Big Joe Turner

TrackSingle
Roll 'Em PeteVocalion 4607
Wee Baby BluesDecca 8526
My Gal's A JockeyNational 4002
Chains Of LoveAtlantic 45-939
Honey HushAtlantic 45-1001
TV MamaAtlantic 45-1016
Shake, Rattle And RollAtlantic 45-1026
You Know I Love YouAtlantic 45-1026
Corrine CorrinaAtlantic 45-1088
Jump For JoyAtlantic 45-1184

Big Joe Turner photo 3

 

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Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

BIG ……… JOE ……… TURNER

Three words. An adjective and a couple of proper nouns. Words that are seen frequently and, apart from the last – but that’s an altogether different story – not remarkable on their own. Put them together, though, and a significant number of people will go all mushy with reverence. Yes, plenty of those folk would be of the vintage of Cal and myself but by no means all. And that reverence is 100% justified.

Big Joe Turner as he was usually known – and the reason is obvious if you’ve seen any pictures of him – was a lot older than the more well known rock‘n’roll stars. He was playing professionally and making great music before most of those guys were born. Yet he held his own with them for a while in the mid fifties with records that packed power and punch and sometimes more than a hint of sophistication.

I have two slabs of Big Joe on vinyl, Big Joe Turner Sings The Blues (from the Oriole “Classics of Jazz” Series) and Rockin’ The Blues (from London American in the UK but originally Atlantic in the US). I bought both second hand during the first 60s blues boom when I had started to belatedly realise that there was more to blues than Chess and Jimmy Reed. I do recall feeling guilty when first playing these albums because it was the more commercial style of the second set, the track list of which started Jump For Joy, Teenage Letter, Love Roller Coaster, Lipstick, Powder And Paint and went on in that fashion, that gave me more pleasure. It was not unlike a throwback to the very early days of rock’n’roll, much of which I missed partly on account of being too young but also because these records – and they were singles which were consistently hitting the US R&B chart or Race chart as it was then known – weren’t getting radio coverage, or even seeing release in the UK. My other LP was a good example of Joe’s earlier material, recorded in 1947, with several of the tracks featuring Pete Johnson on piano. It was categorised in the UK as jazz so was only really listened to by a small (but educated) minority when it first came out.

Joe was called a blues shouter, possibly the last of the breed. Blues shouting came about for purely practical reasons. It dated back to before the introduction of microphones where the lead singer for a jazz based band, usually but not always male, literally had to shout to make himself heard over a noisy group of accompanists. The terminology carried through to the age of amplification. Most jump blues bands had someone on lead vocal who was often echoed by ensemble singing from the band. Amplification caused the instruments to get louder so, even with a mike the singer would often sing/shout brief declamatory phrases in numbers that were usually no more than 12 bar blues. Big Joe had the frame for the job. Unlike some of the younger guys like Wynonie Harris, Joe wouldn’t move around too much. He just stood and commanded the stage.

And his voice was distinctive. Really distinctive. A novice probably couldn’t tell you who was singing on an average jump blues record of, say, a forties or early fifties vintage but put a single from Joe on and anyone (well almost) would identify those tones immediately.

Joseph Vernon Turner was born on the 18th of May, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri and died in 1985. He began singing on street corners at an early age getting jobs as cook and singing bartender in Kansas City’s nightclub scene to keep body and soul alive. Circa 1928, he hooked up with a pianist called Pete Johnson who was to work with him on and off for many years. Johnson was a boogie-woogie man – now usually shortened to boogie – playing that form of music where the left hand keeps up a strong riff and the right hand plays a melody line or improvises above that riff. The presence of Johnson was arguably as important as that of Turner on many of their early records, and it was those records, among others, which would influence another piano playing Johnson, usually known as Johnnie, who would go on to be right hand man to Chuck Berry for years.

The duo played the clubs in K.C. but had an early outing to New York in 1936 where they were on the same bill as Benny Goodman. Nothing further transpired in the Big Apple on that occasion but they were invited back in 1938 by talent scout John Hammond to appear at the Carnegie Hall. This was for the initial From Spirituals To Swing concert, which was instrumental in widening audience appeal to forms of music performed by black people: jazz, blues and gospel (see also Footnotes). Joe and Pete performed Low Down Dog and It’s All Right Baby. The latter was recorded and sounds as fresh today as it must have then:

The concert appearance resulted in a long-term contract at the newly opened and fashionable Café Society club and, more importantly, a commercial recording contract with the Vocalion label. Literally a week after their successful Carnegie Hall appearance, Joe and Pete were in a studio laying down their first couple of tracks, Going Away Blues and Roll ˈEm Pete.

What we now call the Billboard R&B Chart wasn’t in place then – it came into being in 1942 under another name – so sales figures on early releases aren’t reliable. However, from the inception of that chart, Joe was a regular entrant achieving top ten status with S.K. Blues (1945), My Gal’s A Jockey (a risqué little item which hit big in 1946) and Still In The Dark (1950). He changed accompanists as often as he changed record labels and that was fairly frequently. Pianists who performed and/or recorded with Joe in addition to Pete Johnson included Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Art Tatum, Freddie Slack, Count Basie and Fats Domino, a veritable roll call of the great names of the thirties through to the fifties. In later years – or 1954 to be precise – he even recorded an album with Thelonious Monk.

