"Rocket 88" (originally written as Rocket "88") is a rhythm and blues song that was first recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 3 or 5, 1951 (accounts differ). The recording was credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, who were actually Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm.
|Single by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats|
|B-side||"Come Back Where You Belong"|
|Format||10-inch 78 rpm|
|Recorded||March 3 or 5, 1951|
|Studio||Memphis Recording Service, Memphis, Tennessee|
|Genre||Rhythm and blues, rock and roll|
|Songwriter(s)||Jackie Brenston (credited), Ike Turner (uncredited)|
|Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats singles chronology|
The record reached number one on the Billboard R&B chart. Many music writers acknowledge its importance in the development of rock and roll music, with several considering it to be the first rock and roll record. The song was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Singles in 2018.
The original version of the twelve-bar blues song was credited to Jackie Brenston (Ike Turner's saxophonist) and his Delta Cats, which hit number one on the R&B charts. The band was actually 19-year-old Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm band, who rehearsed at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Brenston sang the lead vocal and was credited with writing "Rocket 88". The song was a hymn of praise to the joys of the Oldsmobile "Rocket 88" automobile which had recently been introduced, and was based on the 1947 song "Cadillac Boogie" by Jimmy Liggins. It was also preceded and influenced by Pete Johnson's "Rocket 88 Boogie" Parts 1 and 2, an instrumental, originally recorded for the Los Angeles-based Swing Time Records label in 1949.
Drawing on the template of jump blues and swing combo music, Turner made the style even rawer, superimposing Brenston's enthusiastic vocals, his own piano, and tenor saxophone solos by 17-year-old Raymond Hill (later to be the father of Tina Turner's first child, before she married Ike). Willie Sims played drums for the recording. The song also features one of the first examples of distortion, or fuzz guitar ever recorded, played by the band's guitarist Willie Kizart. The song was recorded in the Memphis studio of producer Sam Phillips in March 1951, and licensed to Chess Records for release.
The legend of how the sound came about says that Kizart's amplifier was damaged on Highway 61 when the band was driving from Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. An attempt was made to hold the cone in place by stuffing the amplifier with wadded newspapers, which unintentionally created a distorted sound; Phillips liked the sound and used it. Robert Palmer has written that the amplifier "had fallen from the top of the car", and attributes this information to Sam Phillips. However, in a recorded interview at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington, Ike Turner stated that the amplifier was in the trunk of the car and that rain may have caused the damage; he is certain that it did not fall from the roof of the car. Peter Guralnick, in his biography of Sam Phillips has the amplifier being dropped from the car's trunk when the band got a flat tire and was digging out the spare. Link Wray explains the development of his fuzz tone with a similar story.
It was the third-biggest rhythm and blues single in jukebox plays of 1951, according to Billboard magazine, and ninth in record sales, reaching first place on 9 June 1951 and staying there for five weeks. Ike Turner's piano intro to the song was later used nearly note-for-note by Little Richard in "Good Golly Miss Molly".
Many writers have suggested that "Rocket 88" has strong claims to be called the first rock'n'roll record, but others take a more nuanced view. Charlie Gillett, writing in 1970 in The Sound of the City, said that it was "one of several records that people in the music business cite as 'the first rock'n'roll record'". It has been suggested by Larry Birnbaum that the idea that "Rocket 88" could be called "the first rock'n'roll record" first arose in the late 1960s; he argued that: "One of the reasons is surely that Kizart's broken amp anticipated the sound of the fuzzbox, which was in its heyday when "Rocket 88" was rediscovered."
Music historian Robert Palmer, writing in The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll in 1980, described it as an important and influential record. He noted that Hill's saxophone playing was "wilder and rougher" than on many jump blues records, and also emphasized the record's "fuzzed-out, overamplified electric guitar". Writing in 1984, Nick Tosches, though rejecting the idea that it could be described as the first rock'n'roll record "any more than there is any first modern novel – the fact remains that the record in question was possessed of a sound and a fury the sheer, utter newness of which set it apart from what had come before." Echoing this view, Bill Dahl at AllMusic wrote:
Determining the first actual rock & roll record is a truly impossible task. But you can't go too far wrong citing Jackie Brenston's 1951 Chess waxing of "Rocket 88, "is a seminal piece of rock's fascinating history with all the prerequisite elements firmly in place: practically indecipherable lyrics about cars, booze, and women; Raymond Hill's booting tenor sax, and a churning, beat-heavy rhythmic bottom.
Rock art historian Paul Grushkin wrote:
Working from the raw material of post-big band jump blues, Turner had cooked up a mellow, cruising boogie with a steady-as-she-goes back beat now married to Brenston's enthusiastic, sexually suggestive vocals that spoke of opportunity, discovery and conquest. This all combined to create (as one reviewer later put it) "THE mother of all R&B songs for an evolutionary white audience".
Michael Campbell wrote, in Popular Music in America: And The Beat Goes On:
Both the distortion and the relative prominence of the guitar were novel features of this recording – these are the elements that have earned "Rocket 88" so many nominations as "the first" rock and roll record. From our perspective, "Rocket 88" wasn't the first rock and roll record, because the beat is a shuffle rhythm, not the distinctive rock rhythm heard first in the songs of Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Still, the distortion and the central place of the guitar in the overall sound certainly anticipate key features of rock style.
...Anyway, we recorded "Rocket 88" and you know that's why they say "Rocket 88" was the first rock'n'roll song (well, they use the language "It's been said about 'Rocket 88'"), but the truth of the matter is, I don't think that "Rocket 88" is rock'n'roll. I think that "Rocket 88" is R&B, but I think "Rocket 88" is the cause of rock and roll existing ... Sam Phillips got Dewey Phillips to play "Rocket 88" on his program – and this is like the first black record to be played on a white radio station – and, man, all the white kids broke out to the record shops to buy it. So that's when Sam Phillips got the idea, "Well, man, if I get me a white boy to sound like a black boy, then I got me a gold mine", which is the truth. So, that's when he got Elvis and he got Jerry Lee Lewis and a bunch of other guys and so they named it rock and roll rather than R&B and so this is the reason I think rock and roll exists – not that "Rocket 88" was the first one, but that was what caused the first one.
Cover version by Bill HaleyEdit
A second version of "Rocket 88" was recorded by the then-country music group Bill Haley and the Saddlemen (who would later rename themselves The Comets) at a recording session on June 14, 1951, after Turner recorded his version. Haley's recording was a regional hit in the northeast United States and started Haley along the musical road which led to his own impact on popular music with "Rock Around the Clock" in 1955.
Upright bass player Marshall Lytle commented on his playing on this recording. "Before we had drums, I was practically the whole rhythm section. Since we didn't have any amplification, I slapped it so hard the neck had big grooves in it. Bill liked it loud, so he'd scream, 'Play loud!'"
Those who subscribe to the definition of rock and roll as the melding of country music with rhythm and blues believe that Haley's version of the song, not the Turner/Brenston original, is the first rock and roll record. No matter which version deserves the accolade, "Rocket 88" is seen as a prototype rock and roll song in musical style and lineup, as well as its lyrical theme, in which an automobile serves as a metaphor for sexual prowess.
The song is featured in the 1984 film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Buckaroo Banzai and his band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, perform the song at a bar early in the movie, but the song itself (which was a 3⁄4 time sped-up instrumental version) was actually recorded by Billy Vera and the Beaters. "ROKIT 88" is the New Jersey vanity license plate on the jet car, named HB 88, that Buckaroo uses.
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