Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Honors Great Musicians
By Jackie Sheckler Finch
Several teens sitting in the audience began to chuckle when the film narrator said, “Imagine there was a time in America when there was no rock and roll.”
For these youngsters, there never was such a time.
Rock and roll has always been a part of their lives. So the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum must have been a real eye-opener for them. After the short film ended, I saw the young people avidly reading the information in the exhibits and commenting on how much music has changed.
They even giggled at Elvis’ flamboyant jumpsuit and the video of a Baptist preacher denouncing Elvis as an evil influence in a 1956 sermon.
But, then again, I couldn’t help smiling at the ridiculous (to me) skimpy outfits and flashy makeup of some newer performers. To each his own. And the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum does seem to have something to interest everyone.
“We have from 5,000 to 8,000 visitors a day and 85 percent of them are from out of town,” a tour guide told me. “It is Cleveland’s biggest attraction.”
Which leads to the question – why Cleveland?
As a Buckeye myself, I never particularly thought of Cleveland as a hotbed of rock and roll. But the museum does a good job of explaining why Cleveland is a natural choice for the world’s definitive collection of the history of rock and roll.
Alan Freed was a Cleveland DJ who coined the term “rock & roll” and hosted the first rock and roll concert here in 1952. Cleveland also was the first place north of the Mason-Dixon Line where Elvis played.
Of course, Cleveland also was mighty supportive of hosting such an attraction. It was financially, emotionally and spiritually supported by Cleveland people.
Birth Of Hall Of Fame
When the idea for a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum initially came about, Cleveland leaders were among the first and most enthusiastic in lobbying Hall of Fame officials to bring the museum to their fair city.
Cleveland overwhelmingly beat all rivals in a USA Today poll, earning more than 100,000 votes over its nearest rival.
In addition, 660,000 people signed petitions to bring the museum to Cleveland. The city’s civic and business leaders worked together to provide the necessary financial support to make the museum not only a reality but also a stunning showcase for rock and roll’s history.
On May 5, 1986, Cleveland was selected as the site for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Groundbreaking for the building took place on June 7, 1993, and the building was opened to the public on Sept. 2, 1995.
I.M. Pei Designed It
Located on the shores of Lake Erie, the I.M. Pei-designed museum is a real beauty. A futuristic composition of bold geometric forms and dynamic cantilevered spaces, it is anchored by a 162-foot tower. The tower supports a dual-triangular-shaped glass “tent” that extends at its base onto a 65,000-square-foot plaza, making a dramatic main entry facade. Pei died May 16, 2019, at the age of 102.
“In designing this building,” Pei has said,” it was my intention to echo the energy of rock and roll. I have consciously used an architectural vocabulary that is bold and new.”
The $92 million glass-paneled pyramid and tower-type structure were funded through a public-private partnership that included the State of Ohio, City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, and Cleveland area and music industry corporations and foundations.
The original concept for the museum and archive dedicated to rock and roll was initiated in 1983 when several music industry leaders created the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. Their goal was to honor the men and women who made significant contributions to this musical style.
In 1986, they began inducting individuals. The museum was built to house the Hall of Fame, so they are actually two distinct entities.
The first-year Hall of Fame roster included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard.
Artists become eligible for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording.
The process of nominating inductees each year is based on the artist’s “influence and significance to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” Ballots are then sent to about 900 performers, historians, and music industry professionals. Those nominees who receive the most votes are inducted. The Hall of Fame typically welcomes five to seven artists each year.
The Class of 2019 includes The Cure, Def Leppard, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Radiohead, Roxy Music, and The Zombies.
Leave Plenty Of Time To Visit
For the museum itself, leave plenty of time to visit. The constantly changing museum has so much to see, read, and hear. For starters, there’s the fashion of Sgt. Pepper, Jimi Hendrix‘s handwritten lyrics, Janis Joplin’s psychedelic wardrobe, a dazzling Tina Turner costume designed by Gianna Versace, and much more.
Other specials are John Lennon’s grammar school report card, Buddy Holly’s high school diploma, David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” jumpsuit, Bruce Springsteen’s outfit from the cover of “Born in the U.S.A.,” Jim Morrison’s Cub Scout uniform, John Lennon’s gaudy jacket he wore to rehearsals for his “All You Need is Love” performance, Jimi Hendrix’s patchwork jacket from his final concert appearance in Germany on Sept. 6, 1970, a shirt John Mellencamp wore on his “Scarecrow” tour, and autographed drumsticks from Kenny Aronoff.
Then there are the musical instruments – enough to delight any music lover. You can see Duane Eddy’s Gretsch guitar, Eddie Cochran’s 1955 Gretsch, Duane Allman’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul, Dickey Betts’ 1954 Les Paul gold top, Lead Belly’s 12-string acoustic guitar, Louis Jordan’s tenor saxophone, and Robbie Robertson’s 1958 Fender Stratocaster, among others.
Exhibited items change so many visitors return often to see and hear what is new.
Several theaters take visitors on a cinematic journey through rock and roll history, including Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in the RMS Theater and a 14-minute film in the Elvis exhibit.
An unusual exhibit called Part of the Machine: Rock & Pinball showcases rocked-out pinball machines with popular performers and bands.
As expected, the museum is alive with music and film and interviews. At the Rock & Roll Radio exhibit, you can hear sound clips from famous rock and roll DJs from different eras and regions. Rapper’s Delight shares the history of hip-hop.
Before the museum opened, experts predicted fans would need about two and a half hours to wander through the musical lesson. They were sure wrong.
“We’ve found that most people stay closer to four hours or even the entire day,” a guide told me before I left. “Once they get here, people are often surprised at all there is to see and they stay longer than they expected.”
Jackie Sheckler Finch has been a newspaper reporter and photographer for most of her adult life. She became a Hoosier more than 20 years ago when she left The Standard-Times in Massachusetts to become city reporter for The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana. She has covered a wide array of topics, from birth to death with all the joy and sorrow in between. One of her greatest joys is taking to the road to find the fascinating people and places that wait over the hill and around the next bend.