The history of rock ‘n’ roll could fill volumes. It isn’t neat, it isn’t tidy, and it didn’t arrive suddenly in the form of Bill Haley and His Comets or Elvis Presley. Instead, it evolved from a number of sources over time. It was created as the lines between blues, country and gospel music slowly blurred until, by the mid-1950s, a completely new form of music had been created. As rock ‘n’ roll progressed, it continued to grow and change, splintering into countless genres and sub-genres.
It is because of rock’s complexity that I was struck by an encounter between David Bowie and the Killers. According to a 2005 Rolling Stone interview, Bowie saw the Killers perform in New York City and went to meet them backstage after the show where he told them, “I felt like I just saw the history of rock & roll.”
I assume that Bowie was referring to all the different influences evident in the Killer’s music, but it got me thinking about taking something as vast and unmanageable as the history of rock and boiling it down to something bite-sized, like a show or a mixtape.
If you had to fit more than 60 years of popular music onto a blank CD-R, what songs would make the cut? That has been my dilemma as I’ve planned my 25-part column. It’s the type of task that’s bound to upset people. If you try and tell the history of rock in only 25 songs, there will be artists and songs that get left out, even some of the biggest, most important, and most influential. I fully expect to read angry comments from people questioning my judgment in picking one song over another or the fact that I left one of popular music’s most influential artists off the list entirely. It’s inevitable.
But this column isn’t about critically acclaimed or influential songs. It’s about the story of rock. Although many of these songs will be among those that are regularly cited as such, don’t be surprised to find some that aren’t. This won’t be a condensed version of Rolling Stone‘s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
The story of rock ‘n’ roll has been written by artists, songwriters and producers, but it would have never happened if it wasn’t for the invention of recorded music. Before Thomas Edison invented the gramophone in 1877, the only way you could listen to music was to make it yourself or listen to someone else make it. The impact of recorded music cannot be underestimated. The gramophone was the musical equivalent of the printing press — it revolutionized the way people created, consumed, and thought about their medium.
Another crucial factor in the emergence and success of rock ‘n’ roll was the invention of the teenager. After World War II, American soldiers returned home, got married and moved to the suburbs in pursuit of the “American dream.” 1946 saw a record 2.2 million couples marry. Unsurprisingly, it was also a record year for child births with 3.4 million children born. This new generation, the “baby boomers,” lived a dramatically different life from their parents. For starters, they had a lot more money — the personal income of Americans increased a startling 293 percent between 1940 and 1955.
The term “teenager” was coined in the 1940s to describe the adolescent as its own emerging social group. Previously, people in this age range were part of the work force, but during the Great Depression, they were sent to public high schools. In the post-war world, this sort of separation from adults helped foster a unique social experience and culture — a culture of cars, dating and eventually rock ‘n’ roll.
The story of rock ‘n’ roll is a story about rebellion and freedom. It’s a story about barriers being broken down and people coming together. It’s a story about a misfit genre, initially misunderstood and feared, taking over the world.
Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats
Writer: Jackie Brenston
Producer: Sam Phillips
Released: April 1951
Also listen to:
“Rock The Joint” — Jimmy Preston (1949)
“Good Rockin’ Tonight” — Roy Brown (1947)
“Tutti Frutti” — Little Richard (1955)
Jackie Brenston was an unlikely character to be credited with recording one of the first rock ‘n’ roll songs. Nothing in his life really suggested he would play a pivotal role in the development of the genre. You would assume that the individual responsible for something as monumental as the first rock ‘n’ roll record would be a household name, and the song he recorded a cherished part of the Great American Songbook, but few people have heard of Jackie Brenston, and I’m willing to bet most readers have never even heard of, let alone heard “Rocket 88″ before reading this article
There could be a couple reasons for Jackie Brenston and “Rocket 88″ not being more well known. For one, Brenston’s place in rock history was more a case of being in the right place in the right time than being a revolutionary rock star. Also, the song he is famous for wasn’t even all his. And because rock ‘n’ roll came about through evolution and not invention, it’s impossible to name any one song the definitive first rock ‘n’ roll song, although many that have, have said it would be “Rocket 88.”
Jackie Brenston was born in 1930 in the town of Clarksdale, Mississippi. The town, founded in 1848 and named after store owner John Clark, sat in between the Mississippi and Yazzo rivers in a region known as the Mississippi River Delta. The soil was rich from years of flooding, and plantation owners had flocked to the area to take advantage of the ideal growing conditions.
It was in the fields of these and other plantations across the South that the first whispers of rock ‘n’ roll emerged. Slaves, and later sharecroppers, sang as they worked long, hot, merciless days under the scorching sun. Their style of singing — which evolved and came to be known as the blues — was itself a mixture of various musical forms, including traditional African call-and-response and spirituals.
The mechanization of farming in the 1930s forced many sharecroppers to leave the South and find new work. Most traveled north and settled down in cities. They brought their music with them and it rubbed shoulders with the local music scenes and began to take on their characteristics. In Chicago, for example, singers plugged in their guitars to electric amplifiers and added drums and piano.
Although the blues spread across the country, they didn’t abandon Clarksdale. Legendary blues artists John Lee Hooker and Eddie Boyd were born in Clarksdale, and Muddy Waters spent his formative years there. With a railroad running through Clarksdale, it became a bustling town. Not only did work opportunities for the railroad and a few factories draw people to the town, but Clarksdale became a crossroads as people made their way across the country.
