When you think of the first Rock N Roll stars, you think of the names of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and Chuck Berry. Yet none of these rock giants could claim that they recorded the first Rock N Roll hit.
That honor actually goes to Ike Turner.
“Rocket 88” was first recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, in March 1951. The recording was credited to “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats”, who were actually Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm. The single reached number-one on the Billboard R&B chart.
In 1951, Ike Turner walked into Sam Phillips’ studio in Memphis and, along with his band, helped create a sound that still echoes through history like thunder across the sky. The original song they recorded, Rocket 88, may well have been the first rock ‘n’ roll record, and in the years that followed, innumerable music reference sources, from The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (“frequently cited as the first rock & roll record”) to the website of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (“widely considered the first rock and roll record”), have backed up that title.
In 1991, after a great deal of debate, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized this as the first rock and roll song ever recorded. Turner was in jail at the time for cocaine possession, so his daughter accepted the award.
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.
Turner wasn’t the lead vocalist on Rocket 88 — his saxophone player, Jackie Brenston was — and the record was released under Brenston’s name. Exactly who wrote the song, Brenston or Turner along with the band, is a matter of dispute (Turner has said his name was left off because he had another record coming out). The only thing that’s certain is that it took many people to create the song, including the canny, visionary producer Phillips.
Time published this review of the record:
“Rocket 88 was brash and it was sexy; it took elements of the blues, hammered them with rhythm and attitude and electric guitar, and reimagined black music into something new. If the blues seemed to give voice to old wisdom, this new music seemed full of youthful notions. If the blues was about squeezing cathartic joy out of the bad times, this new music was about letting the good times roll. If the blues was about earthly troubles, the rock that Turner’s crew created seemed to shout that the sky was now the limit.”
It is a pity that Ike Turner is now mainly remembered as Tian Turner’s abusive husband. But I suppose sometimes you have to separate the art from the person .