The First Rock and Roll Hit Song “Rocket 88”

Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston (Photographer unknown)

The Culture and History of Rock and Roll Series

The First Rock and Roll Hit Song “Rocket 88”
by Anita Stewart

The 40’s and 50’s took the American people from a military state of mind after World War 2 to all out fun, joie de vivre attitudes and the breaking up of restricting barriers. One of these barriers was with musical and artistic expression; blues, rhythm and blues, gospel and jazz had melted together and somewhere along the way, rock and roll was born. Jazz and Rock and Roll were two totally American art forms.

It was widely known that the use of the term “rock and roll” was an allegory for the sex act. It was also a commonly used mariner term describing the rocking back and forth of a ship at sea. By the time the 40s and 50s had rolled around, the term was already in use to describe this new genre of music. And the lyrics to these songs got way more daring! Many times in song lyrics of the day, just like ships throughout history, the body of a woman was compared to the features of a car. So it made perfect sense for a musician who was a trendsetter to write a hit song about a car. And we must not forget that the rocket in “Rocket 88” could have been a symbol for male anatomy as well!

The song that was considered by many to be the very first rock and roll song ever written was written by Jackie Brenston, a vocalist and tenor saxophone player from Ike Turner’s band, the Kings of Rhythm (Ike was 19 years old at this time–so it was almost a decade before his discovery of the great Tina Turner.) It was also the name of a popular car by Oldsmobile that first came off the assembly lines in 1949.

BB King recommended that the band go through Sam Phillips to record the song. Phillips was the later founder of the famous, Sun Records and the Sun Studio in Memphis–both companies that later helped to launch rock and roll to a much wider audience. Phillips leased the recordings of the song to Chess Records in Chicago who made the crediting error on the final cut. So the song was recorded in March of 1951 and released in April of the same year under the name Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats instead of Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm featuring Jackie Brenston, much to Ike Turner’s chagrin. In all reality, it was the same band lineup. Later, Ike Turner would not permit Brenston to sing the song during performances and Ike would insist on singing the lead. Brenston went out on his own with the band, later rejoining the Kings of Rhythm when times got tough. As time went on, Ike Turner would take the credit for writing the song.

The song became a number one hit on the Rhythm and Blues charts and was the 3rd rhythm and blues record for airplay in 1951. There were no rock and roll charts at the time. The song became such a hit that Sam Phillips was able to use some of the revenue to finance the opening of Sun Records the following year. Jackie Brenston made a little more than $900 for the sale of the rights to the song. The Kings of Rhythm made almost $200 for selling the rights to the song to someone else. After playing with Ike Turner and his band for years, never writing another hit and having constant substance abuse troubles, Brenston gave up music and faded away into obscurity. He later became a truck driver before passing away from heart issues in his fifties.

There have been claims that not only was this song the first rock and roll single but that it was also the first song to include distortion on the recording. The story is that before a recording session, a guitar amplifier fell out of the trunk of the car onto the highway and had to be repaired by Phillips using wadded up newspapers to hold the cone in place. Phillips used that recording in the final cut because he preferred the “fuzzy” sound.

Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter and many more covered the song for years. The song was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991, the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the new “Singles” category in 2018. This was announced by Steven Van Zandt (Little Steven) and he gives both Turner and Brenston songwriting credit. In 2017 the Mississippi Blues Trail dedicated it’s 200th marker to “Rocket 88” calling the song an “influential record.”

When I was a little boy, that song fascinated me in a big way. I never heard a piano sound like that. I never played the piano then. Soon, I was trying. if you listen to ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly,’ you hear the same introduction as the one to ‘Rocket 88,’ the exact same, ain’t nothing been changed,“–Little Richard.

In the award winning film about the life of Tina Turner, “What’s Love Got to Do With It“, there is a short clip of the actor, Lawrence Fishburne (as Ike Turner) singing the hit song on stage with his band. Check it out–CLICK HERE!

For Jackie Brenston’s version of “Rocket 88–CLICK HERE!

Lyrics to “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston

You woman 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
Baby, we’ll will ride in style movin’ all along
V-8 motor and this modern design
Black convertible top and the girls 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
Girls will ride in style, movin’ all along
***Story originally published in Rock at Night Magazine’s first print issue, Summer of 2020.
***Edited on October 4th, 2020.
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