In 1951, Turner came to the attention of Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun who were talent spotting for the fledgling Atlantic label. At the time Joe was performing with the Count Basie Orchestra in the Apollo Theatre, Harlem, New York, as stand in for the usual singer, Jimmy Rushing. The combination of the Turner lungs, the Atlantic session guys and the promotional capabilities of the Erteguns meshed almost immediately and kicked off a series of R&B Chart hit records for the label including such songs as Chains Of Love (which was covered by Pat Boone in 1956 and became a Top Ten hit for him), Sweet Sixteen and Honey Hush (later covered by the Johnny Burnette Trio). In 1954, he had his biggest hit so far with Shake, Rattle And Roll, a song that is indelibly associated with the man. It achieved crossover to #22 on the US pop chart, a rare occurrence for a black record in those days. The song was as risqué as many of his earlier numbers and the Bill Haley cover version which was recorded later the same year (and which eclipsed Joe’s sales) was subjected to considerable cleaning up before release.

Follow-ups to Shake, Rattle And Roll including Flip, Flop And Fly, Morning, Noon And Night, Corrine Corrina and Jump For Joy – all did well in the R&B Chart with some gaining minor crossover success. Coming out over the period 1955 to 1958 these records would have been perceived as part of the rock and roll phenomenon. Many of them went on to bigger sales over the years with at least four topping a million. As the fifties rolled on, however, Turner did lose out to younger stars. His appearance as a fairly static 45 year old of some girth wouldn’t have helped him in terms of teenage appeal when stars such as Presley and Nelson appeared on the scene. Bill Haley suffered from similar problems.

As his popularity waned, Turner dropped back to his earlier role of fronting a jump blues outfit. He left Atlantic in 1962 but with the increase in visibility and popularity of blues in the sixties he found gainful work at blues and jazz festivals. In 1965, he toured the UK accompanied by the Humphrey Lyttleton Band. The show was billed “Jazz From Kansas City”. He was in the UK again the following year as part of the 1966 American Folk Blues Festival which toured Europe. Cal saw the show in London and has recorded his now rather distant memories of Joe’s set in the Footnotes. This clip features Big Joe in action from the ’66 Festival singing Hide And Go Seek (with Otis Rush on guitar). The introduction is from Roosevelt Sykes.

Record label proprietors weren’t slow in offering Joe work either and there was a regular flow of albums from the late sixties through the seventies. In 1983, two years before his death he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

 

THE MUSIC FROM THE PRE-ATLANTIC PERIOD

Any list of Turner’s music, regardless of what era it came from, wouldn’t be complete without Roll ˈEm Pete, the B-side of Joe and Pete’s first commercial recording. It bears a strong resemblance to It’s All Right Baby, from Pete’s intro through to his on-going propulsive efforts, and the fact that it was the two boys only with no backing band just emphasises the similarity. Lyrically however it differs. The song is credited merely to “Johnson” as in Pete, and that’s quite possibly true for the first few verses. After that Joe seems to switch to his vocal extemporisation mode with which his audience would become familiar on scores of later records. It was a song that would reappear on a number of occasions usually with alternative titles like Rebecca and Roll ˈEm Boy, and the presence of the “jump for joy” phrase, was a look-ahead to the Atlantic days. However, in this original incarnation it’s a boogie woogie classic and a precursor if ever I heard one to the music of nearly two decades hence.

1941 saw Joe fronting the Art Tatum Band with singles issued under the Tatum name which would have been bigger than Joe’s at the time. The first session with the band yielded another number that would reverberate through the years, Wee Baby Blues. Slow to medium this time and with a full run through of the twelve bars from Tatum plus only-just-audible touches from a rhythm section before Joe enters.

It was early one Monday morning and I was on my way to school
It was early one morning when I was on my way to school
Hey that was the morning when I broke my mother’s rule

This was to be another number that Joe would revisit over the years. There was a version with Count Basie in ’73 which largely retained the Tatum arrangement but in between, Atlantic put out an altogether more poppy affair on the flip side of Teenage Letter in ’57, with an increased tempo and some doowoppy guys sharing the limelight with Joe. It worked, though, and I should add that I’ve loved every version of this number that I’ve heard, and that includes the live one with Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy on vocals and guitars plus the great Otis Spann on piano, on an LP released in 1963 under the title Folk Festival Of The Blues.

Summer 1946 saw Joe on the National label paired with Bill Moore’s Lucky Seven Band for My Gal’s A Jockey, a double cum single entendre item and the sort of thing that would have been in the set list of any blues shouter at that time.

I’ve got a gal, she rides me night and day (twice)
If she keeps on riding me I know she’s gonna drive me away

Don’t know about that driving him away bit, according to a later stanza, she’s teaching him how to ride! What made the record, though, was the atmosphere created by Joe and the band which conjured up a dimly lit sweaty club with heaving bodies all over the place. The horn section supplied a superb lesson in riffing while maintaining a raw and raucous tone and the guitarist (Teddy Bunn) was almost in his own world having turned the volume up on his amp to just below the distort level. (Later some guys working with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf down in Memphis would push that control up even further).

