Big Joe Turner
‘Big’ Joe Turner
Born 18th May 1911 Died 24th November 1985
Born Joseph Vernon Turner in Kansas City, Missouri, later to be known as ‘The Boss of the Blues’ or Big Joe (He was 6’2’’ and over 20st), Turner developed his love music through involvement with church music. Having lost his father at an early age times were tough and Joe began singing on the streets for change, progressing to the club scene in Kansas city as young as fourteen, he was singing with bands including those led by Bennie Moten, Andy Kirk and Count Basie. To earn extra money he worked as a barman and earned the name ‘the singing barman. At around the age of fifteen Joe teamed up with pianist Pete Johnson, a partnership that was to last off and on for over forty years. They worked in clubs like The Kingfisher Club and The Sunset, the Sunset was managed by Piney Brown and Turner was later to write ‘Piney Brown Blues’ in his honour. In 1936 Turner and Johnson made their way to New York, while there they appeared with Benny Goodman, subsequent auditions didn’t prove fruitful as Big Joe later said ‘New York wasn’t ready for us yet’, so they made their way back to Kansas City.
In 1938 Turner and Johnson returned to New York after being invited by John Hammond to appear in one of his ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ productions at Carnegie Hall, they proved to be one the hits from the show. Following this success they recorded for the first time and scored a major hit with ‘Roll ‘Em Pete’ on Vocalion. In 1939 Big Joe and Johnson teamed up with Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis as the Boogie Woogie Boys. By now the boogie-woogie craze was spreading like wildfire across the US and the rest of the world, fuelled in no small part by Turners work. Other hits from the period featuring Big Joe included, ‘Cherry Red’, ‘I Want A Little Girl’ and ‘Wee Baby Blues’. In 1940 he recorded ‘Piney Brown Blues’ with Decca with Johnson, he also recorded on Decca with Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Art Tatum, Freddie Slack and Sammy Price.
Turner performed in Duke Ellington’s revue ‘Jump For Joy’ in 1941, sang on the soundtrack recordings and opened a bar with Pete Johnson in Los Angeles, The Blue Moon Club in 1945.
In 1951, after appearing with Count Basie’s Orchestra he was signed up for the new Atlantic label and recorded a number of hits with them, ‘Chains Of Love’, ‘Sweet Sixteen’, ‘Boogie Woogie Country Girl’ and ‘Honey Hush’ In 1954 he had a huge hit with ‘Shake Rattle And Roll’ becoming one of the earliest Rock and Roll Standards. This hit was also to expand his audience appeal now including the teenage market. He continued to record in this new genre producing hits such as ‘Hide And Seek’, ‘Flip Flop And Fly’, ‘The Chicken And The Hawk’ ‘Feelin’ Happy’ and in 1957 ‘Teenage Letter’.
While Big was riding the crest of a wave with his rock and roll success, Atlantic decided they should produce a retrospective album of Big Joe’s Kansas City Jazz and Blues. Turner put together a peerless band including his old partner Pete Johnson, the resulting album ‘The Boss Of The Blues’ has now achieved classic status and a must any jazz or blues enthusiast.
By the sixties Turner had returned to his roots playing in the clubs of Los Angeles, occasionally making a film appearance or cutting a single for Coral and Kent. In 1971 producer Norman Granz teamed Big Joe up with jazz giants Count Basie, Milt Jackson, Roy Eldridge, Jimmy Witherspoon and others to make several recordings on the Pablo label, notably ‘Flip Flop And Fly’, ‘Nobody In Mind’ and ‘In The Evening’. Turner participated in various projects before his last recording made with Jimmy Witherspoon ‘Patcha, Patcha, All Night Long’. Turner died of a heart attack in November 1985. Big Joe Turner during his long career successfully managed to combine jazz, swing, boogie, rhythm & blues and ultimately rock and roll, his impact on music will always be felt.