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Spare Parts: Rock ’n’ roll never forgets

By Ernie Copper

Rock ’n’ roll and motorcycles go together like rock goes with roll. A quick look at the entertainment schedule of any decent rally will probably turn up multiple headliners and many of those are sure to be “classic” rock bands.

People lose their minds at rock concerts. As one who has been in the no-man’s land between the stage and the barriers at rally concerts, I can tell you those who have put the effort into securing front-row positions on the spectator side of the gate are not letting anything stop them from having a good time if it’s humanly possible.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Jackyl, Foghat, Three Dog Night and The Guess Who are all appearing at rallies this summer within a couple hours’ ride from my home. Bands like those are sure to stir memories in the straightest of the straights.

There is no motorcycle anthem that speaks to riders of all ages like Steppenwolf’s classic 1969 hit Born to be Wild. If you have a sound system on your bike and you’re playing music, other motorists expect it to be Steppenwolf. Zeppelin? Always cool. Skynyrd? Always acceptable. Green Day? Not so much. You can expect a scornful look if your bike is playing music that isn’t rock ’n’ roll and you can deal with that because you’re a biker, but it makes everyone else uncomfortable.

But before any of us headed out on the highway, before black leather jackets defined bikers or rockers and before Ms. Jett proclaimed her love for rock ’n’ roll, somebody had to name it rock ’n’ roll. Elvis was crowned the “King of Rock and Roll,” even though that coronation was later shortened to just “The King,” but who came up with magical phrase rock ’n’ roll? It’s the anchor in the big three: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Really, if you just say rock ’n’ roll, the sex and the drugs are almost understood as component parts.

It just so happens that my hometown, New Castle, Pennsylvania, played a small role in the history of the coining of the phrase “rock ’n’ roll.” This small-town AM radio station was where DJ Alan Freed had his first on-air disk jockey job in back in 1942.

I didn’t know Alan Freed. I don’t even know anyone who claims to have known him. For the most part, people from New Castle don’t even lay claim to him as one of ours—probably because he wasn’t born here. Even though I spent some time on the air at WKST in the ’90s, I had largely forgotten about Alan Freed myself until my daughter queried as to why she had to learn about Freed in a college course creatively titled “Bach to Rock,” for which she has religiously left my home at 5:00 a.m. to attend every Monday morning this summer. Had I known the information would have prevented such early risings, I’d have happily mentioned it sooner. And now I’m telling you so hopefully it can preserve some sanity in your life—or at least win you a beer in a bar bet.

Among the places Alan Freed went after shaking the dust of New Castle off his feet was radio station WJM in Cleveland, Ohio, where he reportedly first used the term “rock ’n’ roll” and promoted the first rock concert in 1951. In that regard, Cleveland is the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll as we know it.

The next time you’re at a rally, climbing over someone’s back to snag a guitar pick or catch a drumstick, think about Alan Freed and remember he made it cool for us to act this way. Like most bright stars, Freed burned out too soon, passing at age 43 in 1965.

Freed may be just a footnote in New Castle’s history, but we are also the “Fireworks capital of America.” We still have that going for us.

 

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