The late forties found Joe living in Los Angeles and recording for a number of outfits based in the city. A couple of L.A. labels, Specialty and Imperial, were later to find success from recording artists in New Orleans. Joe spent a brief spell with Imperial who, in April 1950, took him to the Crescent City for a session with the Dave Bartholomew Orchestra which featured a pianist who was starting to make some pretty big waves himself. That pianist, of course, was Fats Domino who was present on the six tracks recorded for the session. The resulting sides are amongst the more obscure of Joe’s pre-Atlantic phase but are well worth a listen since their sound is almost a bridge to Atlantic. This clip includes Blues Jumped The Rabbit and the not dissimilar Jumpin’ Tonight. I shouldn’t have to inform the reader that jumpin’ was another euphemism for what often went on between the sheets. And I’d add that the gent providing that fruity trombone was one Waldron “Frog” Joseph.

Atlantic also made a couple of trips to New Orleans to record Big Joe with the Bartholomew/Domino band but I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s move forward to …

 

ATLANTIC AND ROCK‘N’ROLL

Given the records he’s famous for under the rather splendidly designed Atlantic record label – Shake, Rattle And Roll, Flip Flop And Fly, Lipstick, Powder And Paint are ones that come to mind – Joe’s debut single for the new label was, rather surprisingly, a slow blues. More importantly, that single, Chains Of Love, had a distinguishable melody line which was something that was hardly omnipresent in the world of blues. Ahmet Ertegun wrote the song himself but gave half of the royalties to pianist Harry Van Walls, “because he played such a beautiful introduction” (source: Blackcat Rockabilly Europe) and he, Ahmet, must have wanted to maintain the continuity of a prominent piano on Joe’s records. But a melody line was something that could readily lodge itself in a potential buyer’s mind causing him or her to part with some of that cash which was burning a hole in the pocket. Given their rapidly evolving market astuteness, one suspects that the Erteguns had taken account of the success that another Joe, Ivory Joe Hunter, had had only months before with the similarly tuneful but dolorous blues, I Almost Lost My Mind for MGM. They certainly must have had their eyes on Ivory Joe since they were to sign him to Atlantic in ’54. Whatever, Chains Of Love soared to the #2 spot in the nation’s R&B Chart and stayed in that chart for a magnificent 25 weeks.

Joe’s first up tempo jumper at Atlantic, to use his words, was Bump Miss Susie on the flip of his second release, but release number six, Honey Hush, was a distinct improvement and his first #1 R&B Chart hit to boot. Just like Imperial, Atlantic made the pilgrimage to New Orleans for this one, although the Wiki version of events states that Turner was on tour at the time and New Orleans was a convenient stopping off place to get some recordings in the can. The back-up band was nominally headed by a relatively obscure gent called Pluma Davis who featured heavily on trombone. Present also, however, were Fats Domino whose piano work was another distinctive component plus one of Domino’s regular tenor players, Lee Allen, who shared duties on the break.

The next recording session which was held a few months later, in October ’53, found Joe in Chicago and whether he was on tour or not we haven’t been informed. What we do know is that Atlantic also held a session in Chicago for T-Bone Walker though that was a couple of years down the track. All of which does tend to suggest that the Atlantic bosses weren’t unaware of the talent that was present in the city. Five tracks were recorded but only on one of them did a highly distinctive slide guitar appear. That track was TV Mama and the guitarist was none other than Elmore James who managed to nearly steal the limelight from Joe, but, in the process, helped the big man to score another R&B Chart top tenner. Resemblance to Elmore’s own singles was enhanced by the fact that the band used, although credited as “Joe Turner & his Blues Kings”, was actually the Broomdusters, Elmore’s usual outfit. Joe, however, did write the lyrics but gave the credit to his other half (see also Footnotes).

I was in my bed a’sleepin’, oh-boy, what a dream (twice)
I was dreamin’ ’bout my TV Mama, the one with the big, wide screen

Joe’s biggest hit was only a few months away. Shake, Rattle And Roll was recorded in Atlantic’s own studio in NYC in February 1954. This time Ahmet Ertegun didn’t rely on Joe’s already proven song writing ability but went instead to Jesse Stone, writing under the pseudonym of Charles Calhoun. The Stone style wasn’t wildly different to Joe’s but his couplets exhibited a greater degree of continuity and an even larger range of sexual connotations though semi-disguised by street argot. I would direct the reader both to the Footnotes below and the excellent Wiki feature on Shake, Rattle And Roll for further words on both the Stone lyrics and their sanitisation. The Wiki write-up quite rightly doesn’t ignore the Haley version and refers to it as “peppier and brighter”.

If Shake, Rattle And Roll was an explicit nod to rock and roll which was by now starting to emerge from just about everywhere – a young white lad recorded his debut disc in Memphis on 5th July that same year – then the flip, You Know I Love You, was almost a step back in time, a slow and deliberate blues with Joe trading phrases with a pianist just like he did in the old days with Pete Johnson. Or perhaps, just like he did with Fats Domino since the piano man on this one sounded not unlike the little chubby fellow. It wasn’t Fats though. According to the “Mike Leadbetter/Neil Slaven Blues Records 1943 – 1970” (the blues bible), the track came from the set recorded in Chicago on which the pianist was Little Johnny Jones, a cousin of Otis Spann. Not sure what I like so much about this one. There’s elegance together with playfulness, pain but plenty of the celebrated Joe Turner warmth, and my that sax man when he comes in doesn’t hold back.

