Thursday, March 03, 2022

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Celebrating Jackie Brenston, Ike Turner and "Rocket 88"


Delta Cats: Ike Turner, left, with Jackie Brenston 

Happy birthday rock 'n' roll!

On this day, March 3, 1951,  at Memphis Recording Service -- later renamed "Sun Studios," a band called Ike Turner & His Rhythm Kings, featuring a singer named Jackie Brenston from Clarksdale, Mississippi recorded a little jump blues tune called "Rocket 88."

And what a song it was.

Writing in Time Magazine in 2004,  Jamaican-born journalist Christopher John Farley said of "Rocket 88":

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. And if anyone had ever thought before that black music was just for black people, Rocket 88 undercut that tall tale — the beat was too big, the lyrics too inviting, the melody too winning, the volume too loud, for the song to be taken as anything but an invitation for all who heard it, black or white or brown or whatever, to join the party.

Sun Studios licensed the song to Chicago's Chess Records. But instead of crediting the single to Turner and his band, Chess released it under the name "Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats." This had to have pissed off Ike Turner to the max.

Besides Turner's pounding piano, Brentson's joyful vocals and 17-year-old Raymond Hill's wild tenor sax, many "Rocket 88" fans also cite Willie Kizart's distorted electric guitar as a factor that made the song so unique. 

Talking to Rolling Stone in 1986, Sun king Sam Phillips said,:

"... when Ike and them were coming up to do the session, the bass amplifier fell off the car. And when we got in the studio, the woofer had burst; the cone had burst. So I stuck the newspaper and some sack paper in it, and that’s where we got that sound."

Many scholars dispute that "Rocket 88" is the very first rock 'n' roll song. Other candidates include Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight," or  Goree Carter's proto-Chuck Berry "Rock Awhile" or Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Strange Things Happening Every Day" or other tunes. 

We'll leave that debate to grumbling academics. But even if it wasn't the first rock 'n' roll song, there's no denying "Rocket 88" is a wild joy.

Here's the song that made us all fall in love:

So why aren't we more familiar with Jackie Brenston? Not long after "Rocket 88," the singer left Turner's band to try a solo career. He never received much success, but Brenston, who died in 1979, left behind some pretty cool tunes. Here are a few of them, starting with one called "Leo the Louse":

This one is "Tuckered Out"

And from Jackie's short-lived career as a restaurant critic, (I know, I know) here's "Fat Meat is Greasy"

Oldsmobile's 1949 Rocket 88

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