“ … Ma Rainey is ‘Mother Of The Blues’… Bessie Smith is ‘Empress Of The Blues’…‘Big Joe Turner is ‘Boss Of The Blues’…”
- Atlantic Records press release
“Rocket 88” released on the Chess label and performed by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats is credited in a number of circles as the first Rock & Roll song. Written by Brenston and Ike Turner, (The Delta Cats were actually Ike Turner & His Kings Of Rhythm), the song hit # 1 R&B in 1951. A case can be made, however, for another R&B chart topping hit having that distinction – “Shake Rattle And Roll” released in 1954 by renowned Blues shouter Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records. The “Shake Rattle And Roll” claim fits perfectly with a quote by legendary Blues and R&B songsmith, (and former R&B singer), Doc Pomus when inducting Big Joe in The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame posthumously in 1987: “Rock & Roll couldn’t have happened without Big Joe Turner”. It wouldn’t be the first time that Big Joe Turner played an integral role in a sustaining musical trend.
Turner was born and raised in Kansas City Missouri and during his formative years Prohibition – a national constitutional ban in place from 1920 to 1933 banning the production, importation, and transportation of alcohol – was at its height. Kansas City in the 20’s and 30’s was a wide open town that, for all intents and purposes, ignored the Prohibition laws. Run by gangsters and aided by corrupt political boss T. J. Pendergast who controlled Kansas City at the time, the manufacture and sale of alcohol, as well as gambling and prostitution were viewed as harmless sidelines. Kansas City, meanwhile, was in its musical heyday, a hotbed of Blues and Jazz. The Kansas City Jazz sound was a distinctly raucous, and untamed outpouring topped with shouting Blues that could be heard in thriving clubs and speakeasies that operated 24 hours a day.
In further illustration of the situation at hand, in an interview, Big Joe Turner described a typical night at The Sunset where he and Boogie-Woogie piano player Pete Johnson had a residency:
“All the working people came early…and got high and had a ball. Then things would quiet down and finally there wouldn’t be nobody in there except the bartender, waiter, and the boss; and we’d start playing about 3 o’clock in the morning. People used to say that they could hear me hollerin’ five blocks away. It would still be the morning and the bossman would set up corn liquor and we’d rock. Just about that time we’d be started to have a good time, here come the high-hats, and we’d set the joint on fire then and really have a ball till 10 or 11 o’clock in the day. Sleep? Who wants to sleep with all the Blues jumpin’ around?”
And in the event of an infrequent raid by the police:
“The boss would have his bondsman down at the police station before we got there. We’d walk in, sign our names and walk right out. Then we would cabaret till morning”.
This was the backdrop of the times when Turner was forced to be resourceful early in life. His father passed away when Joe was quite young; leaving him as the only means of support for his mother and sister. It was the early 1920’s, and the enterprising Turner’s first job was leading a blind singer through the streets of Kansas City for 50¢. (Interested in singing himself, Turner started by singing along with an uncle who was a nightclub piano player and in church choirs before doing so on street corners for tips from passersby that were drawn to his natural deep booming voice).
At 14 years of age, Big Joe was already, in fact, big – standing 6’ 2”. Appearing older than his age, (aided at times by a pencilled mustache and his father’s hat), Turner quit school and found work in Kansas City bars. He was first hired as a cook whose job included hauling bootleg whiskey. Turner was soon promoted to the role of “The Singing Barman”. Specifically, between serving drinks to patrons, Turner shouted the Blues – unamplified – into the street to attract prospective customers. Big Joe Turner would soon become the greatest Blues shouter / singer in town; and rivalled only by Jimmy Rushing, “Mr. Five By Five”, who came to prominence with Count Basie’s band in 1935.