I live across the street from a juke joint baby
And all night long they play the blues

My final two Atlantic selections offer, in different ways, a demonstration that time doesn’t stand still, and that the Atlantic bosses understood the need to move on. Corrine Corrina was a song that Joe had recorded before, way back in 1941 when he was working with Art Tatum. The version from back then was up tempo jazz blues with nothing overly remarkable about it. The song dated back to 1928 when it was recorded, as a country blues, by Bo Carter, one of the writers, though elements of the composition dated back to earlier times. Even prior to the first Turner recording, versions had appeared in the genres of country blues, jazz, country, western swing and Cajun. After Joe’s second version was released the song became a hit in the Pop Chart in 1960 courtesy of Ray Peterson, and then, as if to complete this genre switching, popped up on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. That’s merely a rapid fire précis; a much more thorough history of the song can be found on Wiki.

Whether the Erteguns and Jerry Wexler were aware of the varied history or whether they were aiming at a younger, or possibly even a white, audience when they recorded the song with Joe in ˈ56, we don’t know but what resulted was a blending of genres. Pop, singalong and rock were the obvious ones though blues hadn’t entirely disappeared. And they’d reintroduced the simple but strong melody line that was an integral part of the original but had largely disappeared from the first Turner take on the song. Blues snobs might turn their noses up at this one but it works for me.

Jump For Joy, from 1958, was nothing more than yet another updating of the Joe Turner up tempo blues, a series that had started with Roll ˈEm Pete (or even It’s All Right Baby going back marginally earlier). Utterly simplistic in approach but with streamlining that was suited to the rock and roll era to the extent that it made Shake, Rattle And Roll sound ponderous in comparison. It’s just possible that white upstart Bill Haley might have taught the Atlantic maestros a thing or two. The piano man gets things going in the usual manner, Joe is still singing about that “gal who lives upon a hill” and the horns find a new riff to keep things going between verses. Oh, and King Curtis delivers a great break. The title summed it up: Joe was jumping with joy and everything was alright in the world.

Alright there, alreet there, alroot there, alrote there, alright there, alreet there …

 

POST-ATLANTIC

In terms of hit parade success, Joe’s career had largely finished by 1960 when a re-recorded Honey Hush almost scraped its way into the Pop Top Fifty. He resumed recording for a variety of labels but albums started to outnumber singles in terms of releases. The contents of those albums usually included updated numbers from Joe’s earlier repertoire plus blues standards like Stormy Monday, Everyday I Have The Blues and Guitar Slim’s The Things I Used To Do. I can’t claim extensive knowledge of these records but, judging by AllMusic’s ratings, most are listenable and sometimes, more than. Something that did start coming into vogue in the late sixties was collaboration albums. Joe could claim to be a pioneer of this trend having recorded Thelonious Monk And Joe Turner In Paris back in 1954. Moving forward to 1968, record label owner and producer Bob Thiele formed the label Flying Dutchman Records and signed up Joe among several other blues artists. In 1969, the album Super Black Blues appeared from Flying Dutchman featuring Joe plus T-Bone Walker, Otis Spann and George “Harmonica” Smith. The entire album is contained in this clip. It consisted of four numbers only, three of which were long jams. While not to be recommended to someone dipping their toes into Joe’s catalogue, he’s in good voice throughout. Add in the facts that the set contained as good late period T-Bone as I’ve heard anywhere and that Mr Spann was his usual supremely reliable self, then it’s definitely one for the real blues buffs to search out.

Before leaving music from Joe’s post-Atlantic years I have to strongly thank Cal for drawing my attention to one particular track, Two Loves Have I from another 1969 album release, The Real Boss Of The Blues. While the majority of the tracks on this set conform to expectations, this one is a contemporaneous slab of soul cum uptown R&B that might have featured in a far more fashionable album with influences coming from places like Philly and Detroit. It’s no surprise that the UK Northern Soul audience claim this track as a big fave and I should add that it very nearly made my ten. Which brings me to …

 

THOSE THAT DIDN’T MAKE THE CUT

Joe’s recorded oeuvre was so large that it’s difficult to do him justice with the constraint of ten selections. I also feel that I might have tended more towards the up tempo stuff in my list. In order to balance that I’d point the reader towards Piney Brown Blues (1940) and S.K. Blues (1945), two slowies which are well worth attention. The second was named after another blues singer named Saunders King who’d had an R&B Chart hit with the song in ’42. It’s also unusual in that it was a relatively early two parter disc with S.K. Blues Part I occupying side one and S.K. Blues Part II on the flip. The rather belated Turner cover also spread itself over both sides (and it also made the R&B Chart).

