History of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Ahead of this weekend’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, I thought it’d be fun to take a look back at how the hall got started, and all the events that have taken place there over the years!

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Image from Wikimedia Commons by Wikipedia user MusikAnimal (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Creation of the Organization

Ahmet Ertegun and Jann Wenner are usually credited with creating the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, but that distinction actually belongs to Bruce Brandwen. As Joe Hagan tells it in his biography of Jann Wenner titled Sticky Fingers, Brandwen (who was in the TV industry) had an idea similar to the earlier T.A.M.I. show: An annual TV concert in honor of rock and roll icons, along with a museum of artifacts and memorabilia. It was Brandwen who incorporated the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though it was originally called the Kings and Queens of Rock and Roll. The organization created a five-year contract deal with Black Tie Network, Brandwen’s pay-per-view company, for the recording and broadcast rights to the events. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame brought on Lesley Gore, Ahmet Ertegun, Jann Wenner, and others for the board. 

The board began their search for a home for their museum, considering locations in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Memphis, and Chicago. In 1985, Cleveland made a pitch to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to build the museum in their city: Cleveland radio DJ Alan Freed was the first to use the phrase “rock and roll” on his show, and local station WMMS played a large part in breaking many of the artists now widely known. In New York, the Hall would be just another building, and some subgenres would be out of place in cities with a distinctive sound such as New Orleans or Memphis. In Cleveland, the museum would be a landmark, and the city’s lack of distinctive sound but ties to the genre would make it the perfect home.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from Above - Aerial Shot
Image from journalist John Kosich’s blog, taken in 2011 from his Newscopter which flies out of Burke Lakefront Airport

The Rock Hall board accepted the offer in 1986, realizing that the interest and scale of the museum project was now much larger than Brandwen intended. 

The first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony took place in New York in 1986, where Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Elvis Presely, and others were inducted. Black Tie recorded the event, but due to disagreements with the board the footage was never broadcasted like Brandwen had planned. The same is true for the 1987 event, where Bo Diddley, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Bill Haley, Smokey Robinson, and more were inducted. However, the recordings of 1986 and 1987 events are now available for viewing on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Youtube channel!

Since by 1988, none of the events had been aired, Brandwen and Black Tie sued the Hall for breach of contract. But the lawsuit didn’t go in his favor. Brandwen settled, giving up his role in the foundation. The board fired Lesley Gore (who was never inducted into the Hall), and thus the board that is widely known today as being the creators of the foundation was born. According to Hagan, cutting out the TV network was necessary to brand the Foundation, which had been converted to a nonprofit, as an organization for “Art with a capital A: an authentic form of American expression.” 

Building and Opening of the Cleveland Museum

The Rock Hall project was chosen as part of Cleveland’s North Coast Harbor development project, and architect I.M. Pei was brought on as the designer. The building’s glass pyramid is meant to resemble a guitar neck rising to the sky, while the plaza in front of the building looks like a turntable. Interestingly, the building was originally going to be taller, as the original location was elsewhere in the city, but it’s new placement was too close to the Burke Lakefront Airport.

I. M. Pei and Jann Wenner at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Groundbreaking, 1993
I.M. Pei and Jann Wenner at the groundbreaking ceremony. From Cleveland Historical

In 1993, construction finally started on the Rock Hall. Chuck Berry, Billy Joel, and Pete Townshend were among the VIPs in attendance at the groundbreaking ceremony.

The Rock Hall opened on September 2, 1995 with a benefit concert in the next-door Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The concert kicked off with a duet of “Johnny B. Goode” by Bruce Springsteen and Chuck Berry, and the event lasted until past 2 am the next day. Performers included Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, John Fogerty, the Kinks, the Allman Brothers Band, John Mellencamp, Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, the Pretenders, Iggy Pop, Melissa Etheridge, and Jackson Browne.

Exhibits and Events

In 1996, the museum started their American Music Masters series. Each year, the museum celebrates an influential musician with a week of film screenings, interviews, and usually a special exhibit, often concluding with a concert where notable artists perform as the honoree. Honorees have included Woody Guthrie, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, and Aretha Franklin. In 2019, the event became known as Rock Hall Honors, where the honored musician performs alongside special guests of their choosing. For the 2019 event, honoree Mavis Staples chose Valerie June, Jackson Browne, and Taylor Goldsmith to open for her.

Exhibits

In May of 1997 (the same month as the first Cleveland induction ceremony), the Rock Hall Museum replaced many of its original displays with it’s first major exhibit: I Want to Take You Higher: The Psychedelic Era, 1965–1969. It included items from artists of the era, such as John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin, as well as items from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and 1969 Woodstock. They celebrated the grand opening of the exhibit with a ’60s themed party on May 10.

From 1998 to present, the Rock Hall Museum has added 3-5 new exhibits most years. Exhibits have focused on specific artists, genres, eras, albums, concerts, fashion, photography, stage design, journalism, merchandising, and anything else you can think of.

View all the past Museum exhibits

25th Anniversary Concert

On October 29 and 30, 2009, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrated it’s 25th Anniversary with two nights full of all-star performances at Madison Square Garden. Performers included Bruce Springsteen; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; Simon and Garfunkel; Stevie Wonder; Metallica; and U2. The performance is available on CD and DVD, as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s YouTube account.

Upcoming Events

The 2020 induction ceremony will premiere on Saturday November 7 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HBO/HBO Max. This year’s inductees are Depeche Mode, The Doobie Brothers, Whitney Houston, Nine Inch Nails, The Notorious B.I.G., and T. Rex. The Ahmet Ertegun Award honorees are Jon Landau and Irving Azoff.

This event replaces the live induction ceremony that was scheduled to occur this past May. Dave Grohl will kick off the event with an introduction to this year’s inductees. Special guests such as Luke Bryan, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Miley Cyrus, Billy Gibbons, Don Henley, Jennifer Hudson, Billy Idol, Iggy Pop, Alicia Keys, Adam Levine, Chris Martin, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Brad Paisley, Bruce Springsteen, St. Vincent, Ringo Starr, Gwen Stefani, Charlize Theron, and Nancy Wilson will highlight the importance and influence of this years honorees.

Before the event, you can tune into the virtual Red Carpet event for free. More info about all upcoming events is available at rockhall.com/events.

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