Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston

When you dig into the "first rock and roll record" question, you run across some interesting things. From rockabilly.nl:

[I]n 1947, [Jackie Brenston] fell in with a local character named Jesse Flowers, who drank and played the saxophone. It was Flowers who aided Brenston in his quest to discover that instrument's most degraded possibilities. By the close of the decade Brenston, the proud owner of the shiniest secondhand saxophone in all of Coahoma County, had succeeded.

Entering at this point into the scheme of things was Isaiah Turner, an eighteen-year-old discjockey who had the shiniest suits in Clarksdale. He also had a band, in which he played piano and sometimes sang....

As 1950 became 1951, Ike Turner was ready to start making records. There was only one problem. His lead singer, Johnny O'Neal, had recently been signed by King Records, and he had run off, leaving the rest of the band to stand around picking lint from their suits on the corner of Fourth Street. Ike looked, and he found Jackie Brenston. He told him to buy a shiny suit and write some songs; they were going to be stars.

Not that Brenston really wrote a song. By the time they reached a pre-Sun Sam Phillips, Brenston had adapted the song "Cadillac Boogie" and come up with "Rocket 88." (At least he kept the song in the General Motors empire.)

While the song itself may or may not have been original, its performance surely was. The overcharged amplification of Willie Kizart's electric guitar, the careening glissandi and manic triplets issuing from Ike Turner's piano (it is not improbable that six years later, when he came upon Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips, whose Christian capitalist eyes had seen in Elvis a white boy who sang like a black, saw in Jerry Lee a white boy who played piano like the odd, intense colored fellow, Ike Turner, whom he had witnessed this cold March day), Raymond Hill's post-melodic saxophone shriekings, Willie Sims's trash-can drumming, and the raw, heartfelt degeneracy of Jackie Brenston's singing, shouting, and yelping - the whole of these parts was a sound so loudly and luridly shocking, so preposterous in its celebration of booze, broads, and repossessed cars, that it was difficult to perceive where its brilliance ended and its lunacy began.

So what happened?

Chess released two singles by the group in mid-April. The coupled sides that featured Turner's voice bore on their labels the credit Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm. This was how it should have been, and Ike was pleased. The other single, however, was credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. This, in the eyes of Ike Turner, known no more then than now for his magnanimity and humility, was not how it should have been, and he was displeased. His displeasure grew more pronounced as it became apparent that the single that bore Brenston's name, rather than the one that bore his own, was going to be a hit.

So what were the ramifications?

It stirred Sam Phillips's determination to found Sun, as he realized that the large profits from the recording he had produced could have been his rather than the Chess brothers'. And it caused Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston to part company after one more session (at which only one recording was made, "My Real Gone Rocket," the follow-up to "Rocket '88"), in the summer of 1951. As time went on, Turner stepped forward from piano to guitar, allowing there to be no mistaking who the leader of his band was.

And after Brenston's fifteen minutes were up, Ike Turner exacted his revenge.

[Brenston] was taken back into the fold by Ike Turner, who still had not managed to come up with a hit record. He remained with Turner until the early 1960s. Though he recorded with Turner's Kings of Rhythm throughout those years, Brenston's voice, which had once shaken the cool world, was heard on only two of the many singles that the band had out during that time. He was reduced to being Ike Turner's baritone sax-player. Turner allowed Brenston to sing a few songs when the band performed in public, but he forbade him to sing "Rocket '88."
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