and New York soured by 1989, notably when the Foundation announced it would keep induction ceremonies in Manhattan rather than moving them to the Cleveland Rock Hall. In addition, Clevelanders’ tax dollars would be required, thus diverting millions of dollars away from the city’s school system—a stark contrast to what a Plain Dealer editorial called “a rock ’n’ roll industry grown fat on its successes.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s construction cost ballooned to $100 million, four times the original budget. When a record store opened inside Tower City in 1990, Rock Hall officials became angry and began to look at other sites besides Huron Road, which they now claimed was too small to permit construction. After several anxious months, a new site was chosen on city-owned land at North Coast Harbor. With the new location came a reduction in height. Pei’s glass tower was too tall to place so near Burke Lakefront Airport. Instead a shorter tower and glass pyramid design emerged, evoking the slanted glass wall of his Louvre design. The Rock Hall opened in September 1995.

While Cleveland civic leaders rightly lauded the Rock Hall as a coup for the city’s image and economy, many musicians and fans were ambivalent; a few were outright hostile to the very idea of a museum for rock and roll. In contrast to the music industry leaders who saw the Rock Hall as a means to foster mainstream appreciation for rock and roll’s cultural impact, many saw irony in the formal enshrinement of rock and roll, an art form often associated with rebellion and counterculture. As one reporter observed of the first induction ceremony in New York in the 1980s, “Once the sole-soul property of gifted wild men who shocked America with their three-chord songs, rock ’n’ roll is now so middle class it was accorded a most civilized honor…. It was given a dinner.”

Audio

Bringing the Rock Hall to Cleveland Former WMMS radio personality Ed Ferenc recalls that the Greater Cleveland Growth Association and Milt Maltz, the owner of WMMS, worked to persuade the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation to locate its planned museum in Cleveland. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
The USA Today Rock Hall Poll Former WMMS personality Ed Ferenc relates how his morning radio show urged listeners to vote for Cleveland in the newly established USA Today newspaper's poll on where to build the Rock Hall. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
We Blew Away Every City! Former WMMS radio personality Ed Ferenc remembers how his radio station's promotion of the Rock Hall poll led to Cleveland's getting 120,000 votes. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Cleveland Makes Its Case Former WMMS radio personality Ed Ferenc notes that the USA Today poll response was part of the foundation for making a case for the city. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
We Have to Put This Hall of Fame in Cleveland Former WMMS radio personality Ed Ferenc tells the story of how Atlantic Records CEO Ahmet Ertegun visited Cleveland and decided it was a good location. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

Grand Opening, 1995 Upon opening to the public, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame instantly became Cleveland's #1 tourist destination. More than a shrine to rock music, the Rock Hall includes an internationally significant library and archive on the Metro campus of Cuyahoga Community College. Source: ARC-0509, Bob Rossbach Photographs, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives Creator: Bob Rossbach Date: 1995
Alan Freed WHK radio personality Alan Freed began using the name "rock and roll" to describe rhythm and blues music in the early 1950s, launching Cleveland's reputation as one of the nation's most significant locations to the development of the music form. Source: RG-0008, Records - Curatorial, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives
WMMS Promotional Art, 1977 WMMS formed in 1968 and quickly became one of the nation's foremost rock stations and thus one of the essential ingredients in the city's emergence as a "Rock and Roll Capital." In 1974 it introduced its famous buzzard mascot, drawn by listener David Helton. Source: ARC-0327, Jim Clevo Papers, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives Creator: David Helton Date: 1977
Ahmet Ertegun and Mick Jagger In the 1970s Ahmet Ertegun's Atlantic Records label managed the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger's Stones were inducted into Ertegun's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Source: RG-0008, Records - Curatorial, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives
Carl Perkins, 1993 Carl Perkins, a sharecropper's son and legendary singer/songwriter from near Memphis, was influential during the rockabilly era, so much so that he was called "The King of Rockabilly." He wrote "Blue Suede Shoes," popularized by Elvis Presley, as well as songs performed by the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and many other noted musicians. Perkins was inducted into the Rock Hall in 1993. Source: ARC-0509, Bob Rossbach Photographs, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives Creator: Bob Rossbach Date: 1993
Original Design for Rock Hall, 1989 I. M. Pei's original design for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame envisioned the iconic structure situated along West Huron Road overlooking the Cuyahoga River adjacent to Tower City Center. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation decided against this site and turned its attention to the lakefront, forcing Pei to modify his design. Source: ARC-0239, Brian Ratner Collection, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives Creator: I. M. Pei and Associates, Inc. Date: 1989
Breaking Ground for the Rock Hall, 1993 Left to right: Governor George Voinovich, Mayor Michael White, County Commissioner Tim Hagan, Billy Joel, Ahmet Ertegun, Sam Phillips, and I. M. Pei. Source: RG-0003, Records - General Information and History, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives Creator: Janet Macoska Date: 1993
I. M. Pei and Jann Wenner at Groundbreaking, 1993 Rolling Stone Magazine co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner embraces architect I. M. Pei at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Wenner was closely involved with Art Ertegun in the creation of the Rock Hall. Source: RG-0003, Records - General Information and History, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives Date: 1993
Rock Hall Under Construction, 1994 The steel framing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's tetrahedral atrium lobby take shape in this construction photo. Architect I. M. Pei intended his design to capture the exuberance of the music it salutes. Source: RG-0003, Records - General, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives Date: 1994
John Lennon's Sgt. Pepper's Outfit, 2014 Lennon's famous lime-colored jacket from the Beatles' 1967 album is among many outstanding objects in the museum's collection. Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Creator: Peter Miller Date: September 6, 2014
Pei's Designs in Paris and Macao Architect I. M. Pei's Rock Hall design evokes his Louvre Pyramid in Paris, commissioned by French president Francois Mitterrand in 1983 and completed six years later, and offers inspiration for his 2001 conception of the Macao Science Center, which opened in the Chinese port city in 2009. Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Left); Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 (Right) Creator: Trey Ratcliff (Left) & Diego Delso (Right) Date: September 19, 2010 (Left); August 8, 2013 (Right)
Rock Hall and Skyline at Twilight, 2009 In the early 1980s Cleveland boosters embraced the nickname "North Coast" to lend a new image to the city. By the early 1990s, the North Coast Harbor concept was well underway. Today the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an iconic anchor of the city's lakefront face. Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Creator: Chris Capell Date: April 9, 2009

Location

1100 E 9th St, Cleveland, OH 44114

Metadata

“Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 29, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/704.