In terms of covers or versions of songs there’s another from Joe’s pre-Atlantic days of some interest. Given the attention that Bill Haley gave to Joe’s output, anyone would have been forgiven for suspecting that the latter’s Around The Clock, actually recorded under the pseudonym of Big Vernon in 1947, might have been the model for Rock Around The Clock. It does bear some resemblance but there’s a closer match to Chuck Berry’s Reelin’ And Rockin’. (See Footnotes for more on the “watching the clock” theme)

Moving forward to the Atlantic period, both The Chill Is On (1951) and Sweet Sixteen (1952) are excellent examples of Joe in slow burn mode. However, from this period it’s really the jumpers that jostle for attention. Teenage Letter (1957) had totally incongruous words for someone of Joe’s age but his delivery and the stop time arrangement worked superbly. It was later covered by a still relatively young Jerry Lee Lewis for whom the lyrics might have been particularly apposite. Back to Joe for whom Midnight Special Train from the year before was another folk blues retread like Corrine Corrina but once again he made the song his own. Another retread, Red Sails In The Sunset, came from the pop world (and also saw release in ’57). As if to counteract any tendency towards pop, Joe and the team actually give the old chestnut an attractively raw reading. That’s believed to be Mickey Baker (of Mickey and Sylvia fame) on lead guitar on the intro with Sam “The Man” Taylor weighing in on snorting tenor sax. I have to include at least one more example of the broadly Roll ˈEm Pete styled jumpers and Lipstick, Powder And Paint (1956) will do nicely even if it is adorned with a femme chorale. So good was the overall quality of Joe’s Atlantic period records that I almost forgot to mention The Chicken And The Hawk about a “little bittie chicken which didn’t know how to fly” and an “up, up and away” chorus, marvellous stuff, as usual.

 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

In “The Sound Of The City” Charlie Gillett referred to Joe Turner as “the most celebrated of the blues shouters” and went on to say, “Turner’s music was infused with the spirit of good-natured optimism which the writer Ralph Ellison has said was characteristic of the Southwestern states during the twenties”.

In a relatively recent interview with Dave Alvin (Jim Allen in INDY Week, October 2015), Dave offered the following somewhat intriguing observation about Joe: “When we saw Big Joe Turner for the first time, he was at the tail end of his prime, but still in it. He taught my brother a lot about singing, and there were certain almost Zen-like qualities to things he would say, advice he would give, rules I live by to this day”.

Writing in “Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Nick Tosches called Joe “a noble and mighty man … the rock ‘n’ roll patriarch who out-lived and out-rocked them all … not in all of rock ‘n’ roll has there been another singer quite like him”.

Dave Marsh didn’t exactly hold back on the subject of Big Joe either. In “The Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made”, he bracketed Big Joe’s Shake, Rattle And Roll with Jerry Lee’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On at numbers 13 and 14 respectively, opening his review with the words “Winner and first runner-up in the Lewd and Lascivious category … the two strongest arguments for the idea that prudes really did have something to fear from rock and roll”. His closing words were:

“Big Joe Turner was a blues shouter who had rhythm and blues hits in the rock and roll era. Jerry Lee Lewis was a rock and roller. Still their finest records live on, side by side.”

Atlantic Records is rightly renowned for putting down significant early markers that led to what we call sixties soul music, working with artists like Ruth Brown, Ray Charles and others back in the fifties. Indeed with Ray those markers were more like Easter Island monoliths. It’s sometimes forgotten that they did something not dissimilar with another form of what was essentially black music: rock and roll. Major white artists in the new genre were quick to pick up influences from Atlantic records – Presley (Money Honey from the Drifters and more), Holly (the Clovers with Ting-A-Ling), the Everly Brothers (Ray’s This Little Girl Of Mine which appeared on the boys’ first LP), Lewis (Sticks McGhee with Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee, one of the earliest tracks Atlantic was to record in the R&B idiom and one that Jerry recorded several times in his career), etc., etc. With Big Joe Turner on board, Atlantic were able to compete directly in the rock market and in that series of Turner records they more than matched many of the better known artists in the field.

The From Spirituals To Swing concerts, on which there’s more in the Footnotes, acted as a mega shop window for black music, much of which had been developing for decades unheard and unseen by the average white member of public in the US (and in that respect one can include the rest of the world). Boogie-woogie as one of the more danceable and rhythmically attractive music forms on display was given a massive boost, not only by the performance of Joe and Pete, but also the efforts of the other boogie greats, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. Big Joe, though, can lay legitimate claim to be in at the great popularisation of the music.

Like boogie, rock and roll was around years before the white public became aware of it. Domino’s The Fat Man made waves in the ghettoes in 1950 and there were others. When rock and roll did break through round about the middle of the decade, Bill Haley was the man to pick up the initial acclaim but Joe was there in the mix as well with records that with hindsight have a great deal more swing about them than Haley’s relatively wooden endeavours (sorry Bill). Yup, what I’m saying is that Joe was there at the beginning of rock and roll as well as boogie-woogie, at least as far as the white punter was concerned. How many musicians can claim to be there at the breakthrough of two genres?

But did any of that matter to Joe? Did he have concern about genres or ‘product’ in today’s terminology? Of course not. To the big man, every record, every performance was a thing of joy, a celebration of being alive, of indulgence even, and he saw it as his role to spread that joy around as thickly as he could in whacking great dollops. And he was one of the best, if not the best at it. All hail Big Joe Turner who, in my eyes, was always jumping for joy.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. The transformation of the lyrics of Shake, Rattle And Roll from the Jesse Stone written, Big Joe original to the Bill Haley version offers a good example of the ‘cleaning up/dumbing down’ that typically occurred to black records when versions that were required to be more suited to a teenage white audience were produced. Just to take the second verse:

From:

Well you wear low dresses
The sun comes shinin’ through (twice)
I can’t believe my eyes
That all of this belongs to you

To:

You wear those dresses
Your hair done up so nice (twice)
You look so warm
But your heart is cold as ice

A more extended discussion of the changes to the song appears in Charlie Gillett’s excellent book, “The Sound Of The City”.

