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CHESS 1458; MARCH 1951

 
 

 

Let’s start with the obvious… this is NOT the first rock ‘n’ roll record.

Not by a long shot.

The fact we’ve already reviewed 1350+ rock songs that predated it should tell you as much, but unfortunately generations of misguided souls were systematically lied to and therefore have been led believe otherwise.

Luckily though the story of how this fabrication came to take hold is as interesting and important as the record itself claims to be.
 

 

You’ve Heard The Noise They Make
Sam Phillips never had to go looking for someone to interview him, he merely had to answer the phone or open his door and there’d be a line of writers wanting to ask him about discovering Elvis Presley, dealing with the mercurial Jerry Lee Lewis, getting his first huge hit on the pop charts with Carl Perkins or launching Johnny Cash’s career.

He was a good interview too. He may have been a little intimidating with his Charles Manson-like intensity at times, but he was talkative and extremely analytical in his answers, thereby relieving the writers from having to do much work in shaping their own articles, which of course helped to guarantee his own role was central in their stories.

That was his second career you could say… perpetuating his own legend.

With all of the hyperbole surrounding Sun Records it’s sometimes hard to remember that the label was nowhere near as successful commercially as their reputation would suggest.

Despite the laundry list of legends who cut their first records for him over the years he was hardly an omnipotent talent scout either, he merely had an open door policy and as the only recording studio of note in a fertile region he managed to attract some genuinely talented artists, including – to his great fortune – the first wave of white southern rock ‘n’ rollers which provided a wide array of subjects for writers to want to interview him two and three decades later.

But while Phillips was more than happy to talk about all this, making sure to disarmingly give himself subtle credit for much of their success in the process, he was canny enough to realize that the more time passed and the deeds of those artists grew less well known with each ensuing generation the more likely it was that he’d become a mere footnote in those stories until eventually they were erased altogether.

So Sam Phillips spent years making sure that there was another reason to have his own story remembered.
 

Blow Your Horn, Baby!
If there’s anything that history has shown us over the years is that being “first” counts for a lot. Nobody knows – or cares – just how good Wilbur and Orville Wright were as pilots, only that they got off the ground in an airplane before anyone else. If you were first you’re almost guaranteed to be found on page one, paragraph one in the history books.

Thus began Phillips’ campaign to have Rocket 88 “officially” cited as being the very first rock record… one which he produced of course.

Unfortunately it wasn’t a hard sell.

Writers were mostly oblivious to the real birth of rock in 1947 because it happened within the black community and had no impact in white America, yet as soon as anyone started digging it wasn’t hard to see the music began well before the mid-fifties crossover period that first got touted by the press as its ground zero point.

So thanks to Phillips’ creative fiction the media had a name that was already known and whose reputation was already unimpeachable thanks to his later achievements. Once this campaign was underway it was hardly surprising there was a willing gullible audience to spread the word for him. All he had to do now was keep hammering this completely untrue “fact” home in every interview until it became universally accepted and thereby ensured the name Sam Phillips would loom almost as large as the artists he’d once been associated with.

Who cared if it was all self-serving bullshit.
 

This Modern Design
Though we’ll get to the story of Sun Records down the road, in the winter of 1951 Sam Phillips was merely operating a recording studio in Memphis and just beginning to sell the masters he cut to out of town labels – flat fee, no credit, no royalties, just gaining valuable experience.

His main connection was Modern Records in Los Angeles as he had a handshake agreement to send any material he felt was marketable as well as cutting sides for their new R.P.M. imprint on local blues singer B.B. King, who’d quickly become that label’s greatest artist.

Realizing he could double his chances at success with another label, maybe get a better fee for his services in the process, he looked elsewhere for interested parties and waited until he had what he felt was a surefire winner in Rocket 88 and sent it to Chess Records in Chicago the same night it was cut in early March.

