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

Music | March 3, 2021

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

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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.

Ike Turner & His Kings Of Rhythm Was A Bunch Of Teenagers

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"Rocket 88" was recorded by Ike Turner & His Kings Of Rhythm, but was credited as Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats as their new saxophonist Brenston sang the lead vocals on the song. The rest of the group consisted of Ike Turner, Willie Kizart, Raymond Hill, and Willie “Bad Boy” Sims, all between the ages of 17 and 20. At the time, the song was assumed to be an R&B song and reached no.1 on the R&B charts. It was the first R&B chart topper for the iconic Chicago label Chess Records. While Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm were known as prominent figures in soul and R&B, there was something different about "Rocket 88." 

Perhaps it wasn’t quite R&B after all. 

An Unfortunate Accident Led To The Quintessential Sound Of Rock & Roll

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The eccentric sound of "Rocket 88" has convinced numerous music historians that the song in fact wasn’t quite R&B, but was instead the first true rock and roll record to ever be released. Rock 'n roll is a vague description of sound so it’s difficult to exactly pinpoint what sincerely makes a song fall into the genre, but there are many convincing cases that prove "Rocket 88" just may be the original. On the drive to the studio, guitarist Willie Kizart’s amplifier fell out of the car’s trunk, which damaged the woofer and broke the speaker cone. In an attempt to fix the amp, Phillips stuffed the speaker cone with newspaper. The broken amp along with the newspaper created the innovative sound of distortion and buzz, which would make "Rocket 88" the first song to be composed of these elements that would soon become prime factors of rock 'n roll. Many argue that the distortion and fuzz along with the dynamic high energy of youth, boogie rhythm, and the gritty abrasive sound made this a true rock 'n roll record. The sexually suggestive lyrics that involve alcohol and rebellion, masked (barely) with the metaphor of a car, also would reflect typical topics throughout the entirety of rock 'n roll.

Not Everyone Agrees With Rocket 88 Taking The Credit

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However, there are still many that argue against the case of "Rocket 88"s credit as the first rock 'n roll tune. Some claim the simple 12-bar blues song could not be considered rock 'n roll because the shuffle rhythm beat was not an element of rock, but only of R&B. Many believe the only reason it receives the title is because Phillips later promoted it as the first rock 'n roll record to help further his career. However, most people who disagree with the argument still concur "Rocket 88" at least influenced rock ‘n’ roll. Ike Turner himself even disputed the claim.

We recorded "Rocket 88" and you know that’s why they say "Rocket 88" was the first rock 'n roll song, but the truth of the matter is, I don’t think that "Rocket 88" is rock 'n roll. I think that "Rocket 88" is R&B, but I think "Rocket 88" is the cause of rock and roll existing.

Turner went on to explain how the tune was the first black record to be played on a white radio station. Prior to "Rocket 88," radio stations were primarily segregated as most genres tended to fall into either white or black categories. Turner’s song helped to bridge the gap between white and black audiences and genres, though segregation on the airwaves persisted for decades, even into the music-video era.

'Rocket 88' Helped Little Richard Develop His Own Sound

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Whatever the truth is, it is certain that "Rocket 88" pioneered rock 'n roll in many ways as future musicians would build upon the sound to fully develop the new genre. Rock 'n roll holds its roots in blues and R&B and 'Rocket 88" was an important step in between as it at least fused together rock with rhythm and blues. Little Richard, one of the earliest and most important figures in rock 'n roll, was heavily influenced by the song which helped him create his well-known and inspiring sound. Richard said,

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.

If the song altered Little Richard's trajectory, then it can surely be agreed that "Rocket 88" was certainly one of the most important songs in rock 'n roll history.  

Tags: Ike Turner | Music In The 1950s | Rocket 88

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.