Artist

Big Joe Turner

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Biography

Big Joe Turner (born Joseph Vernon Turner Jr., May 18, 1911 – November 24, 1985) was an American blues shouter from Kansas City, Missouri, United States. According to the songwriter Doc Pomus, "Rock and roll would have never happened without him." While he had his greatest fame during the 1950s with his rock and roll recordings, particularly "Shake, Rattle and Roll", Turner's career as a performer endured from the 1920s into the 1980s. Turner was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, with the Hall lauding him as "the brawny voiced 'Boss of the Blues'".

Known variously as The Boss of the Blues, and Big Joe Turner (due to his 6'2", 300+ lbs stature), Turner was born in Kansas City. His father was killed in a train accident when Joe was only four years old. He first discovered a love of music in his involvement at church. He began singing on street corners for money, quitting school at age fourteen to work in Kansas City's nightclubs, first as a cook, and later as a singing bartender. He became known eventually as The Singing Barman, and worked in such venues as The Kingfish Club and The Sunset, where he and his piano playing partner Pete Johnson became resident performers. The Sunset was managed by Piney Brown. It featured "separate but equal" facilities for caucasian patrons. Turner wrote "Piney Brown Blues" in his honor and sang it throughout his entire career.

At that time Kansas City nightclubs were subject to frequent raids by the police, but as Turner recounts, "The Boss man would have his bondsmen down at the police station before we got there. We'd walk in, sign our names and walk right out. Then we would cabaret until morning".

His partnership with boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson proved fruitful. Together they went to New York City in 1936, where they appeared on a playbill with Benny Goodman, but as Turner recounts, "After our show with Goodman, we auditioned at several places, but New York wasn't ready for us yet, so we headed back to K.C.". Eventually they were witnessed by the talent scout, John H. Hammond in 1938, who invited them back to New York to appear in one of his "From Spirituals to Swing" concerts at Carnegie Hall, which were instrumental in introducing jazz and blues to a wider American audience.

Due in part to their appearance at Carnegie Hall, Turner and Johnson had a major success with the song "Roll 'Em Pete". The track, basically a collection of traditional blues lyrics featured one of the earliest recorded examples of a back beat. It was a song that Turner recorded many times, with various combinations of musicians, over the ensuing years.

In 1939, along with boogie players Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, they began a residency at Café Society, a nightclub in New York City, where they appeared on the same playbill as Billie Holiday and Frank Newton's band. Besides "Roll 'Em, Pete", Turner's best-known recordings from this period are probably "Cherry Red", "I Want A Little Girl" and "Wee Baby Blues". "Cherry Red" was recorded in 1939 for the Vocalion label, with Hot Lips Page on trumpet and a full band in attendance. The next year Turner contracted with Decca and recorded "Piney Brown Blues", with Johnson on piano.

In 1941, he went to Los Angeles and performed in Duke Ellington's revue Jump for Joy in Hollywood. He appeared as a singing policeman in a comedy sketch called "He's on the Beat". Los Angeles was his home for a time, and during 1944 he worked in Meade Lux Lewis's Soundies musical movies. Although he sang on the soundtrack recordings, he was not present for filming, and his vocals were mouthed by comedian Dudley Dickerson for the camera. In 1945 Turner and Pete Johnson established their bar in Los Angeles, The Blue Moon Club.

That same year he contracted with National Records company, and recorded under Herb Abramson's supervision. His first hit single was a cover of Saunders King's "S.K. Blues" (1945). He recorded the songs "My Gal's A Jockey" and the risqué "Around The Clock" the same year, and the Aladdin company released "Battle of the Blues", a duet with Wynonie Harris. Turner stayed with National until 1947, but none of his recordings were great sellers. In 1950, he released the song "Still in the Dark" on Freedom Records.

Turner made many albums with Johnson, Art Tatum, Sammy Price, and other jazz groups. He recorded with several recording companies and also performed with the Count Basie Orchestra. During his career, Turner was part of the transition from big bands to jump blues to rhythm and blues, and finally to rock and roll. Turner was a master of traditional blues verses and at Kansas City jam sessions he could swap choruses with instrumental soloists for hours.

