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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 1/19/24 – Rocket 88 & the Roots of Rock and Roll

Rock and Roll has a rich history. It starts with Jackie Brenston, a singer and a saxophone played born in Clarksdale Mississippi. He released a song about an Oldsmobile 88 in March of 1951 that changed the world. It was titled Rocket 88. You probably have never even heard of the song, I had not until recently. It is widely considered the very first rock and roll song ever recorded. You can listen to the original here with Ike Turner and his band. It was credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, but the song was actually recorded with Jackie singing vocals with Ike Turner’s band. It rose to number one on the R&B charts. The recognition of its place in music history has been slow in coming which is probably why I had never heard about it. The song was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991, the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. Brenston never had another hit record. He quit music, became a truck driver, developed alcoholism, and died far too young from a heart attack at a VA Hospital in 1979.


Rock and Roll music was born out of the African American community. It was influenced by jazz, rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, electric blues, gospel, jump blues, and even country music. The very term Rock and Roll was around for a lot longer than that, it rose out of spiritual music right after the civil war. The phrase rock my soul shows up in a song titled “Bosom of Abraham,” that in the 1920s was recorded by various musicians in several different genres, including Louis Armstrong. In 1951, Cleveland, Ohio, disc jockey Alan Freed began playing this music of style, and began referring to it as "rock and roll" on his mainstream radio program, which popularized the phrase. We associate it often with musicians like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley. Arguably no band had as much influence over the style of the music as it moved into the 1960s than The Beatles, but we do not celebrate its roots as we should.


Yet the early history of this music is largely forgotten. Recently, I stumbled onto a fascinating documentary of the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi where Brenston was born. It was originally called the G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital during segregation. It later became a hotel and was listed in what was called the Green Book. The Green book was published during the era of Jim Crow and listed hotels that were safe for black Americans to stay in when they traveled. It was published until 1966 when segregation ended in the civil rights era. I found this piece, The Riverside Hotel: The real birthplace of rock 'n' roll. It was the only place in Mississippi where black musicians travelling between New Orleans and Memphis could safely stay. The original owner’s son, Frank "Rat" Ratliff took over the Hotel in 1997 was a child and spoke about witnessing the birth of Rock and Roll: 


"Down there. That's where Ike Turner wrote Rocket 88. That's right. Rocket 88, the first rock 'n' roll song. Rat had been there the day Turner turned up with a broken amp. It had fallen off the back of his jalopy and cracked the speaker, but the fuzzy sound it made would go on to inspire a whole new genre of music. Forget Sun Studios, Elvis' pelvis, John Lennon's white piano and Jerry Lee Lewis's prison-striped shirt, every song you've ever loved came straight out of room #7 at the Riverside Hotel.”


The Hotel fell into disrepair and was nearly raised. There is a nonprofit organization to restore it. More of its rich history can be found on their website. Ratcliff preserved the hotel after his mother died in 2013. I guess it should be no surprise that these roots have been nearly lost. I am grateful that there are efforts to preserve and uphold these important facets of American music history. I love music and was raised on Rock and Roll. It is wrong that the credit for its origins has not been credited to the people and places where it was born.


In writing this post, I also reflected on the late great Otis Redding. One of the great ones of that era. I distinctly recall my first introduction to the music of Otis Redding. It was a four record set my parents had because a gas station was giving it out in the early 70s, Superstars of the 70s. (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay was in the collection. Neither of my parents liked Rock music. We only had the album set because it was free. Released in 1973, it was my first introduction to so many musicians, including Otis Reading. I liked the song, so at 10 I looked it up and learned that he recorded it days before his tragic death in a plane crash in Madison WI in 1967. We lost a musician legend who would have had an even greater influence on our music had he lived. 


I do not recall hearing much of Otis’s music until one of my favorite musicians Jason Isbell who grew up in famed Muscle Shoals Alabama released this amazing cover of I've Been Loving You Too Long. Soon after that, I found some of Otis’s gems, including These Arms of Mine that he recorded in 1964. This is a weekly gratitude post, and I am grateful to the rock and roll music pioneers and those who worked to preserve the history of our music heritage. Music heals.


What are you grateful for today?

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