One of the leading shout blues interpreters of the 1930s and 1940s, Big Joe Turner—he was six feet, two inches in height, and weighed 300 pounds—would later find a whole new audience as a rock ‘n’ roll trailblazer. Taken in its entirety, his career represented a synthesis of most major twentieth century styles, including gospel, blues, swing, rhythm and blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Turner grew up in Kansas City, absorbing gospel singing in church, and folk, blues, and pop songs from local performers and sound recordings. In addition to selling papers and junk as a youth, he earned money singing with a blind guitarist in the streets. By the late 1930s, he had become a highly regarded blues singer though limited to performing in rundown bars and theaters in the Midwest. He was also garnering attention as a songwriter; his compositions included "Cherry Red," "Hold ‘Em Pete," "Lucille," "Piney Brown Blues," and "Sun Risin’ Blues." His earliest known recordings—done in a boogie-woogie style which was back in vogue following his success at the December 23, 1938 Carnegie Hall "Spirituals To Swing" concert—were made for Vocalion on December 30, 1938, with Pete Johnson: "Goin Away Blues" and "Roll ‘Em Pete."
The duo would work together at Café Society and Café Society Uptown in New York City for the next five years as well as recording for Decca in 1940. Turner continued to make records for the label’s Race and Sepia series for the next four years, both solo and with Willie "The Lion" Smith, Art Tatum, Sam Price, and the Freddie Slack Trio. Turner cut eleven singles for National Records between 1945-1947, but with limited success. He spent the next few years recording for a wide variety of companies—including Freedom, MGM, Down Beat/Swingtime, Modern/RPM, Aladdin, Rouge, Imperial, and DooTone—but making little impact due to declining interest in the blues.
Sensing his potential as an updated R&B belter, Atlantic Records added him to their roster in 1951. Now referred to as the "boss of the blues," Turner enjoyed his greatest success as a recording artist with hits such as "Chains of Love" (Atlantic 939; 1951; #2 R&B, #30 pop), "The Chill Is On" (Atlantic 949; 1951; #3 R&B), "Sweet Sixteen" (Atlantic 960; 1952; #3 R&B), "Don’t You Cry" (Atlantic 970; 1952; #5 R&B), "Honey Hush" (Atlantic 1001; 1953; #1 R&B, #23 pop), "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" (Atlantic 1026; 1954; #1 R&B, #22 pop), "Flip Flop and Fly" (Atlantic 1053; 1955; #2 R&B), "Hide and Seek" (Atlantic 1069; 1955; #3 R&B), and "Corrine Corrina" (Atlantic 1088; 1956; #2 R&B, #41 pop). When the singles stopped charting after 1958, he shifted his focus to albums, proving equally adept at classic blues, jazz, and R&B-inflected rock ‘n’ roll. Notable releases included The Boss of the Blues (Atlantic 1234; 1956), Joe Turner (Atlantic 8005; 1957), Rockin’ the Blues (Atlantic 8023; 1958), Big Joe Is Here (Atlantic 8033; 1959), and Big Joe Rides Again (Atlantic 1322; 1960).
He continued to record up to his death for many labels, including Arhoolie, United Artists, MCA, Black and Blue, Big Town, Spivey, Muse, Savoy, and Pablo. Many of his classic recordings have been reissued on compilations such as His Greatest Recordings (Atco 376; 1971), The Big Joe Turner Anthology (Rhino 71550; 1994), and Volume 1: I’ve Been to Kansas City (Decca/MCA 42351).
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