In his new book The House That Rock Built, which focuses on the story of how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum came to be in Cleveland, from germ of an idea to opening day, DJ/music historian/author Norm N. Nite repeatedly says of various businessmen, politicians and music industry honchos “Without him the Rock Hall would not have happened.”
In fact, without Norm N. Nite, the Rock Hall would never have happened in Cleveland. In a real sense he’s its founding father. In the early days, when the idea of a small-scale hall of fame in NYC to house plaques dedicated to inductees was being bandied around, it was Nite, a native Clevelander, who first said, “Why don’t we open it up to Cleveland?”
That launched a feverish competition between Cleveland and other cities who wanted to submit bids. Nite describes how it all went down, how Cleveland won and almost lost it, and all of the stalling and setbacks it underwent, much of which was depicted in the media at the time. As an insider who sat in the meetings with both the New York and Cleveland group, Nite was perfectly positioned to add behind-the-scenes details about what was actually going on.
He was the perfect author for this book in another way: he took copious notes, a longstanding habit of his.
“That was the basis for being able to do it,” he says. “I took notes on everything. It wasn’t just guessing. It’s all documented. I wrote down times, places, who was there. I wrote down the times the meetings started and ended. That’s why we could do an honest thing that no one else could do.”
Nite didn’t just depend on his notes though. After a deal with Time/Life books went up in smoke, due to the interested agent losing her job, he says his nieces and nephews, who first pushed him to do the book, kept on him.
Soon after, he noticed a book on his shelf about Cleveland DJ Tommy Edwards and saw it was published by Kent State University press, so he cold-called them, and had lunch with an editor. That meeting led to his collaboration with former Plain Dealer writer Tom Feran, who added first-person interviews with key players to Nite’s own recollections and notes. Many of the people they talked to who were instrumental have now passed away: former Cleveland mayor/governor/senator George Voinovich, Rock Hall curator Jim Henke, former state legislator Pat Sweeney, concert promoter Mike Belkin.
“We caught them all when they were still around and I knew we would have a factual account of how this transpired,” says Nite.
He doesn’t pull any punches about the tensions and disagreements surrounding brings the Rock Hall to fruition, and correctly, but depressingly shows how the project was dominated by businessman and corporate/civic types with no real feel for rock & roll. That got the project financed but led to early missteps that turned off a lot of devoted music fans, such as a building that threatened to have nothing in it & content that was still shallow and touristy at the time of opening, due to lackadaisical collecting that got up to speed late.
While Nite does do a little bit of building up of key players, he’s pretty clear-eyed about who played what role, who acted as a roadblock and who butted heads. And as an insider, who knew both the New York and Cleveland players — two groups who were at odds for many years — he’s in a position to tell us stories we’ve never heard before. He says he tried to give credit where credit is due.
“Everybody wants to be remembered for something, and they all want to be remembered as having a pivotal part in it,” he says. “There are probably people who are pissed, ‘He didn’t mention me.’ It’s a signature building in our town and everybody’s proud of it and would like to feel a part of it. Memories fade & people expand their own role. But I have copious notes and we talked to all the key people in New York and Cleveland. We feel we’ve done the book that’s telling the true story about how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came to be in Cleveland.”