Beginnings of Rock and Roll (Part three)
” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, released April 1951
There has been much attention paid to the song “Rocket 88” as being the ‘first’ R&R song. A huge amount of writing has been done on this song and there’s also very diverse opinions about it. Here is my take. First we need to acknowledge it’s a great song. As of 2018 the Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame added a category of single songs, “Rocket 88” was among the first group recognized.
These are some facts:
When it came out in 1951 there were two charts published by Billboard Magazine for R&B that only tracked the top ten songs each week. The first was “Best selling retail Rhythm and Blues Singles” and it entered for the week of May 19, it hit #1 on June 9 and stayed there for three weeks. It spent a total of 17 weeks on the chart and was the 5th best record for chart performance that year. Compared to “Sixty Minute Man” by the Dominoes which on three occasions hit #1 for a total of 16 weeks and 30 in the top 10. The other chart was called “Most played Juke Box Rhythm and Blues records” where the song spent five weeks at #1 and 18 weeks in the top 10, performance wise well behind as mentioned the Dominoes song as well as ones from Ruth Brown, Charles Brown and John Lee Hooker. Cash Box Magazine had a Top Ten chart called “Harlem R&B Singles” where the song spent four weeks only hitting as high as #8, again compared to “Sixty Minute Man” which was 14 weeks at #1 and at a total of 25 weeks. While I have not been the first to point out that great songs and chart performance do not always go hand in hand, it does show this to be a moderately popular and good selling song, certainly not classified as a smash hit. It was the first of just a few more (non charting) songs from Brenston.
The song was actually recorded by Ike Turner’s band ‘Kings of Rhythm’, Jackie Brenston (being an occasional sax player with Turner) had written this song and sang lead on it. The great saxophone playing on the recording was by Ray Raymond who as it turns out did not have much success in the music business. As was the going rate they were all paid just $20 for this and each of another handful of songs recorded by Sam Phillips at Sun Records. The master recording was sent to Chess Records to manufacture and distribute. Phillips and the Chess brothers decided to give Brenston his own band on the record, hence the new made up name of ‘Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’. And it’s true they were all from the Delta region. Ike Turner was justifiably upset as he had expected the release to be under the Kings of Rhythm. He also claimed he co-wrote the song but could not produce enough evidence and documentation shows Jackie Brenston being paid $910 from Phillips for the song rights. Turner who held a bit of grudge over this still did record with both Brenston and Phillips a few more times, the last being in about 1961.
Then we have a mix of accounts and mythology that have elevated the song to it’s high status among R&R enthusiasts and professionals alike. No doubt there’s a lot of good things going on in the song about the hot new car ‘The Rocket 88’ made by Oldsmobile. Some great lyrics and an upbeat (Jump Blues) tempo on the standard 12 bar blues format song make it a lot of fun. There is a story attached to how the guitar amplifier got damaged on route to the recording studio, with no time for repair it got stuffed with newspapers producing a fuzzy distorted sound for Willie Kizart’s lead guitar. Unknown as just a fluke, so loved was this new noise it was later duplicated by many other guitarist and a device was invented to reproduce the effect. Sam Phillips himself was behind much of the hype and retroactive fanfare about this song in his bid to be labeled the creator of R&R. Sam really was an amazing finder of talent and his Sun Records studio was instrumental in the development of R&R, but again I say no single person or entity created R&R.
However the truth of the matter is this song is really a copy of the music from this tune; “Cadillac Boogie” by ‘Jimmy Liggins and His Drops of Joy’ from 1947. Written by Jimmy Liggins. Have listen and it’s as noticeable as the nose on your face. Though Brenston admitted the song was an ‘inspiration’ credit was never given by him, Phillips or Chess Records. Unlike the 1941 Jack Dupree song (Junker Blues) where he was given songwriting credit for Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man”. There is also a song called “Rocket 88 Boogie” by Pete Johnson from 1949 which may have had some influence as well. So “Rocket 88” is still very much R&B and goes into the mix as a strong influencer but sorry it’s not original and most certainly not the first R&R song.
