LEON BIBB: Memories of the late rock 'n' roll great Chuck Berry

CLEVELAND - When he did his signature "duck walk" across the stage, the crowd was ecstatic. Chuck Berry, even years after his seminal role in opening rock 'n' roll music to a wider audience, would bring a crowd to its feet. Actually, Berry's crowds were always on their feet, stomping to the pulsating rhythm Berry always set and kept when he performed.

When he died a few days ago at the age of 90, my mind flashed back to the day I first saw Chuck Berry in person.  Of course, I had known of him for years, but to see one of the men credited with elevating rock 'n' roll music to an art appreciated by a wider audience was a treat. 

A Moondog night

It was March 21, 1986 at the old Cleveland Union Terminal train station, a few years before it would become a shopping area known as Tower City.

The strings on his guitar quivered and their sound was blasted through big speakers on the stage. The music ran up the walls of the old train station, echoed across the cavernous room, and washed down to the marble floor where the scintillating rhythm itself danced at the feet of his screaming fans.

Chuck Berry still had it and would not let it go until his last breath.The rock concert was to celebrate the 34th anniversary of the Moondog Coronation Ball of 1952, which is generally accepted as the first rock 'n' roll concert.  At the 1986 event, Chuck Berry was the headliner who brought his guitar and "duck walk" with him.  When he squatted with his guitar under his arm and moved in his bent-kneed walk across the stage, jutting out his neck, I knew I was witnessing music history. 

 

Moondog Coronation Ball II was to celebrate Cleveland's role in rock 'n' roll music. A few years later, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum would be built in Cleveland because of the city's ties to Rock and Roll Music. 

Berry was a close associate of Alan Freed, a 1950s disc jockey who popularized the phrase "rock 'n' roll" over the radio waves. The phrase was an old one used by black rhythm and blues musicians and singers. In its beginning, rock and roll denoted a couple's sex act. 

When Freed began to use the phrase on the radio to describe the music which was aimed at a huge white audience, the black rhythm and blues music took off to a wider and a whiter audience. Chuck Berry had many hit songs which crossed from black to include white and eventually resonated around the world. White kids began to rock to what had been until then black music. The world began to rock to what to it was a new beat.

RELATED: Rock Hall reacts to death of Chuck Berry, the first person inducted

That 1986 evening, the old Cleveland Union Terminal rocked in a way it had never rocked before. On the stage, Chuck Berry sang his hit songs backed up by Cleveland's WHK Radio's house band, The Stratophonics. The old railroad station, which had been mostly dark for years, came to life as Berry strutted, sang, and whooped on the stage.

A childhood Chuck Berry soundtrack

It was not the first time I had heard Berry. As a child growing up in Cleveland, I had heard my parents, aunts, and uncles talk about his music as they danced to it in parties in the basements of my Uncle John and Aunt Ruby.  Sometimes, if my uncle did not have the tunes on vinyl, people at the party would simply turn on Alan Freed's Moondog show on the radio.

Rock 'n roll blasted out of the radio speakers in the basement. Had there been a rug on the floor, it would have been rolled up for dance.

But the generation ahead of me danced on the concrete. The lights were usually low and the liquor was flowing. It was a house party with the radio playing an important role. Much of Cleveland jumped to the sound of the music Freed put on his radio station turntable. 

WATCH: Chuck Berry performs "Reelin' and Rockin'"

The music blared throughout the night, keeping the party was in full swing. The party only took a breather during radio commercials. Chuck Berry had kept the older generation on their toes and we kids would sit on the steps to the basement and watch our parents dance.

Still dancing

Years later, in 1986, Chuck Berry still had people dancing. Among the crowd was then-Ohio Governor Dick Celeste and then-Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar who did a jitterbug-inspired dance on a stage on Cleveland's Public Square, just outside the concert. The two politicians showed when you got it, you got it. And they still had some of the moves they had perfected in high school.

With the second Moondog Coronation ball concert in 1986, Cleveland was trying to position itself for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which it would get a few years later and open for business in 1995.

Chuck Berry helped Cleveland get there, not only by helping make "rock 'n' roll" a household term in the early 1950s, but also by keeping the rhythm and the rhyme of his music in his act.

When he died the other day at the age of 90, one of the great ones passed away. But as an old rock song lyrics state, "Rock and Roll is here to stay; it will never die."  I believe that.  One of the singer-musicians who helped put it in a strong place has passed on. But the memory of Chuck Berry lives on. So does his music. 

WATCH: The History of the Moondog Coronation Ball

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