From: 67th Birthday Issue, January 2002
by Phil Arnold
Sam Phillips may have more claims to fame than most people realize. Of course, everyone knows the legendary story about his discovery of Elvis and those marvelous 45’s they produced together at Sun Records.
However, if there had never been an Elvis, Sam can still take credit for launching the careers of no less than five other rock and country stars: Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich. This in itself is a notable achievement.
But, suppose none of these rockabilly cats had ever been drawn to Sun Records. Sam Phillips could still claim to have influenced the early careers of several blues singers who went on to great commercial success with other labels. This group includes B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, Little Milton, Walter Horton, James Cotton, and Rufus Thomas. Sam Phillips gave all of these major bluesmen their first opportunity to record and reach a wider audience.
Yet, if you take away all of these achievements, there is still one more highlight in Sam Phillips’ resume. Many music experts and historians argue he produced the very first rock ‘n roll hit record. Here is the story.
Sam Phillips rented a small Memphis storefront property at 706 Union Street in January 1950. With previous experience as a disc jockey and radio engineer, he had the expertise to start a small studio called the Memphis Recording Service. The company’s slogan was “We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.”
Early income was derived from recording weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other social functions, plus making off-the-air transcriptions for local radio stations. This was supplemented by recording personal records for people walking in off the street. For four dollars they could record two songs. (This specialty continued after the company evolved into Sun Studios two years later and led to the well documented discovery of Elvis.)
From the beginning, Sam Phillips had larger ambitions than recording weddings and amateur singers. His intention was to record the blues and other music he loved, using musicians and singers from Memphis and the nearby Mississippi delta. He is quoted as saying, “I knew, or I felt, that there was a bigger audience for blues than just the black man of the mid-South.”
The recordings Sam Phillips made in his tiny studio were leased to larger out-of-town labels like Modern, Chess, and Duke, who then released and promoted the records. Who knows how long it would have taken BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, and the others to reach success without getting their careers launched this way.
Another young musician hoping to do the same was working as a DJ on radio station WROX in Clarksdale, Mississippi. His name was Ike Turner. Years later he would achieve considerable fame paired with wife Tina, but in 1951 he was an up-and-coming piano player leading a fledgling band called The Kings of Rhythm.
Turner wrote most of the songs for the group, one of which was inspired by the Oldsmobile 88. With its famed Olds Rocket V8 engine, it was considered the fastest American car on the road. Turner titled the song Rocket 88, and he composed lyrics extolling the joys of fast cars, booze and chicks.
Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm decided to drive to Memphis and audition the song for Sam Phillips. On the road, however, some of the gear tied to the top of the car fell off, breaking the speaker cone of the guitarist’s amp. Rather than cancel the session, Phillips and the band tinkered around, stuffing a little paper around the cone. They found they liked the distorted guitar sound this produced.
Ike Turner did not have a particularly strong voice, so the singer for the recording session was a young saxophone player named Jackie Brenston. His confidant, powerful sound belied his youth and limited experience. Sam Phillips went on a hunch and over-amplified the distorted guitar sound, Ike Turner pounded away on the piano, and another bandmate provided two scorching tenor sax solos. The finished product was a raucous boogie with a heavy churning beat and unbridled energy.
Sam Phillips shipped the tape of Rocket 88 to Chess Records in Chicago. For some reason he labeled it as performed by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, and Chess released it as such. The song rushed up to the top spot on the R&B charts and stayed there for a month.
After this success, Jackie Brenston signed a contract with Chess Records but had little follow-up success. By 1956 he was back with Ike Turner’s band, playing baritone sax. In 1962, Brenston left the music business, never to return.
Years later, music historians and journalists began to debate what was the first rock ‘n roll record. Sam Phillips was glad to provide the answer: Rocket 88. His vote was given much credibility coming from the man who discovered Elvis Presley. There was much to back up his claim.
Structurally, the song fit the defining characteristic of early rock, which was an 8-to-the bar boogie- rhythm with a heavy backbeat drum accent on the 4th and 8th beats.
It also had the sound that defined rock ‘n roll songs in the seminal period of 1955-57. If you listen to Rocket 88 mixed in a sequence of the early hits of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the Coasters, there is no distinguishing difference. It’s hard to believe Rocket 88 was released five or six years before the others.
Perhaps most important was the song’s crossover appeal to the white audiences. This was rare in 1951, but there was enough of it for Rocket 88 to warrant air play on the earliest “Blasts From The Past” radio broadcasts and inclusion in many of the original “Oldies But Goodies” albums.
Of course, some music pundits dissent and champion other songs as the first rock ‘n roll record. There is no way to prove it one way or another. Although the other candidates had earlier release dates (some going back to1949), none can claim the body of arguments presented for Rocket 88. One thing for sure, none of the others were produced by the man who discovered Elvis Presley. From this writer’s viewpoint, Sam Phillips discovered rock ‘n roll in 1951 and its future King in 1954.
© 2002 Philip R Arnold