The next stage, and a major factor in Big Joe Turner’s career, occurred when he teamed up with Boogie-Woogie piano player Pete Johnson. The story goes that the two met in the early 30’s when Joe happened to stop in at one of the local haunts, The Backbiter Club, where Johnson and his band were playing. After some conversation, Turner convinced Johnson to let him sit in. The fact that there was no P.A. system – Johnson’s band performed strictly instrumentals – didn’t pose a problem because, as Turner had done many times in his bartending days, he could make himself heard without a mic over the din of a rowdy crowd. Also, material wasn’t a challenge either in that Turner – through his experience in numerous jam sessions, including those with big bands – had developed a talent for improvising on a large vocabulary of traditional Blues phrases and verses. Thus was formed a partnership that would play a key role in the establishment of the Boogie-Woogie era that came to prominence in the late 30’s and early 40’s and would serve as a staple of early Rock & Roll.
Once well-known, the duo’s regular gigs at The Sunset were a proving ground that would deliver a further significant breakthrough in Big Joe’s career. It was in 1938 at The Sunset that legendary talent scout John Hammond first discovered Turner and booked him for his “Spirituals To Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. Turner performed along with The Boogie-Woogie Boys: Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Meade Lux Lewis – a trio of Boogie-Woogie piano players. (It wasn’t Turner’s first attempt to break into the NYC scene; in 1936 Big Joe and Johnson appeared on a bill with Benny Goodman but were not well received. Turner’s take on that experience was “they weren’t ready for us”). Turner’s performance led to further opportunities with appearances at various New York clubs before landing a lengthy residency at Café Society.
Big Joe’s popularity wasn’t only confined to New York. After his initial recording with Pete Johnson, “Roll ’Em Pete”, earned him some notoriety, he and Johnson expanded their musical horizons nationally, eventually working their way to the West Coast. (Well established there, Big Joe called Hollywood home for a time, and he and Johnson briefly owned a bar in L.A., The Blue Moon Club).
“Roll ‘Em Pete” continued to be one of Big Joe’s best known songs that he would record several times through the course of his career with various combinations of musicians. It was the first of a number of sides recorded on the Vocalion label, including another popular single “Cherry Red”. Like “Cherry Red”, “Roll ‘Em Pete” is basically a collection of traditional Blues lyrics that Joe used to maximum effect:
“Well I got a gal, she lives up on the hill (2X)
Well this woman’s tryin’ to quit me
Lord but I love her still
She’s got eyes like diamonds, they shine like Klondike gold (2X)
Every time she loves me
She sends my mellow soul”
“Roll ‘Em Pete” not only ignited a Boogie-Woogie craze, but it also showed Big Joe’s Blues to be an exuberant display of fun and sheer delight: “Roll ‘em boy, we all jump for joy”. For those who hadn’t experienced Big Joe in live performance, the song was an introduction to a sense of freedom apparent in Turner’s Blues that helped usher in a new world for urban Blacks, and stood in stark contrast to the images and spirit of Country Blues. And, (primarily independent), record companies were quick to realize the market potential and the readily expanding market needs. Indeed Turner, with his physical vocals, (and supported by Johnson’s percussive piano), helped cultivate a thriving independent record industry while developing a genre of Blues shouting that became a major force of WWII R&B.
In addition to Vocalion, in the late 40’s Turner would record for a number of the newly founded West Coast indies including Alladin, Imperial, RPM, Varsity, Okeh, and Decca. Unfortunately, there were no hits as Turner saw a decline in popularity for artists performing and recording in a similar Blues / R&B/ Jazz style. Consequently, as the 40’s drew to a close, Turner retreated to Kansas City as a base while he contemplated future opportunities. Unbeknownst to Big Joe, he would soon embark on the most successful period of his career.
Turner, who never stopped working and touring, was appearing at The Apollo Theatre in 1951 when he was visited after his show by Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun of Atlantic Records. (The Ertegun brothers were big fans having first seen Turner at Café Society in 1938 as well as hiring Turner when they organized the first Jazz concert in Washington D.C. in 1942). Certain that it would be a successful venture, they convinced him to sign with Atlantic. Their instincts served them well as Turner’s 20 single releases repeatedly hit the charts. In addition, they benefitted from several critically acclaimed albums that were released from 1951 through to the end of the decade. Although the songs cut on Turner were R&B based they competed in the burgeoning Rock & Roll arena as playlists of the day featured prospective hits regardless of genre. As such, Big Joe Turner was one of the few of the Boogie-Woogie era to successfully cross over into Rock & Roll; (even though Turner was 40 years old when he signed with Atlantic – old by Rock & Roll standards).
