SONG: Rocket 88
ARTIST: Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats
Listen to it here:
“Rocket 88” was originally recorded in Memphis, Tennessee in March of 1951, which is the version we’re listening to today. It was credited to “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats”, who were actually “Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm”. Huh?
So, first, this recording is important as an early developer of rock and roll. Some music writers consider it to be the first rock and roll record, though as we know now, several albums hold that distinction depending on who you’re talking to. This original version was a twelve-bar blues song, and as stated above, was credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Brenston was actually Ike Turner’s saxophonist, and the Delta Cats were actually Turner’s Kings of Rhythm backup band. Brenston sang the lead vocals in this rendition, and is listed as the songwriter, though it’s heavily disputed that Ike wrote this song. Also, Brenston was usually Turner’s saxophonist but on this number, they used a different saxophonist, Raymond Hill to play tenor sax.
The song is a hymn of praise to the joys of the Oldsmobile “Rocket 88” car, which had recently been introduced, and the song was based on the 1947 song “Cadillac Boogie” by Jimmy Liggins. Turner used the jump blues and swing combo that was becoming increasingly popular, and made the style even more raw with his own piano playing, tenor sax solos that are definitely rough around the edges, and distorted guitar. The distorted guitar sound happened because right before they recorded this song, the guitarist blew one of the cones in his amp, so they stuffed it full of newspaper, decided they kinda liked that “fuzzy” sound, and just hoped it would work for the whole recording.
Some bad feelings came out of the mis-appropriating of this song. The song was recorded in Sam Phillip’s studio in Memphis, and Turner blamed Phillips for misprinting the credits as Jackie Brenston. Turner and the rest of the band were only paid $20 each for the record (just under $200 in today’s money), except for Brenston who sold the rights to Phillips for $910. Ike was pissed.
Well, who do you write about when one artist is claimed as the songwriter, when another really is, and they’re both in the same band? I decided to write a little about Jackie Brenston, as his name is the one credited in 1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die. Also, I get the feeling that Ike Turner will show up on this list again somewhere, whereas I have my doubts that Jackie Brenston will.
So, having said that, Jackie Brenston was born in 1928 or 1930 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He had a troubled youth and ran away from home often. The different birth dates come from a theory that Brenston’s mother falsified his birth date so that he could join the army. Brenston claimed that he served for over 3 years in the 82nd Airborne, but records show he didn’t quite last a year.
When Brenston returned from his army service, he learned to play the tenor saxophone had linked up with Ike Turner in 1950 to play in his band, the Kings of Rhythm. The band became a success on the local scene, and B.B. King recommended them to studio owner, Sam Phillips in Memphis, where they made several recordings, including Rocket 88.
After all of the bad feelings between Ike Turner and himself for receiving credit for the song, Brenston left Ike’s band to pursue a solo career. This didn’t go great, and 4 years later he was back playing saxophone with Turner’s band, though he was barred from singing Rocket 88. By this time, alcoholism had started to affect Brenston’s life and career. He continued playing with Turner through the years that Ike met Tina, and the two recorded together, but eventually alcoholism took a toll on his career and reputation. He stopped recording in 1963, moved back to Clarksdale to work as a truck driver, and died of a heart attack in December, 1979.
- Rocket 88 was a big influence on Little Richard – so much so that Little Richard copied the exact intro of Rocket 88 for his hit, Good Golly, Miss Molly
- One of the biggest things about this song is the debate over whether it’s the first rock and roll album or not. According to Ike Turner, it’s not rock and roll, but R&B. BUT it became so popular with white kids, that Sam Phillips got the idea to find white musicians who could sound black (Elvis Presley) and name their genre rock and roll. So according to Ike Turner, Rocket 88 caused rock and roll.
- Sam Phillips used the money from the success of Rocket 88 and his marketing of it as the first rock and roll album to start his new record company, Sun Records
Wow, I can’t believe I touted being a fan of early rock, boogie woogie and rhythm and blues for so long and yet this is the first time I’ve heard this song or this artist? I mean, of COURSE I’ve heard of Ike Turner, and despite the Ike and Tina Review being DYNAMITE, I hope history only remembers him as that piece of shit who abused the legendary Tina. Anyway, I didn’t realize there was this boogie woogie-sounding song so early in the 1950s! It definitely reminds me of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard. The song itself is pretty great and pretty standard fare for that genre. I really like the lead singer’s voice but it’s a little hard to hear what’s going on with the band – it sounds like they’re all playing into the same one microphone and it sounds like a fuzzy mess. Is it sloppy? Is it tight? Kind of hard to tell. Interesting story behind the song, and I think it should get more attention than it does.
One thing I couldn’t help but think about the whole time I listened to this song was the absolute NIGHTMARE this would have been for the guys in the booth – that pounding high piano, janky drum shuffle beat, fuzzy guitar, fuzzy saxophone. At this time in history too. Wow. But aside from that, you can really hear the progression towards rock and roll in this song. I would say that you still can’t really call it rock and roll because of the drum shuffle pattern, and just how swingy it is, but the fuzzy guitar and enthusiastic vocals are definitely working their way there. It’s a pretty interesting listen because like a few others we’ve been listening to in the last few weeks, it feels like an experiment in a lot of ways, and for that I like it! I don’t love it, because some of the elements seem to work against each other – the walking bass line and the guitar playing basically the same thing in octaves I think does a lot to hold the song back from really being revolutionary, but I really appreciate the history in this song. I also think that Ike had a right to be pissed about not getting the credit for this song. And that’s the only nice thing I’ll ever say about Ike Turner.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, recorded just a few months after the Ike/Jackie version. Also, the video with this one shows a very pretty Rocket 88 car:
Ike Turner’s later version of Rocket 88:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: