Standing at 6-foot 2 and pushing the scales at 300-plus, it’s easy to see why Joseph Vernon Turner Jr. earned the moniker Big Joe Turner. But after hearing the legendary Kansas City, Missouri bluesman perform, it was also easy to see why Big Joe Turner also earned the title “The Boss of the Blues.”
Before all those nicknames came to fruition, like many of his peers, Turner fell in love with music through the church and began singing on the streets of Kansas City to earn a little money. By the time he was 14, Turner quit school to work as a cook in the night clubs to help his family (his father died in a train accident when Turner was four).
Turner moved from the back kitchen to the bar where he became known as the Singing Barman. While working at the Sunset Bar & Grill, Turner met boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson, and the duo became known around Kansas City. The Sunset was run by Piney Brown, who became the inspiration for one of Turner’s first original songs, “Piney Brown Blues.”
In 1936, Turner and Johnson moved from Kansas City to New York where they landed on a bill with legendary Benny Goodman, but that was the extent of their success, so the duo headed back home. In 1938, Turner and Johnson caught the eye of talent scout John H. Hammond, who brought them back to New York to appear in one of his “From Spirituals to Swing” concerts at Carnegie Hall, which contributed to presenting jazz and blues to an extensive American audience.
After the Carnegie Hall show, Turner went on to record “Roll ‘Em Pete,” which was one of the first songs to ever feature a back beat. This song and “Piney Brown Blues” were fixtures in his live shows for the rest of his career.
Turner was becoming a big draw in the Big Apple and earned a residency at Café Society, where he played alongside Billie Holiday and Frank Newton’s band. The success of Turner and Johnson kept moving forward as they recorded more hit songs, including “Cherry Red” (featuring Hot Lips Page on trumpet), “I Want A Little Girl,” and “Wee Baby Blues.” These popular singles led to Turner and Johnson signing to Decca Records, and the label officially released “Piney Brown Blues.”
Turner switched coasts in 1941, heading west to Los Angeles where he performed in Duke Ellington’s revue Jump for Joy. He also played the singing policeman in the sketch comedy “He’s on the Beat.” Los Angeles became just as fruitful for Tuner as New York. He was in musicals like Meade Lux Lewis’s “soundies.” By 1945, Turner and Johnson had their own establishment, The Blue Moon Club, worked with Herb Abramson, and released the singles “S.K. Blues” (a Saunders King cover), “My Gal’s A Jockey” and “Around the Clock.” The Aladdin Company released the duet with Wynonie Harris, “Battle of the Blues.”
Throughout the 1950s, Big Joe Turner recorded with Johnson as his piano player, but also cut records with Art Tatum, Sammy Price, and Count Basie’s Orchestra. In 1951, while performing with the Count Basie Orchestra at Harlem’s Apollo Theater as a replacement for Jimmy Rushing, Turner was spotted by Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, who contracted him to their new recording company, Atlantic Records.
While at Atlantic, Turner straddle the lines of jump blues, rhythm & blues and eventually rock & roll. He adopted an improvisation singing style where he would call out his band members during a song, howl and shout phrases off the cuff. This freestyle of playing led Turner’s songs straight up the charts and the act he was singing about spending “quality time” with the ladies. His songs were sometimes banished from radio stations and juke boxes.
Turner’s biggest single of his career – “Shake, Rattle and Roll” – came in 1954. The song literally changed his career, making him a top draw amongst teenagers, and moved him squarely into the middle of the rock & roll hysteria. Songwriter Doc Pomus claimed, “Rock and roll would have never happened without him.”
Like with many black artists of its time, Turner’s hit single “Shake, Rattle and Roll” was taken on by a white band – Bill Haley & the Comets – and the lyrics were changed to fit the conservative culture. Then the king of ripping off the black musicians, Elvis Presley, took on “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” combining Turner’s lyrics with Haley’s arrangement,, but was not as successful due to the fact that the white kids were buying Turner’s version instead. Score one for Turner.
Turner was now a respected and certified hit maker with more tracks – “The Chicken and the Hawk;” “Flip, Flop and Fly;” “Hide and Seek;” “Morning, Noon and Night;” and “Well All Right” all becoming successful singles for the Boss of the Blues. His last hit single was “(I’m Gonna) Jump for Joy” landed on the U.S. R&B record chart on May 26, 1958.
By the end of the 1950’s, Big Joe Turner was tired of playing the blues and writing those types of singles, so he went back to the small jazz clubs where he began and played that style of music for a couple years until Bill Haley helped revive Turner’s career by lending the Comets for a series of popular recordings in Mexico.
With the resurgences of the blues overseas, Turner went to England with trumpeter Buck Clayton and trombonist Vic Dickenson, accompanied by Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band in 1965. They played a live show for the BBC and toured Europe with Count Basie and his Orchestra.
Big Joe Turner earned many awards of his decade’s long career, but his biggest achievement was being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983. That same year, Mute Records released “Blues Train” where Turner was playing with Roomful of Blues.
On November 24, 1985, Big Joe Turner died in Inglewood, California, at the age of 74 of heart failure, having suffered the earlier effects of arthritis, a stroke and diabetes. He was buried at Roosevelt Memorial Park, in Gardena, California. Big Joe Turner was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
From 1956 to 1984, Big Joe Turner released 17 studio albums, a handful of compilation albums, appeared in movies, television and is in numerous books about music. It is easy to see why the Boss of the Blues was described by NME magazine when they announced his death in their December 1985 edition, as “the grandfather of rock and roll.”
Rest in Peace Big Joe Turner
Shake, Rattle & Roll!