The Most Influential Song You Have Never Heard
V-8 motor and this modern design, / Black convertible top and the gals don't mind / Sportin' with me. Ridin' all 'round town for joy!
Maybe it's the fact that "Rocket 88" is a cars-and-girls song. Or maybe it's Ike Turner's boogie-woogie piano, Raymond Hill's jump blues sax, or Jackie Brentson's too-cool-for-school R&B vocals. Or maybe it's the distorted "fuzz-fa fuzz-fa fuzz-fa, fuzz-fa" blaring from Willie Kizart's on-the-fritz guitar amp.
Whatever it is, the two-minute ode to an Oldsmobile moves with a backbeat no hormone-filled teenybopper could resist. Recorded by Brentson and his Delta Cats (Turner actually arranged it, and his band, the Kings of Rhythm, performed it), the song hit the airwaves in 1951 and soon topped the R&B charts.
But it was more than an R&B hit. To some it's the quintessential first rock-and-roll song: a perfectly imperfect mixture of what came before and harbinger of what followed, rock historian Peter Guralnick says of its far from immaculate conception. "It was messy and totally spontaneous," he explains of the fuzzy guitar sound that made it so transcendent. "Creativity captured on the fly, warts and all."
Of course, the notion that rock-and-roll was created on a certain day by a certain person in a certain place is anathema to the gumbo of influences that first cooked it up. Critics like Guralnick can name dozens of other prototypes: Louis Jordan's "Caledonia," Fats Domino's "The Fat Man," and Lloyd Price's "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," for starters.
Kingmaker. Then, of course, there's Elvis Presley, who in 1954 walked into the same Memphis studio where Turner recorded "Rocket 88" and put a white face on what was until then an African-American sound. During a break from crooning ballads, Presley belted out an up-tempo blues tune called "That's All Right" (written by black singer Arthur Crudup). It pricked the ears of producer Sam Phillips, who'd been pining for a white singer who could carry the music across the race barrier.
Fifty years later, Phillips's eureka moment was christened as the official birthday of rock-and-roll by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine. The characterization brought howls of protest from those who thought it a slap in the face of the music's black forebears. "But that hijacking of R&B and turning it into something else ... that's what rock-and-roll is," explains Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis. "It's not fair or right. But for rock to become the phenomenon it did, it needed a white artist."
Some argue that Bill Haley, who recorded a version of "Rocket 88" soon after Turner's original (and later hit it big with "Rock Around the Clock"), was the first white rock-and-roller, although no one disputes the King's pivotal role.
Not that it's any skin off Turner's back. "I was just playing boogie-woogie on the piano," he modestly recalls of his "Rocket 88" contribution.
There's more to it, of course. The Clarkdale, Miss., native had gone to hear B.B. King play at a local juke joint. "He let us play a couple of numbers, and afterward he said, 'You should be recording,'" Turner recalls. King called Phillips, and Turner was soon driving up Highway 61 to Memphis. "We used to bet we'd see more Oldsmobiles on the road than Chevys. And this Rocket 88 had just came out, so I said, 'I'll take the Olds,'" Turner says of the trip.
They scribbled rhymes about their favorite cars. And a rainstorm, a blowout, and a night in jail later, they arrived at Phillips's studio to find that Kizart's guitar amp had cracked a tube. "It had this static sound," recalls Turner. "But Sam said, 'That's a good sound.'"
Phillips forwarded the recording to a local radio DJ. "And all the white kids went out to get this record," says Turner. "And that's when Sam got the idea to find him a white boy to sing; that's where Elvis came from."
And that, give or take a little, is where rock-and-roll was born.
This story appears in the August 14, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.