Saturday, March 03, 2007

Musicology 101 - Rocket 88

This post marks the beginning of a new feature where I will select and dissect a particularly important song, delving into its history, influence, lyrical meaning, and any other bits of relevant information I can scrounge up. I’m fascinated by the stories and legends behind the music, and although most of this information is available in a variety of books, liner notes and web sites, my goal here is to distill it all into a manageable text, for my own benefit and enjoyment, and perhaps, yours as well.

So what better way to start this series than with the first rock and roll record ever made, Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats? Of course such a bold statement has been debated by countless music historians, but there’s a lot of evidence to support this theory, and a pretty good story too. On March 3, 1951, Ike Turner’s band the Rhythm Kings recorded the song in Sam Phillips studio in Memphis. Although written by Turner (1931- ), Phillips credited the songwriting to lead singer Jackie Brenston (1930-1979), and fabricated the Delta Cats for royalty reasons. Turner admitted to lifting the basic structure from a 1947 jump blues song called Cadillac Boogie, recorded by Jimmy Liggins and the Kings of Rhythm. There’s also an instrumental called “Rocket 88 Boogie,” originally recorded by Pete Johnson for the Los Angeles-based Swing Time Records label in 1949.

Although there were no rock and roll charts in 1951, Rocket 88 hit number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart in June, 1951. The song extols the virtues of the fast and muscular Oldsmobile model, but the innuendo and double entendres are evident:

You may have heard of jalopies
You heard the noise they make
Let me introduce you to my Rocket '88
Yes it's great, just won't wait
Everybody likes my Rocket '88

Gals will ride in style
Movin' all along
V-8 motor and this modern design
My convertible top and the gals don't mind
Sportin' with me, ridin' all around town for joy
Blow your horn, Rocket, blow your horn

Step in my Rocket and-don't be late
We're pullin' out about a half-past-eight
Goin' on the corner and havin' some fun
Takin' my Rocket on a long, hot run
Ooh, goin' out, oozin' and cruisin' and havin' fun

Now that you've ridden in my Rocket '88
I'll be around every night about eight
You know it's great, don't be late
Everybody likes my Rocket '88
Gals will ride in style
Movin' all along

So what makes Rocket 88 the first rock and roll record? If you consider rock and roll to be the melding of rhythm and blues and swing combo music, there were probably many songs that crossed the line in the late 40’s and early 50’s. What’s significant about Rocket 88 is the energetic backbeat, rollicking piano, boisterous vocals, and, believe it or not, probably the first use of distorted, or fuzz guitar, anywhere, by anyone (see Mythology, below). Its influence is enormous, introducing the automobile as a subject matter (and a metaphor for sexual prowess). Little Richard stole the piano introand I'd say Jerry Lee Lewis owes a little of his keyboard style to Turner. If you consider rock and roll to be the melding of R&B and country, well Bill Haley had a hit with a cover of this song in June of 1951, three years before he formed the Comets and cut Rock Around the Clock.

Mythology – The myth around a song of this magnitude has grown, and very likely has been embellished over the years as all good stories have. Legend has it that B.B. King invited Turner’s band to Memphis to record at Phillips’ studio. Some versions have Turner writing the song on the way to the session, others have him fleshing it out at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi (home to Robert Johnson’s Crossroads and where you can now frequently find Robert Plant roaming the streets in search of the spirit). On the drive up Highway 61 to Memphis (later ‘revisited’ by Dylan in 1965), a tube amplifier apparently fell out of the car and the woofer was damaged. Turner stuffed some paper into it, Phillips rolled tape, and the rest is history. Far fetched maybe, but I love this stuff!

Rocket 88
Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (Ike Turner’s Rhythm Kings)
Words and music by Jackie Brenston (actually Ike Turner)
Recorded March 3rd (or 5th), 1951
Memphis Recording Company, Memphis, TN
Originally released as Chess 1458
Produced by Sam Phillips

Ike Turner, piano
Jackie Brenston, vocals, saxophone(?)
Willie Sims, drums
Jesse Knight, bass
Willie Kizart, guitar
Raymond Hill, saxophone

This information was distilled from various sources. I would welcome any comments from real music historians that might be lurking out there.

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Blogger Casey said...

I would of liked to have been around when the band broke into that number!
"Rock-N-Roll is cool Daddy-O" I can almost here them shouting!
Nice post.

4:19 PM  
Blogger whiteray said...

Nice post -- From what I've read, you've nailed both the history and the mythology of the piece. It's as good a choice as any for the first R&R record, and a better choice than most!

8:21 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Glad you liked the post. More to come, as I'm working on the next installment. Any suggestions on future songs will be accepted...

2:41 PM  

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