As a rider to the above, Cal Taylor commented that some parts of the song didn’t get ‘cleaned up’ which must have been because the re-writers didn’t understand the black street implications of, for example, “like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store”.

2. As always, Cal has been assiduous in performing background activities on this document. But he does emerge in the foreground occasionally. Back in the sixties when the previous trickle of visiting blues (and rock) stars turned into something of a deluge, he took every opportunity to see those people he’d hitherto only known on vinyl. Big Joe was one such. This is his report:

“I had the pleasure of seeing and very briefly meeting our man, Joe, when he appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in September 1966. Whereas the previous year he appeared on a jazz tour, this time it was as part of the American Folk Blues Festival, which had been held annually in the UK since 1962. In 1966, it included such Blues greats as: Sleepy John Estes, Little Brother Montgomery, Otis Rush, Yank Rachell, Roosevelt Sykes, Junior Wells, Sippie Wallace and Robert Pete Williams. Heaven. Over 50 years later my recollections are a bit hazy but I think what he sang included Chains Of Love before he closed the show with TV Mama and being joined by the rest of the performers for an encore of Bye Bye Baby. After the show I was lucky enough to meet Joe who kindly autographed my programme. I noticed that he signed ‘Joe Turner K.C.’ – he was obviously proud of his Kansas City heritage.”

3. The 1938 From Spirituals To Swing Concert and its follow-up in 1939 were of immense historical import in opening up the music of much of the black population of the US to a white audience. Cal has contributed some paragraphs on the subject:

From Spirituals To Swing was a groundbreaking concert at Carnegie Hall, New York held on 23rd December 1938. It was presented by John Hammond and the event was dedicated to Bessie Smith who had died the previous year as the result of a motor accident. Hammond had encountered problems in sponsoring the event because it involved black performers and was to be before an integrated audience but, in the end, The New Masses, the journal for the American Communist Party, agreed to finance the concert. Nothing like it had ever been done before. The all black artists performed a range of music from, literally, spirituals to swing and included different types of jazz, gospel and blues. The musicians involved were, from jazz: the Count Basie Orchestra, Hot Lips Page and James P. Johnson plus boogie-woogie stars Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. From gospel: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mitchell’s Christian Singers and The Golden Gate Quartet. From blues: Joe Turner, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Jimmy Rushing. Within the jazz artists was also The Kansas City Six which were five members of Count Basie’s orchestra, including Buck Clayton and Lester Young, plus an early exponent of the electric guitar, Leonard Ware, who performed together as the sextet.

“The sell-out show, with some of the same artists and some different ones was repeated a year later on 24th December 1939 at the same venue and financed this time by an organisation called the Theater Arts Committee.

“These shows were important milestones both musically and politically. They brought jazz, gospel and blues to a massively wider audience than ever before and were significant in promoting social justice and integration, on the road to civil rights.

“A background story to the 1938 show was that it was Hammond’s intention to get Robert Johnson to perform at the concert but in those days communications were nothing like they are today and close to non-existent in far away rural areas. Hammond eventually found out that Johnson had died a few months earlier in August. Whether or not Big Bill Broonzy was obtained as a direct replacement is a moot point but, without doubt, the opportunity enhanced Big Bill’s career no end.”

Big Joe Turner Spirituals

4. Pete Johnson, born in 1904, died in 1967, was one of the great boogie pianists. He’s usually bracketed with Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis as one of the big three, in part because all three toured together after the initial From Spirituals To Swing concert, sometimes with Turner also in attendance. In the Wiki feature on Johnson, Tony Russell puts the case for him being the best accompanist of the trio, “unlike Lewis or Albert Ammons, he could sparkle but not outshine his singing partner”. This remarkable clip of Johnson and Ammons duetting gives an impression of the ability of these gentlemen.

I have already commented on Big Joe’s ability to throw out lyrics almost indefinitely on up tempo jumpers like Roll ˈEm Pete. In “The Story Of Boogie-Woogie: A Left Hand Like God”, the author Peter J. Silvester states “On a good night Johnson could play as many as fifty different choruses of Roll ˈEm Pete”. Other significant records made by Johnson included Dive Bomber (1944) and the two sided Rocket Boogie 88 (1949) which (according to Wiki) influenced Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88.

In 1958, Pete Johnson appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival backing Turner, Big Maybelle and Chuck Berry.

5. John Hammond who was born in 1910 and died in 1987 was a record producer, talent scout, music entrepreneur and civil rights activist, but those words don’t really do justice to what he accomplished. He became interested in both music and social reform at an early age. He saw his first live performance of a black jazz group in 1923 and was an instant convert to the music. In the early 1930s he was one of the first to set up regular live radio jazz programs. Achievements by John Hammond included:

– Arranging for jazz and blues records on US Columbia to be released in the UK (1932/3)
– Arranging for Benny Goodman to hire black musicians like Charlie Christian, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton
– Discovering Billie Holiday and arranging her recording debut
– The mounting of the two From Spirituals To Swing concerts as covered above
– Founder member of the Institute For African Affairs in 1941
– US Correspondent on UK Melody Maker weekly paper
– Convincing Columbia to release the posthumous work of Robert Johnson and overseeing the release (1961)
– Discovering Bob Dylan, signing him to a contract (with Columbia) and producing his first two albums, the second in conjunction with Tom Wilson, a black producer
– Signing other significant artists to Columbia including Leonard Cohen
– Doing possibly more than anyone to racially integrate the American music industry

Hammond died after a series of strokes and Wiki reports the story that he finally succumbed while listening to the music of Billie Holiday.

