In 1991, after a great deal of debate, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized this as the first rock and roll song ever recorded. Turner was in jail at the time for cocaine possession, so his daughter accepted the award.
The song is about a car. The Oldsmobile "Rocket 88" came out in 1949 and was the fastest car on the road at the time. A small car with a big, overhead valve V8 engine, it was one of the first muscle cars and dominated NASCAR races in the '50s. The car was advertised as having a V-8 "Rocket" engine, with the slogan, "Make a Date with a Rocket 88."
This song was produced by Sam Phillips, who formed Sun Records in 1952. Phillips later became famous for recording Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Jackie Brenston, who was a member of Ike Turner's Rhythm Kings, sang lead. The single was credited to "Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats" because Phillips wanted to release a different record credited to Turner.
This was a #1 R&B hit. There were no rock charts at the time.
This song came about when Turner and his band were playing black clubs in the American South and B.B. King set up a recording session for them in Memphis with Sam Phillips. They wrote most of "Rocket 88" on the way to the session. On the drive to the session, the band's amplifier fell out of the car and broke the woofer. Turner shoved paper in it at the studio to cover the problem, which ended up providing a more distinct sound. The sounds that came from the damaged amp resulted in this being cited as one of the first songs to feature guitar distortion.
Brenston was credited with writing this song, although he admitted he stole the idea from a 1947 song called "Cadillac Boogie."
General Motors gave Brenston a Rocket 88 to thank him for the publicity this generated for the car.
Ike Turner played piano on this song. It was a huge influence on Little Richard, who used the piano intro on his 1958 hit, "Good Golly Miss Molly."
Brenston did not handle success well. He quickly spent the money he made from this song, became an alcoholic, went broke, and died in 1979.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine (issue 93) in 1971, Ike Turner recalled how despite this being a local hit, he made little from it: "Some dude at the record company beat me, and I only got $40 for writing, producing, and recording it. And the lead singer (Jackie Brenston) took the band from me and went on his own."
There were other songs recorded before this that could be considered rock and roll, but this was unique in that it appealed to a white audience.