Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats – Rocket 88

28th December 2021 · 1950s, 1951, Music, Rock'n'Roll

Released in 1951, this is the tune that a considerable consensus of people – mostly old white people – believe to be the first rock’n’roll song.

I hope I’ve demonstrated by now that this is a myth – there were at least 20 others before this. But it’s still a great song.

That fuzzy guitar sound resulted from a happy accident – it came from a torn speaker, damaged when it fell off the roof of the car on the long drive from Mississippi to Memphis.

The raw vibe became one of the defining characteristics of rock’n’roll, and a blueprint for the guitar tone of everyone from Chuck Berry to the Rolling Stones (though, once again, it had been done before – not least by Pee Wee Crayton the same year).

The myth that it’s the first rock’n’roll song was created by the producer Sam Phillips, who opened Sun Studio in Memphis the previous year and would discover Elvis Presley a few years later.

In March 1951 he invited Ike Turner and his band, The Kings of Rhythm, to record a session and asked them to write a new song for the occasion.

On the drive, tenor sax man Jackie Brenston suggested a tribute to the fastest car on the road – the Oldsmobile V-8 – and the band came up with some lyrics, while Ike adapted the tune from an earlier jump blues song called Cadillac Boogie by Jimmy Liggins, adding a new piano intro of his own.

When they recorded it, Brenston took the lead vocal, and when it was released by Chess, it was erroneously credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats – rather than Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm (featuring Jackie Brenston).

​Brenston was also given the songwriting credit, leading to legal arguments down the line.

The recording brought him his only moment of stardom when it topped the R&B charts. It enriched him further when Oldsmobile presented him with a brand new Rocket 88 in appreciation for his unsolicited promotional work.

But, as so often, success came at a price. Brenston felt he should now be the band’s front man, while Ike Turner and Raymond Hill (who gets a shout-out in the song) both felt they should have had more credit for their songwriting contribution, and were angry at the meagre $20 fee they each received.

Brenston then left the band and went solo, while Turner kept the band name and recruited new members, including a female singer called Bonnie whom he married.

He also worked as a session man, talent scout and production assistant to Sam Phillips at Sun before finding greater success when he replaced Bonnie in both roles – singer and wife – with Little Ann… soon to be better known as Tina Turner.