November 5th in Memphis Music History
In Memphis he was mostly known as a session musician, arranger, and “the best bandleader I ever knew” according to BB King. He once recorded with and produced Elmore James, who he then tried to steal for one of his employers, Modern Records. While working in Memphis he arranged and “produced” - not formally - for his other employer Sun Studio, the same employer where he backed future legends BB King, Elmore James, Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. He played piano on King’s version of “3 O’clock Blues”, his first hit.
As a teenager, he was already well known in the Delta, having learned “boogie-woogie” style piano from Pinetop Perkins and played with Sonny Boy Williamson (II) as a boy. In high school he joined a local dance/jazz band, and then became the leader of a spinoff group he called The Kings of Rhythm.
It was these “kings” that BB King heard play in Mississippi and asked the young man why he wasn’t recording. King recommended Sun and persuaded Sam Phillips to give the teenaged phenom a chance. At the time Phillips was recording African-American acts for various labels, including Chicago’s Chess Records, before Sun became a record label in its own right and guys named Cash, Perkins, Lewis, and Presley walked in the door. In March 1951, The Kings of Rhythm made the short trip to Memphis. At some time leading up to the trip or on the trip, one of their amplifiers was damaged (by water or damage while in the trunk of their car while on the road, depending on which version you believe). Phillips first tried to rescue the amp by stuffing it with paper, then decided he liked the sound so engineered it up front. The piano player was not the front man, but had written a song a based on couple of songs he knew from working as a DJ (before he went to high school!) and the singer’s recommendation of naming the song after a “hot” Oldsmobile that had come out the two years earlier. The song featured guitarist Willie Kizart on a damaged but “amped up”, or “fuzzy” amplifier, solos from tenor sax player Raymond Hill, and the bandleader’s writing, arrangement and boogie-woogie piano. Again, different versions of the story appear, with either Phillips or Chess Records - who Phillips was recording for - deciding to release the record with the name of singer Jackie Brenston - and the backing band given the name of The Delta Cats. In the pressing, Brenston was also given credit for writing the song.
Still, a legend was born. “Rocket 88” is credited as the first rock and roll song, mostly due to the distortion of that damaged but featured amp. It started the 19 year old bandleader on a storied (not all good stories) career. The song “rocketed” to the top, hitting #1 on Billboard’s R&B chart by June of 1951.
After his work as bandleader, producer, session musician, and talent scout in Memphis, he took The Kings of Rhythm - without Brenston - to St Louis in 1956 where he met a young singer from Brownsville Tennessee by the name of Anna Mae Bullock, but that’s the story of another place.
Born on this day in 1931 in Clarksdale Mississippi, one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n roll - Ike Turner!