As vice president of education and visitor engagement at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Jason Hanley often observes the museum’s visitors.
“I constantly see parents and children talking and sharing stories about their favorite musician or song,” says Hanley. “People dance and even cry in the exhibit halls. It’s incredible to see how rock music has played a role in everyone’s life.”
Indeed, since the 1950s, when Bill Haley and His Comets released “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s rendition of “That’s All Right” drove rock ’n’ roll to the top of the pop charts, the genre has become America’s soundtrack. Rock ’n’ roll is the music that your parents played on transistor radios, that animated your proms and road trips, and that electrified your first romance.
Such is its indelible impact on everyday life that in the last 25 years, nearly 12 million people have visited the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The Rock Hall was the first museum dedicated to rock ’n’ roll, and its opening on Sept. 2, 1995, in a glistening I.M. Pei-designed building along Lake Erie, was a landmark event for popular culture. “It was truly significant,” says Hanley, “because rock music was being recognized, preserved, taught, and honored in a way traditionally reserved for high art forms.” Rock ’n’ roll’s royalty — think James Brown, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin — showed up and celebrated with epic performances in Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium. “We occasionally show that concert in the Rock Hall’s theater. It had so many special onstage collaborations, like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band backing Jerry Lee Lewis on ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ ” says Hanley.
In the 1980s, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation chose Cleveland for the Rock Hall over New York, Memphis, Philadelphia, and New Orleans because its rock music roots run deep and strong. Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed popularized the term “rock ’n’ roll” and organized the first rock ’n’ roll concert — The Moondog Coronation Ball — in 1952. Touting its reputation as a breakout city for artists from Buddy Holly to David Bowie, Cleveland campaigned hard to land the Rock Hall by raising $65 million and flooding a nationwide poll with hometown votes.
Cleveland’s persistence paid off. The Rock Hall’s rollout was a turning point for the city and its image — the downbeat that shifted the lakefront from industry to culture and recreation, bolstering the area economy to the tune of $2 billion since 1995. “People around the world make the pilgrimage to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on the beautiful shores of Lake Erie,” says Hanley. “It’s a great symbol that identifies this city.”
The Rock Hall’s exhibits take visitors on an incomparable — and often interactive — journey that extends from rock ’n’ roll’s roots in blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, country, folk, and bluegrass to contemporary groups like the Lumineers and Arctic Monkeys. “Anything we have on display has to be an authentic artifact that tells part of the story of rock music,” notes Hanley. Visitors get to see guitars owned by Muddy Waters and Eddie Van Halen, outfits worn by the Beach Boys, the Mellotron that the Beatles used for the singular sounds of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a replica of Pink Floyd’s set from The Wall tour, and handwritten lyrics — including Billy Joel’s “My Life” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” — complete with cross-outs and changes that convey the artistic process.
Enhancing those treasures are unique experiences such as watching musicians tell stories about recording sessions or relishing powerful songs and performances that prove rock ’n’ roll is here to stay. “People sometimes think they can blow through the Rock Hall in an hour or two,” says Hanley, “but even if they just watch artists’ videos and listen to music, they easily could spend two days.”
25th anniversary high notes
Because of the COVID-19 virus, the Class of 2020 Induction Ceremony was rescheduled to Nov. 7 in Cleveland’s Public Auditorium, and for the first time, the event will be broadcast live on HBO. Inductees include Depeche Mode, the Doobie Brothers, Whitney Houston, Nine Inch Nails, the Notorious B.I.G., and T. Rex. The museum is displaying a Class of 2020 exhibit and presenting a virtual exhibit featuring images by veteran induction ceremony photographer Kevin Mazur. Arrangements also are underway for a special 25th anniversary concert. Details — and headliners — are pending, so stay tuned.