“Lawdy Miss Clawdy
” written and performed by Lloyd Price in 1952, it became a huge hit for the 19-year-old Price. Entering the Billboard R&B chart in May and spending 26 weeks including 6 at #1. Backed by Fats Domino on piano and produced by Dave Bartholomew it was the R&B song of the year for 1952, selling nearly one million copies. This set the standard for R&B records coming out of New Orleans with many artists wanting to sound like Lloyd Price. While song credits went to Price this was clearly a group effort as the melody follows Fats song “Fat Man” and by default Dupree’s “Junker Blues” as I previously mentioned. I give this song much more credit as it has a feel that’s significantly different than it’s predecessors.
The next artist to record this song was Elvis Presley
in 1956. Even Elvis could not outdo Lloyd as his version peaked at #15 on Billboard. Covered over 100 times and as recently as 2018. Other versions were cut by Little Richard, Johnny Rivers, Fats Domino and Lloyd Price’s one-time valet the legendary Larry Williams, who in 1958 also reworked the song into the smash hit “Dizzy Miss Lizzy
” covered by the Beatles.
|Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984)
” written by the powerhouse duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and a stellar performance by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, released in 1953 spending seven weeks at number one and selling 500,000 copies. Sadly her only big hit, after which she had a moderately successful career but marred like many an artist by alcohol abuse, she died at age 57. Her legacy lives on and her song is listed as one of the 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll.
Recorded another seven times before Freddie Bell and The Bellboys
in 1955, who had added a campy version to their stage show, which was caught by Elvis.
So it was next recorded by Elvis in 1956
and was originally the ‘B’ side of “Don’t Be Cruel” but it eventually peaked at #2 on Billboard, becoming what was referred to as a Double ‘A’ side. A great deal of controversy surrounded this release and people couldn’t figure out whether it was a serious rock and roll song or some kind of parody. Fueled by a performance on ‘The Steve Allen Show’ where Elvis was made to sing the song to a Basset Hound. Leiber and Stoller didn’t even like the version though they cashed the royalty cheques (checks) I’d wager. Later redeemed by performances on Ed Sullivan, it’s a mix perhaps of Freddie Bell and Big Mama so I’ve read, but the result is all Elvis. Despite the live performances or previous versions/influences the original Elvis recording is a straight up R&R song.
I feel like I need to apologize for I keep coming back around to Elvis, this is really not intentional, he was not alone in bringin R&R to the forefront but he just kept hitting on the most amazing songs that in my opinion really did help shape the genre.
OK, here is one that Elvis did not record and happens to be one of my favorite cover songs! “I Hear You Knocking
” Written by Dave Bartholomew and Pearl King (Pearl King is a pseudonym for Bartholomew, King being his wife’s maiden name) far as I know she didn’t contribute to writing the song so I can’t explain that one, but not uncommon as it had something to with publishing rights/money no doubt! It’s performed by Smiley Lewis and was released in July 1955, it reached #2 on the Billboard R&B charts. Covered over 50 times.
Recorded several times in the 1950’s and a total of seven before the Rock and Roll revivalist and one of my personal favorite artists Dave Edmunds
had a number one hit in the UK in 1970 and ended up at #4 on the Billboard Hot One Hundred in 1971. Edmunds played all the instruments on the recording and used the innovative technique of piping the vocal track through a telephone line to give it that unique sound. John Lennon was quoted as saying, “Well, I always liked simple rock. There’s a great one in England now, ‘I Hear You Knocking’ “. Edmunds makes mention of Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Chuck Berry and Huey Smith in the lyrics of this stripped-down yet amped up version making it a Classic! (can you tell I really really like Dave Edmunds?) Oh and please don’t assume that ‘simple’ means ‘easy’, this man has talent! Groovy eh! Best I stop myself right here.
How long will R&R last? At the one minute mark in this recording Buddy Holly
is asked about the future of Rock and Roll music, click to find out his answer! If you can’t listen, here is the response. This interview took place in Vancouver B.C. in October of 1957. Prodded by Canada’s equivalent to Alan Freed, Red Robinson from radio station CJOR he got Buddy Holly’s answer that Rock & Roll music would be declining in the spring of 1958. Holly says “it might pick back up again but I rather doubt it”. Buddy would start writing more ballads in 1958 and right up to before leaving for the tour that would lead to his death on February 3, 1959. Rock & Roll did see a decline during this period and went through a significant shift going into the early 1960’s so Buddy Holly was not entirely wrong.
images: http://motherlode.tv/music/r&b.html, https://www.blakkpepper.com/2016/03/meet-big-mama-thornton-the-woman-with-the-earth-shattering-voice/
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