Born 24 August 1930, Clarksdale, Mississippi Died 15 December 1979, Memphis, Tennessee
Vocalist / saxophonist
One of the enduring debates in popular music is : What was the first rock 'n' roll record? There was even a book published under that title, written by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes in 1992. Whether "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston (1951) is the first or not, it has all the hallmarks of a rock n roll record, with its throbbing bass line, honking sax, distorted guitar, pounding piano and energetic vocals.
Born and raised in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Brenston learned to play the sax in 1947 from a local charachter named Jesse Flowers. "I had this $30 horn with a hole in it. I plugged the hole up with chewing gum", Brenston told writer Jim O'Neal in 1978. Before long he met up with local pianist Izear Luther "Ike" Turner (born 1931), who was in the process of building a band. After some personnel changes this group, the Kings of Rhythm, maintained a reasonably stable lineup : Johnny O'Neal, vocals ; Raymond Hill, tenor sax ; Jackie Brenston, baritone sax ; Willie Kizart, guitar ; Willie Sims, drums, and Ike Turner on piano. They soon had a full work schedule, playing clubs and dances in the small towns in the region. B.B. King was impressed when he saw the group perform in Chambers, Mississippi, in early 1951 and directed them to Sam Phillips's Memphis Recording Service, where King was recording at the time. Phillips had not yet begun his Sun Records Company ; another year would pass before the first Sun record was made. But he had been operating a recording studio, making and leasing recordings, for almost a year. It was at that studio, at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, that "Rocket 88" was recorded, on March 3, 1951.
Though Brenston claimed authorship of "Rocket 88", he had derived it from a song in the band's repertoire, "Cadillac Boogie", which Jimmy Liggins had cut for Specialty in 1947. In the lyrics, Brenston replaced the Cadillac with the new Oldsmobile Rocket Hydramatic 88. The vocalist of the Kings Of Rhythm, Johnny O'Neal, had recently been signed by King Records and Ike Turner chose Brenston as the group's new singer. Of the five sides cut at the historic session, the first two were by Ike himself, with Brenston playing alto sax. Then Jackie laid down his horn and sang three songs, "Rocket 88", "Come Back Where You Belong" and "Independent Woman". During the drive from Clarksdale, guitarist Willie Kizart's amp had fallen off the top of the car, breaking the speaker cone. Rather than submerge the distorted sound of Kizart's guitar, Sam Phillips took a chance and overamplified it, making it the centerpiece of the rhythm track. After the session, Phillips ran off dubs and sent them to the Chess brothers in Chicago the same night. Chess released two singles by the group in mid-April. The coupled sides that featured Turner's voice bore on their labels the credit Ike Turner and Kings of Rhythm. However, much to Ike's dismay, the other single ("Rocket 88"/"Come Back Where You Belong") was credited to 'Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats'.
"Rocket 88" reached the R&B charts in May 1951, hit number 1 in June (for five weeks) and eventually became the second-biggest R&B record of the year, after the Dominoes' "Sixty Minute Man". Its success had far-reaching effects. It heralded a wilder wave of rock n roll. It stirred Sam Phillips's determination to start his own label. And it caused Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston to part company after one more session in July (at which the follow-up, "My Real Gone Rocket" was recorded). The success of "Rocket 88" (which Turner felt was really HIS success) went to Brenston's head and he split for a time and formed his own group. The third Chess single by Brenston, "Independent Woman", was the remaining recording from the first session and was coupled with "Juiced", which was credited to Brenston, but in fact sung by Billy Love. Ike Turner defected to the Bihari brothers and their Modern / RPM labels, but Sam Phillips continued to record Brenston, with his new band. "Hi Ho Baby", Brenston's duet with Edna McCraney, was released by Chess in January 1952. "Starvation", a last (instrumental) Chess single, came in 1953. Then, less than two years after it had begun, it was over for Brenston. His records didn't sell.
He took a job playing sax with Lowell Fulson's band in 1953, and stayed with Fulson, on and off, through 1955. Then, humbled and weary, he was taken back into the fold by Ike Turner, remaining there until the early 1960s, when Turner finally started having hits (with the help of Tina). Though he recorded with the Kings of Rhythm throughout those years, Brenston's voice was heard on only two of the many Federal singles that the band had out during that time ("Much Later" from 1957 being the best of those four tracks). He was reduced to being Ike Turner's baritone sax player. Turner allowed Brenston to sing a few songs when the band performed in public, but he forbade him to sing "Rocket 88". Jackie took refuge in alcohol. He released two final solo singles for Sue Records (1961, still with the Kings of Rhythm) and Mel London's Mel-Lon label in 1963 (with Earl Hooker's band). He drifted through a number of bands in the 1960s and drove a truck for a living in the 1970s.
When Jackie Brenston suffered a heart attack in late 1979, he was a hopeless alcoholic and almost completely forgotten. He died at the Kennedy V.A. Hospital in Memphis at the age of 49. In an interview, he spoke his own epitaph : "I had a hit record and no sense".
"Rocket 88" was a hugely influential record. Bill Haley and his Saddlemen covered it and their version sold well enough to set Haley's future course of recording R&B music for the white market. Sam Phillips said : "'Rocket 88' was the record that really started it off for me as far as broadening the base of music and opening up wider markets for our local music." One of the greatest intros in rock n roll, the beginning of "Good Golly Miss Molly" by Little Richard is clearly derived from the intro of "Rocket 88".
CD : Jackie Brenston, The Mistreater (Rev-Ola CR BAND 25, UK). 24 tracks from 1951-1956. Liner notes by Dave Penny. Released 2007.
Discography : http://koti.mbnet.fi/wdd/jackiebrenston.htm
Acknowledgements : Jim Dawson & Steve Propes, Colin Escott & Martin Hawkins, Nick Tosches, Bill Greensmith.
Dik, August 2013
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