Jackie Brenston & Ike Turner, Delta Rhythm Kings

Jackie Brenston was born on August 15, 1930, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the delta town where Highway 49 meets Highway 61. Since early in the century Clarksdale had been one of the most musically fertile places in the South. It was where Son House, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson worked their wicked magic in juke joints at the outskirts of town. (And where, according to House, Johnson literally sold his soul to the Devil one night, standing at the crossroad.) It was where Muddy Waters, who had grown up listening to and learning from those men, made some of his first recordings. It was where John Lee Hooker and Eddie Boyd were born.

Falsifying the date of his birth, Brenston enlisted in the Army in 1944. Returning to civilian life, and to Clarksdale (indeed, who, though he may travel the wide world over, can resist the allure of Fourth Street?), in 1947, he 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. He had seen Muddy Waters get out of Coahoma County and go on to make records - one of which, "Louisiana Blues," was now becoming a hit - for Chess. He saw no reason why he, a far sharper dresser than that former cottonpicker, should not do the same. 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.

Ike Turner and his Kings Of Rhythm

They traveled north on Highway 61 to Memphis in the last, chilly days of February 1951. There were five of them: Ike Turner, guitarist Willie Kizart, tenor saxophone player Raymond Hill, drummer Willie Sims, and the new guy, Jackie Brenston.

Twenty-eight-year-old Sam Phillips had not yet begun his Sun Records Company; another year would pass before the first Sun record would be made. But he had been operating a recording studio, making and leasing recordings, for almost a year. It was to that studio, at 706 Union Avenue, that Ike Turner and his band went; and it was there, on March 3, that "Rocket '88"' was made.

It was Jackie Brenston's song, but he had derived it from a song in the band's repertoire - "Cadillac Boogie," which Jimmy Liggins had cut for Specialty in 1947. Instead of the Cadillac, Brenston used the new Oldsmobile Rocket Hydra-Matic "88" as his symbol of the do-rag godhead. Far from hiding this unoriginality, Brenston openly admitted it. Many years later, he told Jim O'Neil of Living Blues magazine that "if you listen to the two songs, you'll find out they're both basically the same. The words are just changed."

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.

The band made four more recordings that day, with Ike Turner singing on two of them while Brenston stood back on second tenor sax. Sam Phillips wasted no time. He sold the recordings to Chess Records in Chicago, and 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.

"Rocket '88" entered the R&B charts at the end of April. It rose to Number 1, and in the end emerged as one of the bestselling R&B records of 1951. The success of "Rocket '88" had farreaching effects. It heralded a new and wilder wave of rock 'n' roll. 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.

"My Real Gone Rocket" was released by Chess at the end of June. For whatever reasons - perhaps it was too much like its antecedent - it failed to sell. Brenston's next single, "Independent Woman," the remaining recording from the first session, was put out in July. (The flip side of this record, "Juiced," was also credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats; but there are reasons to believe that it was actually by Billie Love, another R&B singer whose work Phillips leased to Chess.) Though it was quite different from the failed follow-up to "Rocket '88," the slower, more lyrically subtle "Independent Woman" faded into oblivion with like celerity.

"Hi Ho Baby," Brenston's duet with Edna McCraney, was released by Chess in January 1952. "Starvation," a last Chess single, came in 1953. Then, little more than a year after it had begun, it was over. "I was a greenhorn," Brenston later reflected, "I had a hit record and no sense."

He took a job playing saxophone with Lowell Fulson's band in 1953, and he stayed with Fulson, on and off, through 1955. Then, humbled and weary, he 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."

One of Brenston's most spirited couplets in "Rocket '88" had been near the song's closing: "Goin' round the corner and get a fifth," he had sung; "Everybody in my car's gonna take a little nip." He no longer had the car, so to speak, but he was still going round the corner for fifths. Singer Jimmy Thomas, who joined Turner's band in 1958, said in a 1980 interview for Blues Unlimited of London that he remembered Brenston and tenor sax-player Raymond Hill being more or less drunk throughout the late fifties, even though Turner fined them for drinking. "They was drinking that really bad shit, boy," Thomas recalled. "That stuff they used to drink you probably wouldn't allow it in your house. Not even to wash the floor. I'm telling you, man, it's really amazing... them cats, they could put away some alcohol, man."

In the summer of 1960 Ike Turner, with the help of Tina Turner, finally got his hit record, "A Fool in Love," the first of several for the Sue label. In New York that same summer Brenston cut a single of his own for Sue, "Trouble Up the Road" and "You Ain't the One," which was released during the Christmas season.

Brenston and Turner parted again, for the last time, in 1962, when Turner finished with Sue Records. Brenston got a job working in a band with a guy named Sid Wallace. "The only thing he was basically concerned about then," Wallace recalled of Brenston, "was a bottle of wine. And he'd play all night if he got that wine, and didn't worry about whether we made anything. But he pulled himself back up."

Before pulling himself back up, Jackie Brenston made one more record, "Want You to Rock Me" and "Down in My Heart." He cut it in Chicago with Earl Hooker's band, and it was put out on Mel London's Mel-Lon label in 1963. That was it. He returned to Clarksdale, to fabled Fourth Street. He wrung out his brain and sized up what was left. Years passed. The saxophone was no longer shiny. People in the street looked at him sideways, for he dressed in a manner that might best be described as futuristic and his behavior was erratic at times. They did not know, these people, what can happen to a man when his dreams of riding in style are repossessed; they did not know. He took a drink, he took another. The warm days ended, the cold days came. He awoke in a room at the Kennedy V.A. Hospital in Memphis. The Army, at least, had been good for something. He died there, on December 15, 1979. Just a ride there and a walk back. That fame shit sure drove a hard bargain.

Source: Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll by Nick Tosches
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