Thursday, September 1, 2011

September 1: Ike Turner, "Rocket 88"

Artist: Ike Turner
Song: "Rocket 88"
Album: Rocket 88 (single)
Year: 1951

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Though music history is filled with countless moments which shaped the sounds that followed, there are a small handful that were so significant that they mark points not only in music, but in the overall course of human history itself.  It is in these few instances where one can understand the complete impact that music has all across culture, as one can cite these moments as those which altered culture, pushing humanity into a brand new direction on all fronts.  If one gives such occurrences an honest look, there are less than five that have occurred over the past century, with one of them standing as perhaps the most controversial in all of music history.  It would be this recording which would not only be labeled as the "first" rock and roll song, but the results of the sales of the recording would also provide the financial foundation for what would become one of the most important labels in music history.  While country and jazz were still far beyond a term like "dominant" in the early 1950's, rhythm and blues music was finding ways to fuse together with these sounds and create shocking results.  Many of these "new" sounds were coming form the deep south, and it was a song that was largely pieced together during rehearsals that would forever change the world.  Though one cannot definitively name the "first" rock recording, it is rather difficult to argue against giving such a title to 1951's, "Rocket 88."

On a number of levels, "Rocket 88" stands as an unprecedented recording, and this goes all the way to actual credit that was given for the performance of the song.  On the original pressings of the single, it is attributed to "Jackie Breston And His Delta Cats," but the reality is that the song was written by Ike Turner and his band, The Kings Of Rhythm.  Breston was the vocalist and saxophone player with the band, and the band name listed on the single was created by Chess Records with little or no knowledge of this given to the band before the record was released.  Along with this element, "Rocket 88" is rightfully cited as the first recording that contained a distorted guitar track, as there is a fantastic fuzz and crunch to Willie Kizart's sound.  The question of how exactly this occurred is still somewhat up for debate, as the legend says the amplifier fell from the roof of a car, and newspaper was used to try and keep the sound cone in place, resulting in the fuzzy sound.  However, Ike Turner has stated that the amplifier did not fall from any height, and the sound was likely a result of rain damage from being stored in the trunk of a car.  Regardless of the actual reason as to how or why Kizart's amplifier was damaged, the sound that was captured on this take was nothing short of revolutionary, and one can easily use this fact alone as the reasoning behind labeling "Rocket 88" as the first and most important song in the history of rock music.

However, controversy and new sounds alone would not be enough to make a song so significant, and one cannot understate just how perfectly the band manage to balance the sounds of r&b with the exciting energy that would become rock and roll.  The loose, almost jazzy funk that Ike Turner brings to the piano piece on "Rocket 88" is absolutely phenomenal, and one can easily hear the influence this performance had on the next few decades of recorded music.  It is the way in which Turner spins the "jump blues" sound and an almost swing arrangement that is so exciting, and the rest of the band follows is lead perfectly.  His playing presents a fantastic compliment to Kizart's guitar progression, and in terms of both mood and tone, this remains one of the finest pairings in music history.  Yet it is the saxophone part, played by a teenage Raymond Hill, that steals much of the show on "Rocket 88," giving the track a superb growl and attitude.  All of the instruments come together in brilliant fashion, and the vocals lain over them from Jackie Breston complete an unparalleled musical achievement.  Breston mirrors the swing and attitude found within the musical arrangement, paying tribute to what was then the vehicle with the largest engine in production.  There is a somewhat mischievous swagger within Breston's vocals, and it is this reality that serves as the ideal finishing touch to the track, as well as enabling "Rocket 88" to attain a truly timeless sound and appeal.

Only a few months after the "original" release of "Rocket 88," Bill Haley and The Comets released their own take on the song, and while there was more of a wide-ranging swing to this version, the spirit and attitude of the original were made even more clear.  It is this sound and approach that "makes" "Rocket 88" the amazing track that it remains to this day, and it is impossible to cite any rock band that does not owe its existence to the work of Ike Turner and Kings Of Rhythm.  Furthermore, "Rocket 88" was recorded by none other than Sam Phillips, and the profits that he earned from the sales of the track were used to open Sun Studios.  Had this not occurred, countless keystone artists from the early rock era may have never secured recording contracts, and this is yet another way in which "Rocket 88" can be seen as the most pivotal song in all of music history.  Yet even with these realities in place, the song somehow manages to remain slightly overlooked, often falling behind or below songs that were recorded far later, but achieved more commercial success.  This is one of the largest injustices in the history of music, as "Rocket 88" stands as the track which provided the formula from which the entire rock genre was created.  Bringing together a stellar musical arrangement, along with a mood that pushed far beyond anything previously recorded, there is simply no other song that sounds similar or holds as significant a space in history as the iconic single, "Rocket 88."

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