In June 1951, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats had the Number One single on the Billboard R&B charts with "Rocket 88." More pointedly, the recording – along with Louis Jordan's "Saturday Night Fish Fry" (1949), Wild Bill Moore's "Rock and Roll" (1949), Fats Domino's debut single "The Fat Man" (1949) and Jimmy Preston's "Rock the Joint" (1949), among others – ranks among the first incarnations of the genre that would come to be known as rock and roll. In fact, many consider "Rocket 88" the first rock and roll record.
Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Jackie Brenston was a forceful singer and a capable baritone sax player. By the close of the 1940s, he had joined the Kings of Rhythm, which had formed around the nucleus of Ike Turner in Mississippi. Farther north, in Memphis, Tennessee, Sam Phillips had opened his Memphis Recording Studio alongside the Sun Records label at 706 Union Avenue at the start of 1950 (he would later change the name to Sun Studios). Although the operation would go on to record the works of B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name but a few, throughout the 1950s, at its genesis, Phillips was helming a fledgling studio.
In March of 1951, the Kings of Rhythm traveled to Memphis for a session at Phillips' studio. There, Turner worked out the basis for "Rocket 88" on the piano. The homage to Oldsmobile's evocatively named auto featured suggestive (and more overt) lyrics that spoke of the title car's pleasures (V8 motor and this modern design / black convertible top and the gals don't mind / sport in' with me / ridin' all around town for joy) and the good times to be had in it (Everybody in my car is gonna take a little nip / move on out, boozin' and cruisin' along). With Brenston's garbled emoting, Turner's feisty piano, Raymond Hill's punchy tenor sax, Willie Sims on drums and Willie Kizart on guitar, the song took elements of jump blues and swing, burnished with rollicking piano, a steady backbeat, extended sax soloing and distorted guitar riffing – a tone reportedly achieved by accident via a damaged amplifier. The unconventional boogie would be a hit for the act billed as Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats.
"Rocket 88" (with its b side, "Come Back Where You Belong") was released on Chicago's Chess Records and debuted on the Hot R&B Singles chart on May 12,1951. In early June, the song reached Number One on the chart, where it held the position for five weeks. The song ultimately spent 18 weeks on the chart. During that same period, Bill Haley recorded a version of "Rocket 88" – preceding his seminal "Rock Around the Clock" by three years.
Subsequent releases failed to chart as well, including a revved up sequel entitled "Real Gone Rocket," and there were rumors that Brenston's top billing didn't set well with other members of the Kings of Rhythm, to wit Turner. Brenston would play baritone sax in Turner's Kings of Rhythm from 1955 to 1962, appearing on tracks for the Federal, Cobra, Sue and Mellon imprints. By the mid Sixties, Brenston had largely quit the music business, instead working part-time as a truck driver. He died of a heart attack on December 15, 1979 at the age of 49.
Jackie Brenston is among the artists featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio's The Roots of Rock and Roll exhibit, in the section highlighting the influence and contributions of early R&B artists in the history of rock. Other featured artists include Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, Little Willie John, Johnny Otis, Sam Cooke,Charles Brown and Ray Charles, as well as such R&B vocal groups as the Platters and the Coasters.