” The premier blues shouter of the postwar era, Big Joe Turner‘s roar could rattle the very foundation of any gin joint he sang within — and that’s without a microphone. Turner was a resilient figure in the history of blues — he effortlessly spanned boogie-woogie, jump blues, even the first wave of rock & roll, enjoying great success in each genre.
Turner, whose powerful physique certainly matched his vocal might, was a product of the swinging, wide-open Kansas City scene. Even in his teens, the big-boned Turner looked entirely mature enough to gain entry to various K.C. nighteries. He ended up simultaneously tending bar and singing the blues before hooking up with boogie piano master Pete Johnson during the early ’30s. Theirs was a partnership that would endure for 13 years.
The pair initially traveled to New York at John Hammond‘s behest in 1936. On December 23, 1938, they appeared on the fabled Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall on a bill with Big Bill Broonzy,Sonny Terry, the Golden Gate Quartet, and Count Basie. Turner and Johnson performed “Low Down Dog” and “It’s All Right, Baby” on the historic show, kicking off a boogie-woogie craze that landed them a long-running slot at the Cafe Society (along with piano giants Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons).
As 1938 came to a close, Turner and Johnson waxed the thundering “Roll ‘Em Pete” for Vocalion. It was a thrilling up-tempo number anchored by Johnson‘s crashing 88s, and Turner would re-record it many times over the decades. Turner and Johnson waxed their seminal blues “Cherry Red” the next year for Vocalion with trumpeter Hot Lips Page and a full combo in support. In 1940, the massive shouter moved over to Decca and cut “Piney Brown Blues” with Johnson rippling the ivories. But not all of Turner‘s Decca sides teamed him with Johnson; Willie “The Lion” Smith accompanied him on the mournful “Careless Love,” while Freddie Slack’s Trio provided backing for “Rocks in My Bed” in 1941.
Turner ventured out to the West Coast during the war years, building quite a following while ensconced on the L.A. circuit. In 1945, he signed on with National Records and cut some fine small combo platters under Herb Abramson‘s supervision. Turner remained with National through 1947, belting an exuberant “My Gal’s a Jockey” that became his first national R&B smash. Contracts didn’t stop him from waxing an incredibly risqué two-part “Around the Clock” for the aptly named Stag imprint (as Big Vernon!) in 1947. There were also solid sessions for Aladdin that year that included a wild vocal duel with one of Turner‘s principal rivals, Wynonie Harris, on the ribald two-part “Battle of the Blues.” ” Continue reading