The record was perfect for the moment, a vibrant bristling sound that was somewhat laid back in its pacing yet aggressive in its instrumentation with hedonistic lyrics touting a drunken good time and featuring a swirling arrangement that featured all three of rock’s dominant sounds – a pounding boogie piano, wild tenor sax solos and notably a distorted electric guitar which was the final selling point for those in the future who went along with Phillips’ propaganda about it being the first rock record since that sound had become more ubiquitous in the years since.

But this supposed Rosetta stone of rock ‘n’ roll, as popular and electrifying as it was, not only was four years too late to be the first anything in rock, but it wasn’t even the first time this same basic song was released.
 


 
 

Let Me Introduce…
Ike Turner had been told about Sam Phillips’ studio from B.B. King himself and the ambitious Turner wasted no time piling the band in the car (minus their normal lead vocalist Johnny O’Neal who’d recently left the group) and headed from Mississippi up to Memphis to audition.

Knowing that original material was better they’d spent their trip re-writing Jimmy Liggins’ 1948 classic Cadillac Boogie, which the band’s alto saxophonist, Jackie Brenston had been singing on stage with them. Changing the subject from a Caddy to the new Oldsmobile Rocket 88, they also eliminated the defiant social outlook that made the original so culturally vital and replaced it with a more standard story about getting booze.

As Brenston said, ”If you listen to the two you’ll find out they’re both basically the same. The words are just changed.”.

But despite its recycled source material the updated song, while nowhere near as culturally meaningful in its actual content, had the advantage of there being three and a half years of rock songs to draw from when it came to how to craft an effective arrangement.

In a final touch of serendipity when unpacking the instruments from the trunk the bass amplifier fell and cracked the speaker cone. Expensive as they were they had little choice but to try and make do and by stuffing paper inside it the resulting vibrations gave it a fuzzy distorted sound that added to the uninhibited nature of the performance.

With Turner’s frantic piano opening it up, which Little Richard copied lick for lick on Good Golly Miss Molly, and Willie Kizart’s infectious boogie on guitar sounding like it was ready to blow the fuses in the control room, the song hit the ground running.
 

Yes, It’s Great… Everybody Likes My Rocket 88
Brenston’s vocal when it comes in is so self-assured, so in the pocket, so at-ease that it’s hard to believe he was just out of his teens and making his recording debut. Even his thrown-off vocal asides to the band are completely unforced and add to the image of this being played in some dingy club in the South where people go each night to lose their minds. Maybe more importantly for the record’s success is how clear his vocal is. There’s no regional dialect, no mumbled lines, the voice is youthful and universal and thus easily accessible for the audience it was intended for.

Meanwhile the band is churning relentlessly, providing constant propulsion with the guitar supplying the rhythm, Turner’s piano bashing away while the drums are kicking them in the ass the whole time.

The real star though is 17 year old Raymond Hill on tenor who rips through multiple solos that show that for all of the hype surrounding the guitar it was still the saxophone that was the most vibrant and crucial instrument in the rock lineup.

When it was released Turner was upset that it was credited to Jackie Brenston instead of him (even The Delta Cats designation robbed Turner of secondary credit) but as undeniably tight as the band is the fact is structurally he didn’t deliver anything new on Rocket 88, just an updated arrangement of another song. Same melody, same rhythm, even that vaunted guitar is playing the same exact lines the horns on the Liggins record laid down. The sax solo is much improved and the added aggression of course makes it sound more dangerous, but that’s to be expected when three and a half years have passed.

They’re each absolutely crucial records in rock’s evolution and while they have different attributes that give them their biggest impact, within the context of their own eras they’re more or less equals… in everything but historical credit that is.

For that we can blame Sam Phillips, sure, but the real blame rests with those who can’t see the difference between between verifiable facts and a man who genuinely accomplished great things in music but wasn’t above brazenly distorting history in order to make sure that he wasn’t forgotten along the way.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist pages of Jackie Brenston as well as Ike Turner for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)