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‘Rocket 88’: The Story Behind The First Rock’n’Roll Record?

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Chess Records

The first rock’n’roll record was ‘Rocket 88’, recorded by Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. Jackie Brenston and co were, however, Ike Turner And His Kings Of Rhythm, and rock’n’roll was little more than a euphemism among the African-American population in early 20thcentury America.

There are some that think it was also a dance, but for some the difference between sex and dancing is as thin as the line between love and hate. Nor is it true that Alan Freed, the Cleveland DJ invented the term… but more of that later.

“My man rocks me with one steady roll.” – Trixie Smith, 1922

Nearly 90 years ago in September 1922 in New York City 27 year old Trixie Smith along with the Jazz Masters went into the studio to cut a couple of sides. Who made up the Jazz Masters have been lost down the crack in the shellac, all except one – Fletcher Henderson a name ubiquitous within jazz circles and whose band Louis Armstrong joined in 1924. One of the sides Trixie and the boys cut was ‘My Daddy Rocks Me (with one steady roll); as clear evidence as you can get for the link between rock and roll, and sex…

My daddy rocks me with one steady roll.
There’s no slippin’ when he once takes hold.
I looked at the clock and the clock struck one.
I said “Now Daddy, ain’t we got fun.”
He kept rockin’ with one steady roll.

Now hold those lyrics in your head because we’ll return to them soon enough. Four years after Trixie was rockin’ and rollin’ a man got around to it too; Blind Blake, whose Christian name may or may not have been Arthur, was the first to use the word ‘rock’ in a song. His earliest record for the Paramount label in August 1926 had ‘West Coast Blues’ on one side of it.

It opens with the lines…

Now we gonna do the old country rock.
First thing we do, swing your partners.

It’s a lot less sexy than Trixie and certainly seems to relate to some kind of dance, which is possibly evidence for the whole thing being a mix of both sex and dancing. Later in the song he even does a little advertising, “Good to the last drop. Just like Maxwell House Coffee, yes.” When President Theodore Roosevelt visited the manufacturer of Maxwell House in 1907, had a cup of their coffee, saying “It’s good to the last drop”; probably the only time a US President has been an advertising copy writer. There again it may also take us back towards the sex angle!

Three years later, in 1929, a twenty-five year old by the name of Tampa Red, who seems to have hailed from Florida, but grew up in Georgia and was a bit of a whizz on the kazoo, as well as piano and guitar decided to do a little rocking of his own. Tampa recorded such risqué songs as ‘It’s Tight Like That’ and ‘Jelly Whippin’ Blues’ but he also fronted the Hokum Jug Band. One weekend in April 1929 Tampa and his band recorded several tunes including ‘She is Hot’ which sounds like the perfect rock ‘n’ roll title and they also covered Trixie’s ‘’My Daddy Rocks Me (with one steady roll)’. Now, Tampa being a man doing a song about his Daddy rocking him with one steady roll obviously poses some questions, but on this occasion it wasn’t Tampa singing – it was instead the cross-dressing Frankie ‘Half-Pint’ Jaxon.

Frankie put his own slant on Trixie’s lyrics…

My Man rocks me with one steady roll.
It makes no difference if he’s hot or cold.
When I looked at the clock, clock struck one.
I said honey oh let’s have some fun.
But you rock me with one steady roll.

Frankie also goes in for some no holds barred, nor blushes spared, heavy breathing just in case anyone was in any doubt about what his song was all about. While the content, the words and the feel may all have some of the feel of rock ‘n’ roll about them the music for all this and the songs that went before did not. They were all very much in the blues idiom.

Rolling forward through the jazz age, the big bands, and generally the fuller sounds that became popular with black musicians and their audiences we get to 1945 and a man named Wynonie Harris.  Harris had sung with Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra, one of the swingiest, rockiest of the black big bands. In 1941, before Harris had joined them Millinder, who was a regular at the Apollo and the Savoy in Harlem, released ‘Big Fat Mama’ (“with meat shaking on her bones”) which was one of a number of his songs that pointed the way towards rock ‘n’ roll.

Harris took what he had learned with Millinder and distilled it into something all together more rock ‘n’ roll in the way it sounded. In July 1945, along with a band put together by Johnny Otis, Wynonie recorded ‘Around the Clock parts one and two’; compare their lyrics with Tampa’s…

Sometimes I think I will, sometimes I think I won’t.
Sometimes I believe I do, and then again I believe I won’t.
Well I looked at the clock, the clock struck one.
She said come on Daddy let’s have some fun.
Yes we were rolling, yes we rolled a long time.

Musically there was little rock ‘n’ roll about ‘Around The Clock’ but come 1957 and the great Chuck Berry recorded ‘Reelin’ and Rockin’. As we all know he, “looked at his watch and it was 9.21”. The fact is that what had gone before all led to that moment. So much music, black or white, was all about influences, acknowledged and otherwise, and the development of rock ‘n’ roll, as a concept, goes way back. As a sound it definitely had it’s origins in the jump music and R & B of the 1940s.

