Rock and Roll

It’s a song that few of us have ever heard, but it ushered in a change in American society. Rocket 88 is considered by many to be the first rock and roll song. It was released in 1951. It’s a song of praise to the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 vehicle.

What is it about this song that makes it a trailblazer? It wasn’t that original. In 1947 a similar blues song called Cadillac Boogie was released. It was a collaboration of Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner. Brenston was the lead singer and is given credit as the songwriter. Turner was the band leader and given credit as the composer.

What made the song distinctive was summarized in a Time magazine review.

Rocket 88 was brash and it was sexy; it took elements of the blues, hammered them with rhythm and attitude and electric guitar, and reimagined black music into something new. If the blues seemed to give voice to old wisdom, this new music was about letting the good times roll. If the blues was about earthly troubles, the rock that Turner’s crew created seemed to shout that the sky was now the limit.

Some say this new sound came about by accident. As the musicians were going to the studio, their car had a flat tire. As they removed the jack from the trunk they damaged the amplifier they used. When they stuffed paper into the amplifier to hold the parts together, they distorted the sound coming from the instruments. The new sound gave Rocket 88 a distinctive quality.

While Rocket 88 was considered a rhythm and blues song upon its release, it influenced performers who we think of today as rock and roll singers. Up to that time, music, like much of American society, was divided by race. Rocket 88 and the rock and roll songs that followed began to blur the lines of how music was associated with one’s race.

As rock and roll changed the American music scene, so too did it change American society. As America was reawakening after the depression and World War II, it was ready for a new sound.

When we think of beginnings, we often find that those in an element of fate are involved: a broken amplifier in this case. But there is also an element of fate in how such a little-noticed beginning could have such a major impact on society.

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“When I was a little boy, that song fascinated me in a big way. I never heard a piano like that. I never played the piano then. Soon, I was trying. If you listen to ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly,’ you hear the same introduction as the one to ‘Rocket 88,’ the exact same, ain’t nothing been changed.” – Little Richard

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