Many songs attempt to lay claim to the title of earliest rock ‘n’ roll record, but one of the first—and strongest—contenders is “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, one of the top R&B hits of 1951.
Despite the name on the label, you’re actually listening to Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm. The teenage Turner composed the first half of the song and finished it off with his band while saxophonist Jackie Brenston took the lead vocal. Combining elements of swing and jump blues, “Rocket 88” motors along with many elements that would later become staples of the early rock & roll sound: a rollicking piano, prominent bass, a honking sax solo, distorted guitar, and lyrics about riding in a brand new car to impress the ladies. (Because all the ladies love cruising in an Oldsmobile, am I right?)
The band recorded the song in Memphis at the fabled Sun Studio. Owner Sam Phillips—who would discover and record Elvis 4 years later—produced the track and sent it along to Chess Records in Chicago. “Rocket 88” went to #1 on the R&B chart and helped launch Chess as one of the premier labels for blues, R&B, and early rock & roll. For some reason, they released the single under Brenston’s name, a state of affairs which—unsurprisingly—led to tensions within the band.
Ike Turner grew understandably bitter—not only because of the lack of credit, but also because he made no money on a record which sold half a million copies. He spent the rest of the decade doing session work, putting together another band, and failing to hone his people skills — until he got the break of a lifetime when he met his wife, Tina.
Meanwhile, Jackie Brenston—who left Ike’s band soon after “Rocket 88” became a hit—spent a couple of years playing saxophone for bluesman Lowell Fulson before rejoining Ike for the late 50s and early 60s. Although he occasionally sang with the band in concert, he reportedly was never allowed to sing “Rocket 88.”
So boogie on down and blow your horn. Rock ‘n’ roll’s about to be born.