6. Wynonie Harris was another blues shouter, not unlike Joe but younger, who operated in the late forties and the fifties. Unlike Joe he didn’t manage to retain his chart success with the transition to rock and roll. The fact that his act was even more biased towards the smuttier form of blues might have contributed to that lack of success. Song titles like I Like My Baby’s Pudding, Sitting On It All The Time and Keep On Churnin’ reflect his typical stage repertoire.

7. Jazz fans will know the name of Art Tatum. For other readers let me just state that he “is widely considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time” (source: Wiki) and that he led a band and recorded from 1933 up to his early death in 1956. He was highly influential within the sphere of jazz and later pianists like Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Chick Corea are indebted to him (source: Wiki, once again).

8. I struck something of a blank when researching Bill Moore whose Lucky Seven Band accompanied Joe on My Gal’s A Jockey. There were several William or Bill Moore’s around, operating in jazz and/or blues in the timeframe. Was this Bill Moore the “Wild Bill Moore” from Houston, TX, who cut an endearingly unsophisticated early rock record entitled We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll for the Savoy label in December 1947? (Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams who got more than a mention in the Bobby Parker Toppermost was on this record on baritone sax). We do know that Wild Bill would have been operating out of L.A. at the time “Jockey” was recorded in the city. We also know that both Bill (of the Lucky Seven) and Wild Bill played tenor sax. In addition both the Wiki feature and the Blackcat Rockabilly Europe biography of Wild Bill mention him backing (or performing with) Big Joe. Both Cal and I came to the conclusion that the two Bills were one and the same but we’d be delighted to hear from anyone else on the subject.

9. Jesse Stone was a somewhat shadowy figure in the world of rhythm and blues and indeed popular music in general. He operated as band leader, arranger, producer and songwriter but his earlier date of birth – 16th November 1901 – may have precluded him being bracketed with some of the more commonly referenced producers and songwriters of the R&B and rock and roll period. An early composing success for him came with Idaho; a version from the Benny Goodman Band hit the #4 spot in 1942. In 1947, Jesse commenced working with Atlantic Records and, for a spell, was the only black person on the payroll. Songs written by Jesse include Money Honey (the Drifters, then Elvis), Like A Baby (Vikki Nelson then Elvis on the Elvis Is Back album), Flip, Flop And Fly and Morning, Noon And Night (as well as Shake, Rattle And Roll for Joe Turner), Razzle-Dazzle (Bill Haley), Don’t Let Go (Roy Hamilton, then several more), Juanita (Chuck Willis), Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash (The Clovers) and Smack, Dab In The Middle (various).

10. The song Honey Hush was little more than the usual collection of blues couplets from Joe’s vast vocabulary of such things but he gave the writing credit to his friend and club owner, Piney Brown. A later re-cut version of the song switched the credits to Joe’s wife, Lou Willie Turner. One of the unusual features of the song is the inclusion of “Hi-Yo Silver” shouting towards the end. Those old enough will recognise that phrase from the Lone Ranger television series. Silver was the name of the Lone Ranger’s horse. As a complete digression I’d also mention that the popularity of the TV show was so high that a model of acoustic guitar was named after it. White soul blues man Lonnie Mack started playing just such a guitar at the age of seven after trading in his bicycle (source: Wiki).

11. In 1956, Joe appeared, as himself, in the rock and roll film Shake, Rattle And Rock!. Fats Domino was the only other musician of note in the film. Perhaps unusually, Alan Freed did not appear; he seemed to be in most of the mid/late fifties rock exploitation films.

12. In ˈ66, Joe cut an album for the Orfeon label in Mexico using as session musicians, Bill Haley’s Comets. There was also a local TV appearance which yielded a rather fun clip. A more important point is that this was merely a symptom of the acceptance of Joe on an international basis. He recorded in a number of countries and had records released in more. His widespread recognition will at least in part have been due to his music spanning the genres of jazz, blues and rock/pop.

13. Cal did some digging on the clock theme mentioned in the main text and it transpires that there have been a number of songs based on “the clock struck one …” story, quite apart from Hickory Dickory Dock. The earliest example that he identified in the blues world was My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll) in 1922 sung by a lady called Trixie Smith with the song written by J. Berni Barbour. Apart from the clock references, the song is noted for being the first secular one to use the words “rock” and “roll” together. She re-recorded the number in 1938 with the slightly changed title, My Daddy Rocks Me, in higher fidelity and with Sidney Bechet on clarinet. This is it – “I looked at the clock and the clock struck one, I said, now daddy, ain’t we got fun” – delightful stuff.

