The debate surrounding the origins of rock and roll has rumbled on for decades. With genre-melding songs cited back to the 1940s often recurring as part of the conversation, there is one track that is most commonly credited as being the granddaddy of rock and roll; ‘Rocket 88’.
Recorded in 1951 by Ike Turner and his band – but officially credited to his saxophonist and the song’s vocalist Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats – ‘Rocket 88’ was first recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, and went on to become one of the most influential songs in the history of popular music.
The debate surrounding the song, however, stems from the origins of its creators. Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm band famously built up their reputation as influential figures of the soul, rhythm and blues scene and did so with devastating effect. Despite ‘Rocket 88’ reaching the number one spot on the Billboard R&B chart at the time of release, the track has since earned its place at the beginning of rock’s inception.
One reason for this, it has to be said, is the pioneering work of Willie Kizart, the guitar player of the Kings of Rhythm who is noted as being the first musician to formally record examples of distortion and fuzz-laden guitar—a stylistic approach which would go on to be an everyday staple in rock music. Larry Birnbaum, a respected rock historian, argued that one of the reasons that ‘Rocket 88’ is considered the first-ever rock and roll song, is that “Kizart’s broken amp anticipated the sound of the fuzzbox, which was in its heyday when ‘Rocket 88’ was rediscovered”.
Despite the novel guitar recording, those disputing the song’s claim often refer back to the beat. Unlike most rock songs, Turner’s track uses a shuffle rhythm which is certainly not a characteristic of rock and roll as we know it and sits far more comfortably in the R&B category. It’s a point of contention that many refuse to back down from.
With this in mind, historian Nigel Williamson questioned the track’s stringent R&B credentials and instead argued that it was merely a transitional song that bridged the genre gap. Upon reflection, it seems to fit the bill “with an unusually fast, bottom-heavy eight-to-the bar boogie rhythm and a great lyric about cars, booze, and women”.
One thing that isn’t up for debate, however, is that ‘Rocket 88’ secured the influential early foundations of rock and roll upon which countless musicians and artists would build the genre. Little Richard, who was part of the establishing members of rock and roll, once said of the song: “When I was a little boy, that song fascinated me in a big way,” he commented on reflection of his own career.
Assing: “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.”
The truth is, of course, that one definitive point of reference has proven challenging to pinpoint. Rock and roll emerged from the depths of blues and R&B with its own take on popular music. ‘Rocket 88’, however, is visibly the first track to demonstrate some of the iconic values of the ‘classic rock and roll song’ that we understand today.
Speaking about the song, Ike Turner accepted the label of creating the first rock and roll track but was authentic in trying to remain true to his R&B roots: “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 said.
Discussing the legacy of the song in more detail, Turner continued: “Sam Phillips got Dewey Phillips to play ‘Rocket 88’ on his program—and this is like the first black record to be played on a white radio station—and, man, all the white kids broke out to the record shops to buy it. So that’s when Sam Phillips got the idea: ‘Well, man, if I get me a white boy to sound like a black boy, then I got me a gold mine’, which is the truth. So, that’s when he got Elvis and he got Jerry Lee Lewis and a bunch of other guys and so they named it rock and roll rather than R&B and so this is the reason I think rock and roll exists—not that ‘Rocket 88’ was the first one, but that was what caused the first one.”