Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats: Rocket 88
Last year, at about this time, I posted the song “Tiger Rag” and discussed my 30th college reunion, which turned out to be a great deal of fun. Last weekend, I returned for my 31st—but just for the day, the highlight of which was the long alumni parade, called the P-Rade, which is traditionally led by the 25th reunion class, this year, the Class of 1988. Thus the picture above, of a float that the class sponsored, in keeping with their “World Tour” theme. Princeton was probably not the first college to have formal reunions, but it may be the only one where all alumni are invited back every year and where everybody wears (usually garish) costumes all weekend (I’ve seen Senators, Cabinet members and famous actors and actresses wearing weird outfits and zany hats). I regret, however, that in 1892, the college ended a practice that any alumnus who returned to campus for Commencement three years after graduation received a master’s degree.
Figuring out “firsts” can be hard, especially when you are talking about things that go back a long way. Or, as in trying to decide what was the first “rock ‘n’ roll” song, where there is really no clear demarcation between rock ‘n’ roll and the many other musical streams that led up to it. In fact, it is kind of a silly debate, but it gives me something to discuss in connection with “Rocket 88,” which its producer, the future legend Sam Phillips (who, it has been said, was the only man that Jerry Lee Lewis would call “sir,”), and others, have touted as the first. Some other contenders are discussed here.
Even if it isn’t the first rock ‘n’ roll song, it is a great one, and its subject, cars, booze and women, certainly helped set the template for the style. Recorded in 1951, “Rocket 88” was credited to “Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats,” a band that did not exist. In fact, the band was Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, featuring Brenston on vocals. That Ike Turner. And it does rock, with high energy vocals from Brenston, Turner’s boogieing piano, and one of the first (!) uses of distorted guitar.
The song was a big hit, and as was common in those days, it was covered by a white group, Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, and it was a hit for them, too. In fact some critics somehow consider Haley’s version the first rock song (while others think that Haley and the re-named Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” deserves the title of “first”).
So, if you think that Tina Turner was the more influential member of the couple, you may want to reconsider.