First rock song turns 60 in obscurity
The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, May 22, 2011 10:46AM EDT
It was spring, 1951, when Ike Turner's band, a busted amplifier and legendary producer Sam Phillips kicked up an entirely different kind of racket, launching a new genre that would come to be known as rock 'n' roll.
The song was "Rocket 88," written by Turner and his saxophonist, Jackie Brenston, who handled vocals. The tune's distorted guitar, discordant sax, frantic pace and winking lyrics combined to create something no one had ever really heard before, and it was a hit at the time -- storming up the chart to finally land as the No. 1 bestselling rhythm & blues record in the June 9, 1951 issue of Billboard magazine.
Sixty years later, many historians consider it the first-ever rock 'n' roll song and musicians revere the tune, as well as the band's livewire performance.
And yet, most regular people don't know that the track even exists.
"If I went to my local grocery store here and stopped 20 people, if I found one who knew about it, I'd be shocked," said Grammy Award-winning York University music professor Rob Bowman, who's been lecturing about "Rocket 88" since 1979.
"It's definitely not as well known as Elvis's hits or Jerry Lee (Lewis)'s big hits, or 'Rock Around the Clock.' This is (before) the massive explosion.... You don't hear it as a golden oldie. You listen to oldies radio, and you'll hear 'Hound Dog,' you'll hear 'Great Balls of Fire,' you'll hear 'Maybellene' by Chuck Berry, you'll hear Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti' -- you won't hear 'Rocket 88."'
Indeed, that sums up the status of this '50s firecracker: relative obscurity to most, revelation to a select few.
The song was recorded back in March 1951, when Turner was only 19 years old. Phillips was 28 and wouldn't launch his influential Sun Records imprint -- eventual home to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Lewis and Roy Orbison -- for another year.
Brenston used the 1947 Jimmy Liggins cut "Cadillac Boogie" for inspiration in writing "Rocket 88," named after a spiffy new car being sold by Oldsmobile.
The road would have another major impact on the tune, however.
The band was actually en route to record the song -- cruising along Highway 61 from their rehearsal space in Clarksdale, Mississippi to Phillips' studio in Memphis -- when disaster struck, as guitarist Willie Kizart's amplifier toppled off the roof of the car to the road below.
The amp was damaged, and the group's attempt at an impromptu repair job -- which involved wadded-up newspapers -- didn't help matters. The sound coming through the amp's speaker was buried in distortion, and thus, it wasn't fit for recording.
But something about the garbled sound appealed to Phillips. He decided to run with it, a move that would influence the next six decades of music.
"Distortion, at that time, is going beyond the normative social constraints of musical behaviour -- and in doing so, it effectively is rebellious," Bowman said. "And what appeals to young people? Things that parents don't understand, things that get parents upset, things that parents think are poor, bad, wrong.
"Well, playing an instrument incorrectly, making it distort, is an obvious example of that."
Other elements of the song were different as well.
As Bowman explains it, the song's whole groove is underpinned by riffs, which were derived from the blues tradition and became a crucial element in rock music.
Then there are the mischievous lyrics -- in which the titular car serves as a metaphor for Brenston's sexual prowess -- as well as Turner's blistering piano-playing and the hopped-up tempo, all of which would prove influential. (That influence, however, didn't translate to financial riches -- Turner claimed in his autobiography that he made only $20 off the tune).
Like any morsel of music history, the origins of rock 'n' roll are fiercely debated, yet "Rocket 88" seems to the most widely acknowledged choice as the first-ever rock tune, with confirmation coming from such sources as the website of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll.
And to musicians, "Rocket" resonated with the thunderous volume of, well, a space shuttle bursting into the sky.
"Imagine walking into a bar and hearing those guys play that song," said Tom Wilson, the Hamilton musician behind Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.
"Music from outer space -- 'Rocket 88' has that quality. It's like music that wasn't here before. It comes from another planet. It's like, 'What is this? What's going on here?"'
Countless musicians have covered the song, though few have recorded new versions -- perhaps because it's tough to match the intensity of the original.
Toronto's Downchild Blues Band included a cover of the song on their 1982 record "Blood Run Hot," but that was hardly their introduction to the tune.
In fact, Downchild founder Donnie Walsh says he remembers the group playing "Rocket 88" at their very first practice in June 1969.
"We played it for years," he said in a telephone interview. "Day one, that might have been in the repertoire."
"It's a great tune."
Two-time Juno Award-winning blues guitarist Colin Linden also has memories of covering the song during his formative years.
"There's a reason they call it the first rock 'n' roll record ever," he said during a recent interview in Toronto.
"The chemicals ignited in a particular way -- whatever it is, it's a great record, and it's not one iota worse than it's ever been. It's still a great record."
So that begs the question -- why haven't more people heard of "Rocket 88"?
Well, a big part of the reason for the song's obscurity lies in the racial politics of its time.
At the dawn of the 1950s, black and white artists were played on different radio stations to mostly racially divided audiences.
"(The song's) significance on white teenagers in '51 probably wasn't huge, but it was a huge record on the black charts," Bowman explained. "I mean, some white hipsters who were listening to black radio at the time did hear it, and I think it had a big influence on those musicians."
Of course, that group includes Presley -- who, as legend has it, was a religious listener of WDIA, Memphis's first black radio station. Another white artist, Bill Haley -- who helped popularize rock 'n' roll with his '54 version of "Rock Around the Clock" -- performed a popular cover of "Rocket 88" a few months after Turner's band released the song, a version Bowman now dismisses as "irrelevant."
The systemic racism in the music industry -- and society at large -- was in fact part of the reason the term "rock and roll" was born, Bowman argues.
"Rock and roll is black popular music and it's a term that got applied to the music in 1951 by (American DJ) Alan Freed as a euphemism for the fact that white kids were buying black rhythm and blues," he said.
"They had to label it something different because it was a racist society, so the white kids aren't buying rhythm and blues -- they're buying something new called 'rock and roll.' But it was black music."
The other factor working against "Rocket 88"? The record was out of print for ages.
When Bowman first heard about the tune, he spent a year trying to track down someone who had a copy of the 78 that he could tape.
Now? The tune is easily accessible on iTunes or YouTube, and those music obsessives whose eyes light up at the very mention of the song are also quick to point out how well it's aged.
"Besides its significance historically, it's just an unbelievably great, exciting record," Bowman enthused.
"This record's got distorted electric guitar, it's riff-based, it's got the honky tenor sax tradition encoded within it, it's got boogie-woogie piano, it's got lyrics that are a series of sexual automotive metaphors, and it's at a souped-up tempo.
"What's not to love?"