True music fans take songwriting credits pretty seriously. The songwriter is where history begins. Good songwriting is a craft and a talent. Aficionados cringe when they here somebody say Elvis Presley wrote “Blue Suede Shoes.” When it comes to history making songs, it’s important that credit goes where credit is due.
So when I read an L.A. Times article that said Ike Turner wrote “Rocket 88,” I had to tell the Times how wrong they were.
My exchange with Assistant Reader Representative Barry Zwick has been an interesting excursion into just how difficult pinning down historical facts in music can be.
“Rocket 88” was recorded as Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn. in May 1951. It was first hit record recorded at Sun and helped Sam Phillips become an important record producer, making Sun an important destination for up and coming recording artists. Many music historians consider “Rocket 88” the first rock and roll record in history, so the question of who wrote “Rocket 88” is no trivial matter.
I wrote a huffy note to the Times, feeling more than certain that Brenston was the songwriter.
Not so fast, Zwick replied. Not all historical accounts agree that Brenston was the actual writer. There is at least one account that says Turner wrote the song and that Brenston was falsely credited as author by Chess simply because he was listed as the singer.
Feeling some what chastised at my eagerness to show the Times up, I acknowledged in my reply that the person listed as the legal songwriter on old songs is not always the actual songwriter. For example, I read many times that Moon Mulligan wrote “Jambalaya,” not Hank Williams. In fact, Williams was chagrined that Acuff-Rose bought the songwriting credits from Mulligan and throughout his life, Williams aided Mulligan financially to make up for it.
So it isn’t hard to believe that Ike Turner wrote “Rocket 88” and through music business machinations, was screwed out of the songwriting credit.
But the story that Chess accidentally gave Brenston the credit also has a ring of Turner exaggeration to it. If Brenston’s band was really Turner’s band, as Turner likes to tell the story these days, then why wasn’t Turner singing his own song? By Turner’s accounts, Brenston was not normally the lead singer of his band, or a long-time or regular member. When I toured Sun Studio a few years ago, the tour guide’s account was that Turner was little more than a session player.
My point is, Turner is not the most reliable source on this particular point. He does like to play up his importance to the development of rock and roll.
So who wrote the song? Well, ASCAP says that Brenston wrote it.
After bringing the ASCAP link to the attention of Zwick, his first response was that given the ambiguity over the songwriting credit, he didn’t think a correction was warranted. In a follow up e-mail, he said he had reconsidered and was instead bumping the issue over to the author of the article in question and the section editors. It would be there call whether to run a correction.
Given the fact there is some dispute over the songwriting credit, I would agree that a correction is probably not in order. But a clarification would certainly be good idea. The undisputed claim that Ike Turner wrote “Rocket 88” should be allowed to just hang out there unchallenged. I would further suggest that if the Times wants to pursue maximum accuracy, they would get Sam Phillips on the phone and see if he remembers who wrote “Rocket 88.” Phillips might be the best source for an unbiased account of how this song came to be. That is, if Phillips even knows, since the song was probably completed before Brenston and Turner arrived at Sun.
For more on Sun Studio, and the music born there, I recommend: