- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

CLARKSDALE, Miss. (AP) - There are thousands of people buried around Clarksdale and more than a few are famous. Only one of them is credited with helping invent rock ‘n’ roll.

That would be Jack “Jackie” Brenston. Brenston isn’t a household name anymore, but on June 9, 1951, the record “Rocket 88” hit No 1 on the R&B; charts and it stayed on top for five weeks, becoming the second most popular R&B; record for the year.

The history of rock is generally divided into two periods, before “Rocket 88,” and after.

And the name on the label is “Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats.”

The 2:48minutelong song was in fact recorded by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, and they recorded it at Sun Records, in Memphis under that name. But Brenston wrote the song, and he sang on it and played saxophone on it, so Chess, the company that released the record, went ahead and promoted him to bandleader, too.

Turner, of course, would go on go on to find worldwide stardom, but Brenston never did. By the time he died of a heart attack in Memphis at the age of 51 in 1979, he hadn’t recorded anything in over a decade. He’d become a truck driver. And when he was buried, he had only a cheap brass marker to note his remains.

Until last winter, even that was gone.

Local historian Robert Birdsong wanted to try and find out. Birdsong, along with Myrtle Messenger, worked together to figure out that Brenston must have been buried in the Honor Hill area of the Heavenly Rest cemetery. Brenston was born in Clarksdale in 1928, served in World War II, and Honor Hill was the usual burial spot for veterans at Heavenly Rest, a traditionally African American cemetery.

However, some time ago, someone did some dirt work at the cemetery and leveled the ground, but didn’t move the markers. Numerous veterans effectively disappeared.

“Myrtle Messenger and I, over the years, had looked through records for Jackie Brenston,” said Birdsong. “I had heard years ago that the marker had been covered up by some surfacing work, but we never knew where to look.”

Birdsong has for years searched out the burial spots of local blues musicians. His first was the grave of “Big” John Wrencher, a onearmed harmonica player who died of a heart attack in 1977 in Clarksdale.

Birdsong’s been tracking down the forgotten graves of bluesmen ever since. By their very nature, unmarked graves are hard to find, and finding Brenston’s grave was no different.

Birdsong and Messenger, who died in March, went through burial records, but could find no paper trail. So, last winter, Birdsong went out with a metal rod and began poking into the soil, looking for the marker.

“I found Honor Hill and I started going from front to back,” said Birdsong.

Birdsong said he found several markers buried underground, and for each one, he left a small surveyor’s flag, intending to return and dig the markers up. When a groundskeeper removed the flags, and most of Birdsong’s work was lost, he began looking again. This time, he soon found a marker that was buried only an inch or beneath the dirt.

“I said, ‘I can clay this out,’” Birdsong said.

And so he did.

And that’s how he discovered Brenston’s marker.

Birdsong realized he couldn’t just uncover the marker and leave it on the ground.

“It was pitted pretty bad and it was starting to turn green from being underground,” Birdsong said. “I said something to (funeral director) Scotty (Meredith) about it, and he said, ‘Bring me the marker and we’ll get it on a granite base,’ because I hated to see it like that, because anyone could have picked it up.

A child could have walked off with it.”

Birdsong handed over the brass plaque and Meredith mounted that on a granite base. Birdsong got the marker back this past week. It weighs 190 pounds.

Birdsong and a group of blues tourists and local businessman James Butler drove the plaque out to Heavenly Rest and set the marker in its place.

Birdsong said he’s satisfied.

“He was on my bucket list,” Birdsong said.


Information from: The Clarksdale Press Register.

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