In 1945, Wynonie Harris wrote and recorded Around The Clock which was covered by Big Joe. Max Freedman and James Myers (under the pseudonym of Jimmy De Knight) wrote Rock Around The Clock in 1952. It was originally the flip side to Haley’s Thirteen Women. Chuck Berry wrote and recorded Reelin And Rocking (which is how the title appeared on the record label) and it was released on single in 1958. These were all different songs – and there could be others – but they all borrowed from or utilised the same broad lyrical motif.

14. Cal discovered more of interest on Joe’s 1969 record Two Loves Have I. “Despite being a Northern Soul favourite it appears that Two Loves Have I was released as a 45 in France but not in the UK. Fittingly, I found that it was originally a French song called J’ai Deux Amours and first recorded by Josephine Baker in 1930. I also found that it was the final piece of music played at her funeral in 1975.” (see Josephine Baker Toppermost #180)

15. I’ve not been overly polite about Bill Haley in the main text and I should rectify that since Bill and the Comets have largely been airbrushed out of rock history. Haley and his band, then called the Saddlemen, were already working their way towards rock and roll via the Western Swing route when, in 1951, they covered the Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston record Rocket 88 (which got a mention earlier in these footnotes and is often claimed to be the first rock and roll record). In my biography of Haley in “RocknRoll” I followed that statement with this para:

“It’s at this stage that those of a sensitive disposition might start getting inflamed because of the in-your-face evidence of whitey covering a black R&B record. Well I would point out that this wasn’t as unusual as it might sound. Country and R&B singers had covered each other’s material for years. What was more unusual here is that Haley had recognised that R&B was popular and had embarked on a deliberate policy to make sounds that were more like R&B. His subsequent records weren’t all makeovers of existing black chart hits.”

I’d also add that to lads of my tender age at the time (and I don’t mean as early as ’51), rock and roll was Bill Haley for the best part of a year or so until artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard seemed to appear from nowhere. Haley, though, was the reason for many of us getting hooked by this new form of music. Bear in mind also that we didn’t get to hear That’s All Right, Blue Moon Of Kentucky and the classic Sun tracks until RCA deemed to allow them to come out on LP when El went into the US Army and they (RCA), ran out of material to release.

16. I made only brief mention in the main text of covers of Big Joe songs, but there were plenty to choose from. Shake, Rattle And Roll could well be his most covered number with versions from Elvis, the Beatles, Conway Twitty and Sam Cooke. Among the plentiful ‘others’ was one I’m rather partial to from the swamp kings, Clifton Chenier and Rod Bernard.

I’ve already touched on the Jerry Lee take on Teenage Letter but the song also received the compliment of a version from Coventry’s finest, the Sorrows in 1967, and the mid-seventies saw another Brit group, the Count Bishops tackle the number. I may have saved the best till last though. This is the Roy Head version. Great scream about a minute in. Flip, Flop And Fly got picked up by the Blues Brothers and Jerry Lee (in his Smash days), and was also taken into near rockabilly territory by Tibby Edwards.

The Johnny Burnette version of Honey Hush has probably spawned more covers than the Turner original (including the Elvis Costello take on Almost Blue which is almost a straight lift) but the 1978 Albert Collins might owe a little to both Joe and Johnny with a liberal dose of funk thrown in.

Closing with Roll ˈEm Pete, there’s a version from Jimmy Witherspoon on album (The Concerts, 1959, but released on CD in 2005) but the one from Lou Rawls in 1963 (from the Black And Blue album) gets my vote. It has that driving band jazz feel beloved by early mods and I’m surprised they didn’t pick up on it at the time.

17 There’s a rather splendid and (relatively) recent reminder of Big Joe in an album from Dave and Phil Alvin, Lost Time, released in 2015. The focus is on blues for the set with brief nods to soul and gospel. Three songs that originated with Big Joe are included; this is Cherry Red, one that I didn’t see fit to include earlier. Let’s correct that omission now and go out on Joe’s 1951 Okeh 78, Cherry Red:

 

Big Joe Turner (1911–1985)

 

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Big Joe Turner

Big Joe Turner discography

Big Joe Turner biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding and Betty Harris.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Cyril Davies, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Little Willie John, Alexis Korner, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker, T-Bone Walker, Chuck Willis.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Dave Alvin, Rod Bernard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Roy Head, Billie Holiday, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lonnie Mack, Mickey & Sylvia, Thelonious Monk, Elvis Presley, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters,

TopperPost #695

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Feb 5, 2018

    Dave, thanks for this great Toppermost. Such brilliant and life-affirming music.

  2. David Lewis
    Feb 5, 2018

    What a great list. I will say that the ‘cleaning up/dumbing down’ of ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’ was not comprehensive. The couplet ‘I’m like a one-eyed cat, sneaking through a seafood store’ is encoded, but pretty clear…

    • Dave Stephens
      Feb 6, 2018

      Thanks guys. As usual with ones that come across as enjoyable to read/listen to it was enjoyable to put together. What I do find surprising though – and it’s inevitably an age related comment – is that Big Joe is largely forgotten now. He was a big name in the fifties but if he’s thought of these days it’s as one of that group consisting of Roy Brown, Amos Milburn, Wynonie Harris etc. and yet those guys weren’t known over here or in most of white America at the time while Joe was an international celeb. And David, Cal beat you to it with the comment on “non-cleansing” and “one-eyed cat” etc. – see footnote #1.

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