Born: May 18, 1911 | Died: November 24, 1985 Primary Instrument: Vocal
“The Boss of the Blues”
Providing an essential link between the blues and rock 'n' roll, Big Joe Turner is best remembered for his classic 1954 hit Shake, Rattle and Roll, one of the pioneering songs of rock 'n' roll. Although Turner enjoyed his greatest recorded success with Atlantic Records between 1951 and 1956, rock 'n' roll was actually his second (or third) successful musical career.
He started out as an important member of the burgeoning Kansas City jazz scene and helped popularize boogie woogie in the late '30s with pianist Pete Johnson. He also pursued an influential career as one of the most potent blues shouters of the '40s. He was one of the few jazz and blues singers of his generation to become popular with the teenage rock 'n' roll audience. After spending the '60s in relative obscurity, Big Joe Turner returned to jazz and blues, singing on the Pablo label with the likes of Count Basie and Jimmy Witherspoon.
Big Joe Turner began singing in Kansas City clubs in his early teens and formed a musical partnership with boogie woogie pianist Pete Johnson near the end of the '20s. Touring with regional bands led by Bennie Moten and Count Basie, among others, Turner first went to New York in 1936, returning in 1938 with Pete Johnson to perform on Benny Goodman's Camel Caravan CBS radio show and the legendary Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall, the first concert series to promote black music to white audiences.
Big Joe Turner soon took up a four-year residence at the exclusive Cafe Society Uptown and Downtown clubs in New York with Johnson, often joined by Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. The three pianists became known as the Boogie Woogie Boys, and Turner's debut recording of Roll 'em Pete with Johnson launched the boogie woogie craze. Usually accompanied by Johnson, Turner recorded for National Records from 1938 to 1940, producing the classic Cherry Red in 1939. He then recorded for Decca from 1940 to 1944, usually backed by Johnson, but occasionally accompanied by Willie The Lion Smith, Art Tatum or Freddie Slack. In 1941 Turner traveled to Hollywood to appear in Duke Ellington's Jump For Joy revue.
Subsequently based largely on the West Coast, Big Joe Turner continued to record with Johnson after World War II, first for National (1945-47), where he scored a smash rhythm and blues hit with My Gal's a Jockey. His National recordings were later issued on Savoy. Through 1950, Turner recorded for labels such as Aladdin, RPM, Downbeat/Swingtime, MGM, Freedom, and Imperial (in New Orleans). In 1949, for National, he recorded Battles of the Blues with rival Wynonie Harris, scoring his second R&B hit in 1950 with Still in the Dark on Freedom. The Aladdin and Imperial recordings were later issued on EMI, and the Swingtime recordings on Arhoolie.
After ending his partnership with Pete Johnson, Big Joe Turner signed with Atlantic Records in 1951, initiating a series of smash R&B hits with the ballad Chains of Love, a moderate pop hit covered by Pat Boone in 1956. Chill Is On and the ballad Sweet Sixteen (later associated with B.B. King) became smash R&B hits, as did Honey Hush (also a major pop hit), recorded in New Orleans, and TV Mama, recorded in Chicago with guitarist Elmore James. The classic Shake, Rattle and Roll became a top R&B and major pop hit in the spring of 1954, and the song was later covered by Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.
Big Joe Turner continued to score R&B smashes through 1956 with Well All Right, Flip, Flop and Fly, Hide and Seek, the two-sided Morning, Noon and Night - The Chicken and the Hawk (Up, Up and Away), Corrine Corrina (a moderate pop hit), and Lipstick, Powder and Paint.
In 1956 Turner once again teamed with Pete Johnson for the classic “Boss of the Blues album.” This was the highlight of his recording career. He delivers the goods with the absolute authority of a man who knows his craft. If anyone needs an introduction to Big Joe Turner, you can do no better, this is it!! This album matched Turner for one of the last times with the veteran boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson and also includes a variety of top swing players and veterans of the Count Basie band: trumpeter Joe Newman, trombonist Lawrence Brown, altoist Pete Brown, tenor saxophonist Frank Wess, guitarist Freddie Green, bassist Walter Page, and drummer Cliff Leeman.
Turner appeared in the 1956 film Shake, Rattle and Roll and toured with the rock 'n' roll package shows of Red Prysock and Alan Freed in 1956 and 1957, respectively. Turner managed two more major pop-only hits with Love Roller Coaster and (I'm Gonna) Jump For Joy. He appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958 and then toured Europe for the first time. He left the Atlantic label in 1961.
In the '60s, Big Joe Turner moved to Los Angeles, where he occasionally recorded for Kent and Coral while continuing to tour Europe and America regularly. He performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1964 and toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival in 1966. Recording for the BluesWay label in 1967, Turner worked with the Johnny Otis Show in the late '60s, appearing with his show at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1970. In 1971 Turner recorded for the French Black & Blue label, later issued on Evidence Records, and subsequently returned to his jazz and blues style for two albums with Count Basie on Pablo Records. He appeared with Basie in the 1974 documentary film on Kansas City jazz, The Last of the Blue Devils.
Big Joe Turner recorded albums for Pablo throughout the '70s, accompanied by Pee Wee Crayton, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge, and alto saxophonist Eddie Cleanhead Vinson, among others. By the early '80s, Turner was suffering from diabetes and arthritis, walking on crutches and having to perform sitting down. He recorded with Roomful of Blues in 1983 and Knocky Parker and the Houserockers in 1984, recording his final album with Jimmy Witherspoon in 1985.
He died of a heart attack in Inglewood, California, on November 24, 1985, at the age of seventy-four. Big Joe Turner was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Source: James Nadal