Big Joe Turner was a blues shouter from Kansas City, Missouri. His singing career began in Kansas City’s nightclubs, where he developed his reputation as a singing bartender. In 1938, Turner and his longtime musical partner, pianist Pete Johnson, were “discovered” by record producer John Hammond, and invited to appear in the famous Carnegie Hall jazz concert that year. Turner and Johnson stayed in New York City and began a long residency at the influential Cafe Society. From that point forward, Turner spent much of his life in either New York and Los Angeles.
Turner experienced limited success in the recording business until the early fifties, when Atlantic Records founders Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun saw Turner perform at the Apollo Theater. Withe Ertegun’s guidance and encouragement, Turner broke through with “Chains Of Love” in 1951, and achieved immortality with an important early rock and roll song, “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, in 1954. Turner’s star gently faded by the end of the fifties, but he continued a long and fruitful career as a jazz and blues singer until his death in 1985. Turner is a member of the Blues Hall Of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
“The Big Man Behind ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll'”, by Ed Ward, NPR, October 22, 2012
Like most people my age, my introduction to Big Joe Turner was hearing “Shake, Rattle & Roll”. I was probably in college at the time. Then in the mid-eighties, I heard a feature on Joe Turner on the “Sunday Night Idiot Show”, featuring then popular DJ “M. Dung” on KFOG 104.5 FM. I recorded that show on cassette tape, and listened to it dozens of times before buying records of his Atlantic records hit songs, plus a couple of compilations of his songs from the thirties and forties.
Along with Jimmy Rushing, he is considered the greatest of the blues shouters, with a voice so strong that he would perform at times without amplification. Phil Hardy and Dave Laing summarize his talents beautifully:
“The original and greatest ‘blues shouter’, Turner did much to create the jazz-blues singing style in which the voice is used less to narrate than to contribute a quasi-instrumental melody strand to the orchestral texture. Many of the songs for which he was known were celebratory routines, little more interesting as texts than a football-crowd chant, but he conveyed them in the air of a joyously partying musician jamming endlessly on blues changes, his intonation and sense of time almost always flawless. This spirit, attached to more pointed lyrics, made him one of the few R&B figures to succeed with the white audience for early rock ‘n’ roll.”
— Phil Hardy and Dave Laing, “The Faber Companion To 20th-Century Popular Music”
Big Joe Turner’s songs are very sexual; only a few stray away from the primary topic of interest. Typically, he is accompanied by an accomplished pianist, and sometimes with a supporting band. His spare readings of songs gave plenty of room for these pianists to shine. Like Billie Holiday, he sings like a horn player, one member of the ensemble. The music swings and it’s sexy and I like it that way. The limitation of Big Joe’s career is an overly consistent adherence to the twelve bar blues format.
Big Joe Turner Song Notes:
Your favorite songs are sure to vary from my selections. Turner has a long and disorganized legacy of recorded music, all highlighted by excellent piano playing and Turner’s booming voice.
1. The best place to start a Big Joe Turner collection on iTunes is the Atlantic Records compilation called Shake, Rattle and Rock, which has most of his big songs from the fifties. The best album of songs is the 1956 blues classic called The Boss Of The Blues, which features both Pete Johnson and the famous Count Basie rhythm section.
2. “TV Mama” is an essential Chicago recording featuring the unmistakable Elmore James on slide guitar.
3. Acquiring a high fidelity version of his earlier work is more complicated.
“Wee Baby Blues”
“Last Goodbye Blues”
are performed with pianist Art Tatum and His Band in 1941. All are highly recommended.
4. “Wee Baby Blues (Alt)” is from the 1956 The Boss Of The Blues sessions, and can be found on Atlantic Jazz: Best Of The 50’s.
5. “Sally Zu-Zazz” is a 1947 Savoy recording.
6. “Piney Brown Blues” is a 1940 recording with Pete Johnson, and can be found on the 4 CD compilation called Blues Classics.
7. “Little Bittie Gal’s Blues” is a 1944 recording with Pete Johnson. It’s difficult to find a good sounding master. I recorded it off an old album called Early Big Joe: 1940-1944.
Big Joe Turner Songs:
Shake, Rattle & Roll, Big Joe Turner ✭✭✭✭
TV Mama, Big Joe Turner ✭✭✭✭
Roll ‘Em Pete (Alt), Big Joe Turner ✭✭✭✭
Boogie Woogie Country Girl, Big Joe Turner ✭✭✭
Last Goodbye Blues, Big Joe Turner ✭✭✭
Roll ‘Em Pete, Big Joe Turner ✭✭✭
Flip, Flop & Fly, Big Joe Turner ✭✭
I Want A Little Girl, Big Joe Turner ✭✭
The Chicken And The Hawk (Up, Up And Away), Big Joe Turner ✭✭
Little Bittie Gal’s Blues, Big Joe Turner ✭✭
Wee Baby Blues, Big Joe Turner ✭✭
Piney Brown Blues, Big Joe Turner ✭✭
Corrine, Corrina, Big Joe Turner ✭✭
Cherry Red, Big Joe Turner ✭
Piney Brown Blues (Alt), Big Joe Turner ✭
Sally-Zu-Zazz, Big Joe Turner ✭
Honey Hush, Big Joe Turner ✭
Wee Baby Blues (Alt), Big Joe Turner ✭
Chains Of Love, Big Joe Turner ✭
Shake, Rattle & Roll / Flip, Flop & Fly (Live), Elvis Presley ✭
Corrine, Corrina, Bob Dylan ✭✭✭
Corrine, Corrina, Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys ✭✭
Flip, Flop & Fly (Live), The Blues Brothers ✭✭
I Want A Little Girl, Clark Terry & Oscar Peterson Trio ✭✭
I Want A Little Girl, Ray Charles ✭✭
I Want A Little Girl, The Kansas City Six ✭✭
I want A Little Girl, Stanley Turrentine & The Three Sounds ✭✭