Rocket ’88” is one of many blues and R&B singles cited in retrospect as ‘the first rock ‘n’ roll record.’ Producer Sam Phillips recorded it at his Memphis Recording Service, where Elvis Presley would launch his recording career three years later, and historians also cite the accidental distortion from Willie Kizart’s guitar amp — a buzz created after the amp fell off the top of the band’s station wagon on the way to the session. And the band was led by Ike Turner, who of course became an icon in rock and R&B. This was the first session for Turner; Ike sang a couple of laid-back blues at the date and turned the mike over to one of his saxophonists, Jackie Brenston, for the uptempo ‘Rocket ’88’.’ Phillips, who at the time was hustling tapes to various companies, sensed a two-artists-in-one-session opportunity, and presented the results to Chess Records as one single by Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm and another by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. It was Brenston’s disc that took off, reaching No. 1 on the R&B charts (Chess Records’ first chart-topper), and motivating Brenston to split from Turner and launch his own short-lived career. It also created a permanent rift between Phillips and his other prime client, the Bihari brothers’ Modern Records, since Modern was not offered the Brenston hit — allegedly, according to Lester Bihari, because Leonard Chess had just given Phillips a $1500 loan.
Various accounts have circulated about how the song developed. Some say the band wrote it on the way to the studio after a Rocket ’88’ Oldsmobile passed them on the road. Others say the band had been rehearsing it at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi. James Cotton claims he and Ike wrote it together. By one report, the Kings of Rhythm vocalist who was intended to sing it was Johnny O’Neal — but O’Neal was apparently unavailable, perhaps because he had just signed a contract with King Records. But in the end, Brenston himself admitted there was nothing that original about the song, which he said they had simply borrowed from another jump blues about an automobile, Jimmy Liggins’ ‘Cadillac Boogie.’
JACKIE BRENSTON AND HIS DELTA CATS
Jackie Brenston, vocal and tenor saxophone; Raymond Hill, tenor saxophone; Ike Turner, piano; Willie Kizart, guitar; Willie ‘Bad Boy’ Sims, drums. Recorded March 5, 1951, at Memphis Recording Service, Memphis, Tennessee. Released in 1951 on Chess 1458 (78 rpm), issued on 45 rpm c. 1954.
Discographical details from The Blues Discography 1943-1970.
— Jim O’Neal