By RITA KUEBER
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is the only one of its kind in the world, and it’s right here in Northeast Ohio. Cleveland Rocks!
In September 1995, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum opened its architecturally illustrious doors and has never looked back. The opening was celebrated with a ribbon cutting, parade and a once-in-a-lifetime concert that featured unique collaborations like Chuck Barry performing with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, as well as iconic performers James Brown, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin, and Johnny Cash at the nearby Municipal Stadium. Over the past 23 years, the Rock Hall has had 12 million visitors, or over half a million people every year. Statistics compiled in March, 2018 indicate its total impact in business sales in Cuyahoga County was $199 million, with visitors spending an estimated $127 million in 2017. Additionally, last year total attendance was a record-breaking 568,000, with 80 percent of visitors coming from outside the region. “We think like a museum, like an attraction, yet we’re really a destination,” CEO Greg Harris states.
One way to look at the Rock Hall is as a good return on an investment that involved a local public/private/government partnership starting in the 1980s. With rock and roll entering its sixth decade, a movement started to preserve the legacy of the early artists and groups of the genre, many of which had origins in R&B, Gospel and American Roots music of the 1920s. (Some scholars say the art form is even older as rockabilly from the 1930-50s includes songs written in the 1890s.) Leadership of this movement for a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was made up of music industry executives including Jann Wenner, founder and publisher of “Rolling Stone” magazine, and Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder and president of Atlantic Records who was well-known for discovering new talent and helping to launch their careers. (Ertegun was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987).
The movement to honor and preserve the genre’s artistic merits became The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, and the search for a permanent home generated a nationwide competition. Cities like Memphis, Detroit and Philadelphia, noted for their historical prominence, musically speaking, were in the running, as were New York and San Francisco. The first induction ceremony took place in 1986 in New York, and just a few months later, thanks to a massive community push, Cleveland was named as the permanent location for the Rock Hall.
Harris was working in Philadelphia at the time. “Philly wanted the hall too,” he recalls. “But [then Mayor George] Voinovich believed in it, local leadership raised the money from corporate, individual and public dollars, and Cleveland had such a strong DNA from Alan Freed (founder of what’s considered the first rock concert, the Moondog Coronation Ball), the Belkin family bringing great rock acts to the city, radio station WMMS gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures, and the great, sophisticated listenership – the passionate fans in Northeast Ohio – that all drove the Rock Hall here. It’s an incredible success story.”
The House That Rock Built is a 150,000-square-foot building with a glass-enclosed, double pyramid adjacent to a 162-foot tower. It was designed by internationally renowned architect I. M. Pei, who has designed some of the most visually arresting buildings in the world, including the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, and the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong. In multiple interviews Pei stated he wanted to capture “the energy” of Rock and Roll with the design. The Ertegun plaza is the main floor lobby/and concert area. The building also has 55,000 square feet of exhibition space with 10,000 to 12,000 of that dedicated to the Hall of Fame floor, plus a movie theater, administrative offices, café and gift shop. Outside, a 65,000-square-foot brick plaza is an additional venue for concerts.
The nonprofit Foundation housed in the seven-story glass pyramid on the south shore of Lake Erie is both a Hall of Fame, honoring current artists, and a museum with historic items curated and preserved. “The terms hall of fame and museum are not mutually exclusive,” Harris says. “We are a cultural and history museum – an art museum, because the art is the music itself. When we have a live band, people are directly feeling the impact of the art we have here.”
“We are the most relevant museum in the entire world,” he states. “Every person who walks in comes in with a reservoir of memories to honor and celebrate this music: the best road trip, the best time spent with friends, a heartbreak, a marriage – every visitor coming through brings these experiences which connect us all and we celebrate that connection every day.” While most visitors are from other states and Canada, the Rock Hall has also hosted visitors from more than 100 countries.
Like most vibrant, creative work, the Rock Hall is not without its critics. Probably one of the most pervasive is connected to the Induction process, with the top complaint being ‘that fill-in-the-blank-group is not rock and roll.’ For perspective, Year One inductees in 1986 included Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and the Everly Brothers. Last year’s inductees in 2018 were Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues, Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
“Rock and roll is a very wide tent, and there are lots of genres under that – heavy metal, dance, garage, stadium – it all fits under the tent,” Harris says. “Rock was never just four skinny guys with long hair and guitars. It was always so much more. We embrace that diversity. And we understand that people feel protective of the artists they think are the best. We love that they really care about who’s inducted and who’s not. We love that they are passionate about the relevancy to being part of the Hall of Fame.”
Harris talks about how judging an artistic creation is a very subjective process, and yet is pleased to point out that the critic/industry vote and the popular fan vote synced up last year. “Look at the 2018 class – from the Cars to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a singer and guitar player who influenced Elvis and Jerry Lee. That’s an induction class that speaks to how the breadth and diversity – from arena rock to gospel – all fit naturally and all are worthy of being inducted.”
Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. They should have demonstrated an impact on the artform, influencing the next generation, as well as being an excellent musician. An international body of more than 1,000 voting members has a say as to who is inducted, but fans also get a chance by voting at the Rock Hall or on its website (rockhall.com). The 2019 Class, with nominees from Devo to Janet Jackson, Kraftwerk to Stevie Nicks, will be announced soon.
In addition to the Hall of Fame, the building houses a museum with priceless artifacts carefully saved for future generations. “We preserve Jerry Garcia’s guitar like it’s a Van Gogh,” Harris says. “We have trained professionals, interpreters, and ethnomusicologists – we have a couple of PhDs on staff. They work with scholars and researchers to share our treasurers and the stories that resonate with people – that’s part of our mission, which is to engage, teach, and inspire through the power of rock & roll.”
This past summer the Rock Hall sponsored 70 consecutive days of live music on their plaza. Their education programs range from Toddler Rock to the immersive Power of Rock theater. Every year 20,000 students from Cleveland and surrounding suburbs visit and learn math, science and social history through the prism of popular music.
In short, the Rock Hall is a very busy place, that continues to invest in the visitor’s experience. “We are part of the Northeast Ohio landscape because the community came together to get the award, to build it and collectively get the project done. We carry on that legacy, improving the facility and reaching new audiences.
“It’s been terrific for 23 years, and we’ve made significant improvements for the next 20 years as well,” Harris adds. “People should come down and check out our vibrant, interactive and authentic rock and roll experience.” For more information, visit rockhall.com.