ROCKET “88” - Lyon

The 1951 classic Rocket “88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats has often been cited as the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Waxed at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service, it was also the first No. 1 rhythm & blues hit for Chicago-based Chess Records. The Delta Cats were actually Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm from Clarksdale. Brenston and Raymond Hill, who played the saxophone solo on the disc, are buried in Heavenly Rest Cemetery on Highway 61 just north of the Lyon city limits.

Rocket “88” was recorded in 1951, when the term “rock ‘n’ roll” had yet to be widely applied to musical styles. The band that traveled up Highway 61 to make the record in Memphis consisted of Ike Turner, Jackie Brenston, Raymond Hill, Willie Kizart (or Kizeart, as he usually spelled it), and Willie “Bad Boy” Sims, all aged 17 to 20. On the trip Kizart’s amplifier fell out of the trunk, and Sam Phillips said he stuffed the amp’s broken speaker cone with brown wrapping paper in the studio; many historians opine that the distorted buzz in the guitar sound and the song’s raw, youthful energy and driving boogie rhythm qualified it as the first example of rock ‘n’ roll. Phillips, who was recording talent for other labels prior to founding Sun Records, submitted samples to Chess Records of two singles–one by Ike Turner and his Kings of Rythm [sic], featuring Turner on vocals, and another by Brenston singing with the same band, renamed Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. The disputed recording date was actually March 7, according to Peter Guralnick, author of Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll. Phillips’ studio logbook contains a note that Brenston’s mother Ethel signed a guardian approval contract, since Jackie was still a minor.

Brenston rocketed to a brief period of stardom, taking off on his own to tour the country in 1951-1952, but he sold his rights to “Rocket ‘88’” to Phillips and never had another hit. He finally rejoined Turner’s band as a sideman in St. Louis. Brenston later reflected, “I was a greenhorn. I had a hit record and no sense.” His last job was as a truck driver in Clarksdale. Brenston died on December 15, 1979. The birthdate on his headstone, August 24, 1928, was a false date he used to appear old enough to enlist in the Army in 1946. He was actually born in 1930.

By various accounts “Rocket ‘88”—named after a popular model of Oldsmobile—was rehearsed at the Riverside Hotel, written on the way to Memphis, or crafted in the studio. Brenston admitted, “I had been doing a tune Jimmy Liggins did some years ago called ‘Cadillac Boogie.’ So if you listen to the two you’ll find out they’re both basically the same. The words are just changed.” Brenston might not have sung on the session at all had the Kings of Rhythm’s primary vocalist Johnny O’Neal not just left the band when an earlier trip to the studio had been planned, Turner said.

Raymond Hill was born in Clarksdale on April 29, 1933. His parents, Henry and Ollie Mae Hill, ran a roadhouse 2-1/2 miles north of Lyon where Sonny Boy Williamson and others performed, as well as cafes in Clarksdale. Hill led his own band, recorded for Sun Records, and hosted a radio show on WROX (as did Ike) but worked mostly as a sideman with Turner, Albert King and others. He was the father of Tina Turner’s first child before Ike and Tina became a team. Hill died on April 16, 1996.

Hill and Brenston were laid to rest in Heavenly Rest Cemetery, where DJ Early Wright, performers Lorenzo Nicholson and Foster “Mr. Tater” Wiley, juke joint owner L.S. Thomas, and Lucille Turner Lane (proprietor of Turner’s Grill and sister of pianist Ernest Lane) are also buried.

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