The hits started immediately with the Ahmet Ertegun penned “Chains Of Love” a million seller in 1951. Other million sellers included “Honey Hush”, “Flip Flop And Fly”, and “Corrine, Corrina”. And, of course, no discussion of Big Joe’s Atlantic years would be complete without mentioning the R&B chart topper “Shake Rattle And Roll” that was arguably deprived of million selling status because of a lack of airplay due to perceived risqué lyrics. (Record buyers instead bought Bill Haley And The Comets‘ sanitized version that included a simplified beat and “cleaned up” lyrics. However, it bears mentioning that the most well known song of Turner’s resurgent career received significant play on juke boxes in an era that saw approximately half of the records produced destined for jukeboxes.)
Of the various albums released on the Atlantic, two deserve special mention. The first, was originally released in 1956 as Joe Turner Sings Kansas City Jazz: The Boss Of The Blues, and reissued in 1976 as The Boss Of The Blues. The album reunites Turner with Pete Johnson on piano and features remakes of their Vocalion hits “Roll ‘Em Pete”, “Cherry Red”, and “Wee Wee Baby”. The second notable album is the big band dominated Big Joe Rides Again, (also featuring Johnson), that was originally released in 1959 and reissued under the same title in 1988. “Rides Again” contains the stellar recordings “Switchin’ In The Kitchen”, “Nobody In Mind”, “Rebecca” (a partner to “Roll ‘Em Pete” / “Cherry Red”), and “Don’t You Make Me High” (AKA “Don’t You Feel My Leg”).
The success, however, would soon run its course. The early 60’s saw Atlantic change their approach when recording Turner by softening the sound with vocal choirs and symphonic stings. This tactic was foreign to Turner’s straight ahead no frills attack; and, as a result, Big Joe grew disenchanted and left the label. Although he would continue to record, (on obscure labels), Turner, now a full time West Coast resident, spent his time mostly playing clubs in L.A. – primarily with small Jazz and Blues combos – and making movie appearances.
In the 70’s Turner was reintroduced to the National audience with recordings on the Bluesway and Pablo labels. Of note in this era is the Pablo release The Best Of Joe Turner. Somewhat less powerful but still employing his boisterous style in his late 60’s, Big Joe is backed by Jazz heavyweights including Roy Eldridge, Milt Jackson, Blue Mitchell, Sonny Stitt, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Turner continued recording into the 80’s, and was in constant demand by major Jazz and Folk festivals in North America and Europe. His last release, Blues Train, backed by the collective Roomful Of Blues and produced by Doc Pomus, earned Turner a Grammy Award in 1983. The honour is added to other acknowledgments received including:
- 1945 Esquire Magazine “Best Male Singer”
- 1956 Downbeat “Top Male Singer”
- 1965 Melody Maker “Top Male Singer”
- 1965 Jazz Journal “Best Blues Record”
- 1987 Induction into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame
Doc Pomus, upon hearing Big Joe Turner’s powerful, unmannered vocals for the first time, was quoted as saying “that this is how a man should sound”. Adding substance to that statement, Big Joe Turner’s voice reflected his personality – direct and forthright. Big Joe Turner’s powerful baritone was silenced on November 24, 1985 at the age of 74.
BIG JOE TURNER PLAYLIST
- Piney Brown Blues
- Still In Love
- Chains Of Love
- Careless Love
- I Want A Little Girl
- Wee Wee Baby
- Roll ‘Em Pete
- Cherry Red
- Honey Hush
- Lipstick Powder And Paint
- TV Mama
- Corrine Corrina
- Midnight Special
- Switchin’ In The Kitchen
- Nobody In Mind
- Don’t You Make Me High
- Bump Miss Susie
- Love Roller Coaster
- Flip Flop And Fly
- Shake Rattle And Roll
- Rico Ferrara February, 2022