There are also those that think Alan Freed ‘invented’ rock ‘n’ roll.  There’s no question that Freed was a key player in the development of the music. On 11 July 1951, Freed started broadcasting on Cleveland’s WJW, calling his show The Moondog House. He played jump and R & B records and began calling it rock ‘n’ roll music; he also started promoting live shows featuring the artists he played like Tiny Grimes and Paul ‘Hucklebuck’ Williams.  Given the reach that his radio show gave him, even more so when he switched to WINS in New York City, it’s unsurprising that Freed has been so closely associated with the music, and its naming. But mentions of rocking and rolling were not the sole preserve of the black blues singers or the DJs that played the music. In 1934 the Boswell Sisters, a middle class, close harmony group from New Orleans released ‘Rock and Roll’, but theirs is a song of the high seas – “the rolling rocking rhythm of the sea”.

“So won’t you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll” – Teddy Grace, August 1937

In 1939, Western Swing star Buddy Jones released ‘Rockin’ Rollin’ Mama’. Two years earlier Teddy Grace recorded ‘Rock it For Me’, a couple of months later Chick Webb’s Orchestra with their singer Ella Fitzgerald did it too, like others they used the term in their own way, “So won’t you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll” Even Hollywood got in on the act when Betty Grable’s film, Wabash Avenue was promoted by calling her, ‘The First lady of rock and roll’. The point of it all? It was very much in the zeitgeist; it just needed Freed to bring it altogether.

So, how come many think that Jackie Brenston made the first rock ‘n’ roll record? Well for a start, Sam Phillips was fond of telling people that it was. But it’s just another record from the hundreds, thousands even, which came out in the post war years that had the feel of proto rock about them. Interestingly Wynonie Harris’ ‘Around the Clock’ while having the lyrical heritage does not sound much like a rock ‘n’ roll record – there are many others of his that definitely do. ‘Good Rocking Tonight’ from 1946 and so did ‘Lollipop Mama’ from 1948, with its fast walking bass line. There are hundreds of records that a case could be made for naming them as ‘The First Rock ‘n’ Roll record’. Here’s a list of ten records that could claim the title…in no particular order, other than the date they were recorded!

Rock, Daniel – Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra with Rosetta Tharpe (June 1941)
Be-Babba Leba – Helen Humes (August 1945)
My Gals A Jockey – Big Joe Turner (January 1946)
Choo Choo Ch’Boogie – Louis Jordan (July 1946)
The House of Blue lights – Ella Me Morse with Freddie Slack and his Orchestra (February 1946)
Gotta Gimme Whatcha Got – Julia Lee and her Boyfriends (September 1946)
He’s A Real Gone guy – Nellie Lutcher (July 1947)
Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee – Sticks McGhee and his Buddies (February 1949)
Rock the Joint –Jimmy Preston & His Prestonians (May 1949)
Teardrops From My Eyes – Ruth Brown (October 1950)

26 Comments

26 Comments

  1. richard

    July 2, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    I always thought rock n Roll was older than thought. I have some tracks from the 40’s which are clearly rock n Roll. I also thought that the term was around before Alan Freed used it so I found this article fascinating thank you

  2. Dn

    July 3, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    Great tunes. I have most, if not all of these in my library which dates back to stuff from the 20’s. Currently in the midst of compiling a personal favorite library that I can carry on a computer zip drive to plug into the audio systems in my trucks, and just enjoy what I like and grew up with through the years. These tunes are included and at last count I’m up to about 3,200 tunes on this drive. And thank you for a great article. These artists are either not known or known but forgotten to many, and to me they all deserve their places in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.

  3. william

    July 3, 2014 at 9:58 pm

    Uptempo version of “Rocket 88” by Bill Haley is the first rock and roll record !!!!. Brenston´s original version is “r&b”. Everybod knows that rock and roll is r&b uptempo.

  4. Duke Feist

    September 3, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    I recall the first use of the term was the BOSWELL SISTERS in 1939 (I think)….ROCK AND ROLL…now it was not rockin but it was a song about the rocking and rolling of a ship.

    Crazy Man Crazy by Bill Haley and the Saddlemen? Rock this Joint? same year….but those mentioned in the 40s were very good examples before Ike Turners Rocket 88.

  5. David

    January 11, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    If Rocket 88 was recorded on the SUN label why is the photo a CHESS label?

    • uDiscover

      January 11, 2015 at 5:54 pm

      It was recorded at Sun Studios and released on Chess Records

  6. Dick

    January 11, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    Interesting article and subsequent comments. Rock N Roll was at its heyday in the 1950’s and its manifestation then can be traced back to the influences of the 30’s/40’s. I put into the pot, Big Joe Turner and Fats Domino’s 1949 release ‘The Fat Man.’

