How Ike Turner Invented Rock 'N Roll With 'Rocket 88'

By | March 3, 2021

test article image
Ike Turner (center) and some of his Kings of Rhythm in 1955. Source: Collection Gilles PTtard (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)

What was the first rock 'n roll song? "Rocket 88" by Ike Turner may just be it -- and if you're not familiar with "Rocket 88," that's OK. The song was released in 1951, four years before Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," Bo Diddley's "Bo Diddley," and Chuck Berry's "Maybellene. It was four years before Bill Haley & His Comets rocked around the clock. Not everyone agrees that "Rocket 88" was the first rock 'n roll song -- owing partly to the fact that there is no clear definition of what makes a rock 'n roll song in the first place.

Even if you've heard of "Rocket 88," you might not know it was Ike Turner's song. Turner's group, officially known as Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm, actually recorded this particular single as Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Brenston was Turner's saxophonist, and did sing lead vocals on the song. 

A driving back beat, sexually suggestive lyrics, and raw energy are some of the elements that make up the backbone of rock ‘n’ roll -- and "Rocket 88" checks all those boxes. "Rocket 88" is a blues or R&B song with a little something extra -- and at the time, that something didn't have a name. Other tracks, like Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight" (1947) or Goree Carter's "Rock Awhile" (1948), can also be described as R&B with something extra. Which of these has enough "extra" that they are no longer a kind of R&B and are truly a new strain of music?

It's a tough question -- essentially un-answerable -- but a fun one to ponder.

It Helps When B.B. King Is On Your Side

test article image
Source: Pinterest

Ike Turner And His Kings Of Rhythm were an R&B and soul group playing around small clubs in the south (and elsewhere) just trying to get by and survive off their small income. Famed blues player B.B. King happened to catch one of their sets and was thoroughly impressed, so he linked the band with legendary producer Sam Phillips, who would soon create the iconic studio Sun Records. While on their way to Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Studio, the group wrote "Rocket 88" about the popular new model of Oldsmobile, considered the fastest car at the time. Jackie Brenston admitted they borrowed a bit from the 1947 tune "Cadillac Boogie" by Jimmy Liggins And His Drops Of Joy.