By some accounts, rock ’n’ roll music has officially reached retirement age as of today. Though such matters are eternally in dispute, numerous music historians have cited “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats, recorded March 3, 1951 in Memphis, Tennessee, as the very first rock song ever committed to vinyl. The Delta Cats were, in actuality, Ike Turner And His Kings Of Rhythm performing under an alternate name. Brenston was the group’s saxophonist, but he also sang lead vocals on this number. Under any name, the song was an immediate smash, topping the R&B charts and becoming one of the biggest singles of the year. Structured as a traditional 12-bar blues song with some swing influence, “Rocket 88” is distinguished by its distorted guitar sound, supposedly the result of a damaged amplifier belonging to musician Willie Kizart. Legendary producer Sam Phillips is said to have liked the sound the broken amplifier made and kept it that way on the record.
The song’s bragging, suggestive lyrics, incidentally, pay homage to the Oldsmobile 88, a vehicle whose powerful engine and relatively compact size made it a popular entry-level car in the early 1950s.
Naturally, the song has inspired a slew of cover versions over the years, most often by white artists. In July 1951, just four months after Turner, Bill Haley laid down his own version of “Rocket 88.” At the time, Haley’s backup band was called The Saddlemen rather than The Comets. This may well be Haley’s first record to be influenced by rhythm and blues music.
As one half of The Blues Brothers and a confirmed gearhead with an obsessive love of automobiles, Dan Aykroyd could not resist taking a crack at “Rocket 88” when he appeared on David Letterman’s Late Show on CBS.
And for those who would like to celebrate the anniversary by actually learning how to play “Rocket 88,” YouTube is here to help, via a friendly tutorial by Mike Gross: