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Big Joe Turner — The Boss of the Blues — was born 112 years ago today
Big Joe Turner was born 112 years ago today.
From Kansas City and known as “The Boss of the Blues,” Turner was a "blues shouter,“ a blues singer capable of singing unamplified with a band. According to the songwriter, Doc Pomus, "Rock and roll would have never happened without him."
Although 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.
Big Joe Turner (due to his 6-foot, 2-inch, 300-plus pound stature) began singing on street corners for money, quitting school at age fourteen to begin working in Kansas City's nightclubs. He began as a cook and later became a singing bartender.
Turner 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 Johnson proved fruitful. Together they went to New York City during 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. In the ensuing years, “Roll ‘Em Pete” was a song which Turner recorded many times, with various combinations of musicians.
During 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 "Cherry Red," "I Want A Little Girl" and "Wee Baby Blues." "Cherry Red" was recorded during 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 accompaniment.
Not all of Turner's Decca recordings teamed him with Johnson — Willie "The Lion" Smith accompanied him on "Careless Love," while Freddie Slack's Trio provided the backing for "Rocks in My Bed" (1941).
During 1941, he went to Los Angeles where he performed in Duke Ellington's revue, Jump for Joy, in Hollywood. He appeared as a singing policeman in a comedy sketch, "He's On The Beat." Los Angeles became 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 the filming, and his vocals were mouthed by comedian Dudley Dickerson for the camera.
During 1945, Turner and Johnson established their own bar in Los Angeles —The Blue Moon Club. The same year he contracted with National Records, and recorded under Herb Abramson's supervision. His first national R&B success came during 1945 with a version of Saunders King's, "S.K. Blues."
He recorded the songs, "My Gal's A Jockey," and the risqué, "Around The Clock," the same year. Aladdin released his duet with Wynonie Harris on the ribald two-parter, "Battle of the Blues."
Turner remained with National until 1947, but none of his records were great sellers. During 1950, he released the song "Still in the Dark" on Freedom Records.
Turner made many albums, not only with Johnson, but with the pianists Art Tatum and Sammy Price and various small jazz ensembles. 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 the legendary Kansas City jam sessions. He could swap choruses with instrumental soloists for hours.
During 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 with 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 R&B charts, although they were sometimes so risqué that some radio stations wouldn’t play them. The songs received much play, however, on jukeboxes and records.
Turner had a great success during 1954 with "Shake, Rattle and Roll." It not only enhanced his career — turning him into a teenage favorite — but it 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."
Although the cover version of the song by Bill Haley and His Comets, with the risqué lyrics omitted partially, was a greater success, many listeners sought out Turner's version and were introduced to R&B.
Elvis Presley showed he needed no such introduction. Presley's version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" combined Turner's lyrics with Haley's arrangement, but was not successful as a single.
Suddenly, at the age of 43, Turner was a rock music singer. His follow-ups "Well All Right," "Flip Flop and Fly" (1955), "Hide and Seek," "Morning, Noon and Night" and "The Chicken and the Hawk" were all successful. He performed on the television program Showtime at the Apollo during the mid-1950s, and in the movie, Shake Rattle & Rock,! in 1956.
Turner died in Inglewood, California during November, 1985, at the age of 74 of heart failure, having suffered the earlier effects of arthritis, a stroke and diabetes.
Here, Turner performs “Shake, Rattle and Roll” in 1954