  7. Rob

    January 11, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    Great article. R&B and Blues are certainly part of the roots of rock. But no one mentioned old Country music for it’s part in Rock. It wouldn’t be right to say something like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, etc. created the first rock song. Because they did not, nor did the R&B artists. Someone was influenced by them and created something new. Was it the hand full of songwriters working for studios in the 40’s and 50’s? They wrote a lot of the songs other people recorded. Bill Haley was a bandleader who recorded country songs first. Take a little Country, mix it with R&B, make it uptempo and upbeat and you have Bill Haley. Take a little Country mix it with R&B and a pinch of Blues and you have Elvis Presley and Rockabilly. Both styles were early forms of Rock music. Were they the first? Look at the late 50’s and you have Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Elvis, Dion, Chuck Berry and many, many others. The late 50’s seems to be the point where you stop questioning whether it is Rock music or not. It’s a little cloudy before that.

    • Marc

      January 12, 2015 at 3:24 pm

      Well said, rock n roll is blues AND country mixed

  8. Rghutson@att.net

    January 11, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    Sam Phillips wasn’t above selling off artists or their tapes. Probably acquired by Chess? He sold off Elvis to buy some equipment.

  9. Paul Mattei

    January 12, 2015 at 1:03 am

    I always had heard that Ike Turner was credited with Rocket 88 and he was therefore the grandfather of Rock & Toll.

    • artemis

      January 12, 2015 at 3:24 am

      Jackie Brenston was the horn player and occasional vocalist in Ike’s Kings Of Rhythm. The story goes that Rocket 88 was recorded as a throwaway B-side in some spare time at the end of a Kings Of Rhythm session, but via some Sun/Chess chicanery was somehow released under the name Jackie Brenston and went on to become the jukebox favourite that it did. By most accounts, Ike T. was NOT pleased about his limelight being stolen! Whatever the truth is, it’s still a killer record, and I believe it’s true that it WAS the first vinyl ever released as a 7″ 45rpm disc.

  10. Wade

    January 12, 2015 at 1:18 am

    I would have sworn Rock and Roll came from Boogie Woogie.

    Listen to Eight to the Bar or Solid Four.

    If these had electric guitar, they would be rocking.

    • Wade

      January 12, 2015 at 1:22 am

      Boogie Woogie came from Jazz and Blues so it seems to me all connected really.

  11. Jed Newell

    January 12, 2015 at 3:58 am

    You should check this out: “Crazy About My Baby” recorded in 1929 by Uaroy and Roosevelt Graves in Hattiesburg, MS. Some say this could be considered the first rock n roll record.

  12. Gus Ross

    January 12, 2015 at 4:48 am

    “Take Me Back To Tulsa” – Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys from 1940 – sounds like Rock n Roll to me it was called Texas Swing back then and George Strait continues that sound today with “Ace in the Hole”

  13. Marc

    January 12, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Just because a song uses the words “rock” and “roll”, does not make it a rock n roll song . Also, as far as I’m concerned, rock n roll is a cross between country and blues. Why is there no mention of the hillbilly/western swing influence ?

  14. Flipflopper

    March 4, 2015 at 11:41 am

    Those that think country/hillbillydoes not have an influence, should listen once again to Elvis singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky”

  15. tom1004

    June 25, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    I’m saving this thread. I want to find the songs mentioned in the comments. Is there a good place to find recordings even of the oldest songs? And fwiw, I read an opinion long ago that the first rock ‘n roll record was either Rocket 88 or Shboom.

  16. Richard Reese

    June 25, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    In March of 1954 Daniel “Sonny” Norton, Harold Major, William Davis, and Gerald Hamilton, to together and recorded a son on the Roma lable that helped pave the way for Rock N’ Roll. What is now “Gee” by the Crows was the first song to bridge the bas between Rhythm and Blues and Popular music. It was also the first song by a “Black” group to get extended play on “White” radio stations.

  17. Cor

    August 24, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    Rock ” N ” Roll is a melting pot of Country – Blues – R&Blues – Rockabilly – Cajun & Zydeco – Boogie Woogie – Tearjerker and so on. Wy must it placed in a corner ? We have all kinds of Rock ” N “Roll. The first with all those ingredients ( for me ) is The Fat Man of Fats Domino & Dave Bartholowmew. Earlyer known in New Orléans as the Junker Blues by Champion Jack Dupree.

  18. Eric Albert

    September 26, 2015 at 2:45 am

    My vote goes to The Fat Man by Fats Domino as the first R&R record in 1949.

  19. Robert Grant

    February 4, 2016 at 7:48 am

    Great Article…enjoyed it Immensely…I have always felt that most forms of Rock & Roll music have been eclectic combinations of many different styles or genres..with the accent on Rhythm.

  20. Ron Clemmens

    May 23, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    Another contender for one of the first rock n roll records would be Cecil Gant Decca 48170 (1950) We’re Gonna Rock. A lot of the Jerry Lee Lewis sound in this record.

  21. Chris Grattan

    May 24, 2016 at 1:46 am

    I would go with Wynonie Harris’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight”from the Spring of 1948. Clearly had the beat and the attitude. Elvis covered it while still at Sun.

  22. Billy Roues

    October 31, 2019 at 5:32 pm

    1949 “Rock Awhile” by Goree Carter. Just listen to the electric guitar on that one, pre Chuck Berry. It’s jump blues lat 40’s R&B but it certainly beats Rocket 88 for distorted guitar by 3 years. And i love Rocket 88.

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