In 1951, while performing with the Count Basie Orchestra at Harlem's Apollo Theater as a replacement for Jimmy Rushing, he was spotted by Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, who contracted him to their new recording company, Atlantic Records. Turner recorded a number of successes for them, including the blues standards, "Chains of Love" and "Sweet Sixteen". Many of his vocals are punctuated with shouts to the band members, as for the songs "Boogie Woogie Country Girl" ("That's a good rockin' band!", "Go ahead, man! Ow! That's just what I need!" ) and "Honey Hush" (he repeatedly sings "Hi-yo, Silver!", probably in reference to The Treniers singing the phrase for their Lone Ranger parody "Ride, Red, Ride"). Turner's records scored at the top of the rhythm-and-blues charts; although they were sometimes so risqué that some radio stations would not play them, the songs received much play on jukeboxes and records.

Turner had a great success during 1954 with "Shake, Rattle and Roll", which seriously enhanced his career, turning him into a teenage favorite, and also helped to transform popular music. During the song, Turner yells at his woman to "get outa that bed, wash yo' face an' hands" and comments that she's "wearin' those dresses, the sun comes shinin' through!, I can't believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you." He sang the number on film for the 1955 theatrical feature Rhythm and Blues Revue.

Although the cover version of the song by Bill Haley & His Comets, with the risqué lyrics partially omitted, was a greater sales success, many listeners sought out Turner's version and were introduced thereby to rhythm and blues. Elvis Presley's version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" combined Turner's lyrics with Haley's arrangement, but was not a successful single.

"The Chicken and the Hawk", "Flip, Flop and Fly", "Hide and Seek," "Morning, Noon and Night," and "Well All Right" were successful recordings from this period. He performed on the television program Showtime at the Apollo and in the movie Shake Rattle & Rock! (1956).

The song "Corrine, Corrina" was another great seller during 1956. In addition to the rock music songs, he released Boss of the Blues album in 1956. "(I’m Gonna) Jump for Joy", his last hit, reached the US R&B record chart on May 26, 1958.

After a number of successes in this vein, Turner quit popular music and resumed singing with small jazz combos, recording numerous albums in that style during the 1960s and 1970s. During 1966, Bill Haley helped revive Turner's career by lending the Comets for a series of popular recordings in Mexico. In 1977 he recorded a cover version of Guitar Slim's song, "The Things That I Used to Do".

During the 1960s and 1970s he resumed performing jazz and blues music, performing at many music festivals and recording for Norman Granz's company Pablo Records. He also worked with Axel Zwingenberger. Turner also participated in a 'Battle of the Blues' with Wynonie Harris and T-Bone Walker.

During 1965 he toured in England with trumpeter Buck Clayton and trombonist Vic Dickenson, accompanied by Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band. Part of a studio concert was televised by the BBC and later issued on DVD. A sound recording of a club appearance made during this tour is not thought of sufficient sound quality to justify commercial issue. He also toured Europe with Count Basie and his Orchestra.

He won the Esquire magazine award for male vocalist in 1945, the Melody Maker award for best 'new' vocalist during 1956, and the British Jazz Journal award as top male singer during 1965. In 1977, Turner recorded "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" for Spivey Records, featuring Lloyd Glenn on piano. Turner's career endured from the bar rooms of Kansas City in the 1920s (when at the age of twelve he performed with a pencilled moustache and his father's hat), to European jazz music festivals of the 1980s.

In 1983, only two years before his death, Turner was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. That same year, the album Blues Train was released by Mute Records company; the album had Turner paired with the team Roomful of Blues. Turner received top billing with Count Basie in the Kansas City jazz reunion movie The Last of the Blue Devils (1979) featuring Jay McShann, Jimmy Forrest, and other players from the city.

He died in Inglewood, California in November 1985, at the age of 74 of heart failure, having suffered the earlier effects of arthritis, a stroke and diabetes. Big Joe Turner was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He is buried at Roosevelt Memorial Park in Gardena, California.

The New York Times music critic Robert Palmer said: "...his voice, pushing like a Count Basie solo, rich and grainy as a section of saxophones, which dominated the room with the sheer sumptuousness of its sound."

In announcing Turner's death in their December 1985 edition, the British music magazine, NME, described Turner as "the grandfather of rock and roll."

Bob Dylan referenced Turner in the song "High Water (For Charley Patton)", from his 2001 album Love and Theft. Songwriter Dave Alvin wrote a song about an evening he spent with Turner titled "Boss Of The Blues". It was on his 2009 release, Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women. Alvin discussed the song in Issue 59 of The Blasters Newsletter.

The biographical film The Buddy Holly Story refers to Turner as well as contemporaries Little Richard and Fats Domino as major influences on Buddy Holly, with Holly collecting their vinyls.

Tracks marked as * were million selling discs.

Timeline