March 5th in Memphis Music History
“You may not have heard this musical explosion yet, but I expect you will. I‘m afraid you are utterly doomed to hear it, sooner or later. Brace yourself now and check your shock absorbers.” - Lydel Syms, Commercial Appeal, March 1951
On March 5, 1951, Perry Como’s “If” was the top selling and most requested song in the country, according to Billboard
In Korea, X Corps had evacuated North Korea after the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, but a new offensive was about to start to recapture Seoul.
African-American parents in Topeka Kansas had tried to enroll their children in school which led to a Supreme Court case. One of the Fathers was Oliver Brown.
“Shotgun Boogie” by Tennessee Ernie Ford was the hottest country record.
Memphis State College was about to award its first Bachelor of Arts degree. There was talk of the school becoming a campus of the University of Tennessee.
While Nashville was still reeling from the effects of an ice storm and blizzard just five weeks before, it was a Memphis spring day, with temperatures in the 70’s.
Elvis was a sophomore at Humes High. Future Memphis greats Willie Hall and Alex Chilton were babies at 5 months and 10 weeks old, respectively.
BB King had moved to Memphis, had earned a recording contract in part by being heard on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on KWEM in West Memphis and gained his nickname while working as a DJ on Memphis’ WDIA.
Sam Phillips had moved from Muscle Shoals Alabama where he was a DJ and engineer. In 1950 he opened Memphis Recording Service and cut records by BB King and Howlin’ Wolf. He did not yet own a label so he scouted and produced for Modern and Chess.
"Black Night" by Charles Brown topped the R&B charts.
At 13, Ike Turner of Clarksdale Mississippi was a teenaged DJ at WROX, and was given money to take formal piano lessons but spent the money and learned to play “boogie woogie” piano from Pinetop Perkins. He formed bands in high school, then traveled the Delta and backed Sonny Boy Williamson II and Elmore James for juke joint gigs. He taught a young Clarksdale Army veteran how to play the saxophone and asked him to join the band. While traveling with the band one night he ran into BB King who he had met earlier. He played a few songs and King urged him to come up to Memphis and audition for Phillips.
So 19 year old bandleader and piano man Turner, Army veteran Jackie Brenston, and the Kings of Rhythm were on their way to Memphis. When they finally found the studio and Phillips at 706 Union, the record maker asked them what they had. They played a demo of a song about a hot new Oldsmobile. Phillips and the band tried to make a damaged amp work by stuffing paper into it - cones were damaged due to a drop or water, depending on which version of the story you read. He guided the bands arrangement and replaced Turner on vocals, to which Turner reluctantly agreed. They recorded one more song with that young Army veteran singing lead and two with Turner up front.
On this day in 1951, the driving guitar of Willie Kizart, the distortion of the damaged amp, the pounding boogie woogie style of Turner’s piano, hard sax blowing by Hill, frenzied drumming by Willie Sims, shouting vocals by Brenston, and the arrangement and engineering by Phillips, helped “Rocket “88” give birth to rock ‘n roll and Memphis’ claim as “The Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll.” Listen to the other top songs that month - they’re great songs, but this was upheaval, chaos at its best.
Putting Brenston on vocals proved fateful in two ways. When the record got to the Chess brothers, it was re-labeled to reflect Brenston as performer and writer. Turner had formed the band and written the song with sax player Raymond Hill. And so you know “Rocket “88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats and not Ike Turner and The Kings of Rhythm. Turner continued to lead The Kings of Rhythm, became a session musician for Phillips at Sun Records, and a scout for Modern Records. Brenston left the band a year later, as Turner did not let him sing the song that made him famous. Turner took the Kings upriver to St Louis, where he came out from behind the keyboard, began playing guitar, and found a young female singer from Brownsville Tennessee.
“you know it’s great, don’t be late; everybody likes my rocket ’88”