Happy birthday, Big Joe Turner, “Boss of the Blues”

Before the advent of microphones, if you were a singer, you needed to be heard. “Blues shouters” were powerful figures known for shouting above the music. Big Joe Turner was a blues shouter from Kansas City, and also one of the many – many – building blocks in what eventually would be called “rock ‘n roll”. His career spanned from jazz clubs in the 1920s to touring the world up until his death in 1985. He stood on stages with and collaborated with them all: Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, boogie-woogie maestro Albert Ammons, pianist Pete Johnson. Turner hailed from Kansas City, and did some early gigs in New York, but came back home, feeling New York wasn’t ready for the rowdiness of his sound yet. Eventually New York came calling in 1938, in the form of a talent scout – John Hammond – putting together the From Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall. (These two concerts are now legendary and did what they set out to do: connected the dots in Black culture, from gospel to jazz to swing.) In 1938, same time, Turner and pianist Pete Johnson went into the studio and recorded “Roll ‘Em Pete”.

For more background on “Roll ‘Em Pete”‘s significance, you really need to listen to Andrew Hickey’s episode on it in his A History of Rock and Roll in 500 Songs podcast. To boil it down: In “Rock and Roll Music”, Chuck Berry wrote “It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it” … and “Roll ‘Em Pete” is generally considered to be the first song featuring that back beat. (Hickey goes into all that. And more. Way more. I’ll be listening to that podcast until the day I die, probably, and I still won’t be finished.)

Powerful forces were converging all over the place in the 1930s and 40s, cultural, spiritual, political and technological. These forces somehow coalesced making space – somehow – for what came after, i.e. 1950s rock ‘n roll and rockabilly. Something as world-changing as 1950s rock and roll doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s not a bolt from the blue. Even Elvis deciding to record “That’s All Right” in 1954, an old blues song by Arthur Crudup, has such a long history surrounding it you really need to understand the context to get why Elvis’ version was such a revolution (and seen as so threatening). If you don’t get all that, then you might make the mistake of thinking, “What is the fuss about?” It’s easy enough to get the timeline and know the Renaissance followed the Black Plague – ha – but there are a lot of little things along the way, inroads, developments, explorations, tangents – that help foster the eventual explosion.

“Roll ‘Em Pete” was a wellspring.

Big Joe Turner was a powerful performer, with a massive voice and infectious energy: these were all very important qualities in the “modern” era. If you wanted to get booked into clubs, then you had to make people want to MOVE. Big Joe Turner was a bluesman, but he was also a big band swing-bang master of ceremonies, which then of course morphed into boogie-woogie which was just a tiny skip away from rock ‘n roll.

Turner influenced everybody. Buddy Holly. Fats Domino. Little Richard. And, of course, Elvis. I love this live performance of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” – where even though he’s got that huge microphone, you can feel the shouting in his voice, the power of it.

In doing a little bit of research for this post, I came across this piece about Derek Coller’s Turner bio-discography Feel so Fine. Some really great details but I loved this anecdote: Turner was arriving in England in 1965 for a tour. He didn’t have a work permit and the immigration officer said, “You’ve got a nerve.” Turner replied, “That’s what it takes these days, daddy.”

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