It was in this environment that Jackie Brenston grew up. He played the saxophone, something he picked up after serving in the army during World War II, but it was his singing that unexpectedly made him an early figure in the history of popular music.
In 1951, Brenston was invited to join a local band called the Kings of Rhythm, by another young Clarksdale boy named Isaiah Turner. Eighteen-year-old Turner, also known as Ike and better known for his future abusive relationship with Tina Turner, had worked at the local radio station WROX and was well versed in the blues. His band needed a new singer after the previous one had signed with a record label in Ohio, and Brenston agreed. The band began practicing and playing shows at juke joints around town.
“We’d start playing at 8 p.m. and wouldn’t get off till 8 a.m.,” Turner recalled. “No intermission, no breaks. If you had to go to the restroom, well, that’s how I learned to play drums and guitar! When one had to go, someone had to take his place.”
Not long after Brenston joined, the Kings of Rhythm played a gig with blues artist B.B. King. This serendipitous meeting had big implications for the group. King had begun making records with a Memphis man by the name of Sam Phillips a year earlier. He suggested they cut some tracks with Phillips, and in March, the Kings of Rhythm packed their bags, left Clarksdale and headed north to Tennessee with dreams of becoming stars.
Sam Phillips had worked previously in the radio industry, but in 1950, he opened a recording studio in downtown Memphis. The rent was $150 a month, something he could afford after receiving a two-year loan from the bank. Phillips wasn’t in a position to turn down any business, and so with the slogan “We Record Anything-Anywhere-Anytime,” he recorded weddings, funerals and other religious functions, as well as R&B songs.
It was March when the Kings of Rhythm recorded their first song, “Rocket 88.” The song was one of Brenston’s, but it was derived from from “Cadillac Boogie,” a 1947 hit for Jimmy Liggins, a fact Brenston never denied. “If you listen to the two songs, you’ll find out they’re both basically the same. The words are just changed,” he admitted years later to Living Blues magazine. Still, he updated it by referring to the new Oldsmobile 88.
“Rocket 88″ was different in its delivery, if not its lyrics. The frantic piano, Brenston’s vocal delivery, and the distorted guitar gave the song an edge “Cadillac Boogie” didn’t have. While most of the performance was intention, the fuzzed-out guitar was a complete accident. Somewhere along the trip to Memphis, the amplifier was damaged and guitar player Willie Kizart tried to fix it by stuffing it with newspaper, which altered the sound. Phillips liked the unintentional effect and kept it.
The Kings of Rhythm recorded three more songs that day, with Turner singing lead vocals on two of them. Phillips wasted no time in licensing the records to Chicago-based Chess Records, who released the singles by the middle of April. The two-sided single with Turner on vocals was credited to Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm, but “Rocket 88″ and its B-side were credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. Turner wasn’t happy.
He had even more reason to be upset as “Rocket 88″ outperformed the single he was credited on. “Rocket 88″ appeared on the R&B chart by the end of the month, and went to No. 1 by June. By the end of the 1951, it was the second best-selling R&B record of the year.
Each member of the band received $20 for their work on “Rocket 88,” but Brenston, credited as the composer, sold the rights to Phillips for $910. The band only recorded together one other time — the summer of that year — which resulted in “My Real Gone Rocket.” Extremely similar to “Rocket 88,” the song failed to reach the success of its predecessor.
Jackie Brenston soon left the band, taking several of its members with him as he pursued a solo career. It was short lived, however, and Chess released his last single in 1953.
Ike Turner went on to play as a session musician with B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf before he met Anna Mae Bullock — Tina Turner — and had another second chance to be a star.
Although Sam Phillips considered “Rocket 88″ the first rock ‘n’ roll song, he had a vested interest in doing so because of the role he played in it. Turner didn’t necessarily agree though.
“I don’t think that ‘Rocket 88′ is rock ‘n’ roll,” Turner later said. “It’s boogie-woogie with an up feeling. It was the cause of rock ‘n’ roll being started, because they played ‘Rocket 88′ on the white stations.”
Regardless, this was just the beginning. Before long, white radio stations would be playing a lot more rock ‘n’ roll.
Altschuler, Glenn C. All Shook Up – How Rock ‘N’ Roll Changed America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003
Perrone, Pierre. “Ike Turner: Rock ‘n’ roll pioneer better known for his violent partnership with Tina.” The Independent.Dec. 14, 2007. The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/ike-turner-rocknroll-pioneer-better-known-for-his-violent-partnership-with-tina-765063.html
Tosches, Nick. Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis. New York: De Capo Press, 1999.
Whitley, Allen. Where The Southern Cross The Dog. Austin, Texas. Greenleaf Book Group, 2010
Williamson, Nigel. The Rough Guide To The Blues. London: The Penguin Group, 2007.
“Jackie Brenston & Ike Turner, Delta Rhythm Kings”. Blackcat Rockabilly. http://www.rockabilly.nl/artists/brenstonturner.htm. March 6, 2011.
“Sam Phillips Sun Records”. The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll. http://www.history-of-rock.com/sam_phillips_sun_records.htm. March 6, 2011.
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