Born Joseph Vernon Turner in Kansas City, MO, May 18, 1911; died in Los Angeles, CA, November 24, 1985; married, 1954; wife's name, Lou Willie (died, 1972).
Blues and jazz singer Big Joe Turner began his career as a teenager, singing in the beer joints and nightclubs of Kansas City. In the late 1930s he moved to New York City, where he sang in society cafes and helped to spark a nationwide boogie-woogie craze. After recording a long-running series of boogie-woogie hits, he became one of the few singers of his generation to cross over into rock and roll in the 1950s. In the later years of his career, he released a series of critically acclaimed jazz albums and continued to perform regularly until his death in 1985.
As a singer, Turner was an "original who could sing urbane jazz or down-and-dirty blues," according to Mark Rowland in Musician. "His voice," critic Benny Green wrote in the notes to Turner's album Nobody in Mind, "had a body to it, a certain aural succulence, which makes its impact very nearly a physical sensation."
Joseph Vernon Turner was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on May 18, 1911. Like many black entertainers of his era, he began his career as a boy, working the streets for tips. When he was in his early teens, his father died and Turner left school for a series of jobs in Kansas City nightspots, working variously as a bartender, cook, and bouncer.
Turner would occasionally sing at after hours jam sessions and get pointers from moreexperienced performers. "I got acquainted with a lot of musicians," he told Living Blues. "They used to help me a lot you know, teach me all the gimmicks and things. I got so I was pretty good at it. So from then on I just took it up for a profession." With the help of his musician friends, Turner began singing around Kansas City. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he occasionally toured with the regional bands led by Bennie Moten, George E. Lee, Andy Kirk, and Count Basie, but his most common partner was childhood friend and boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson.
At the time, Kansas City musicians like Basie and Kirk were combining big-band jazz and rural blues to create what Rowland in Musician called a "driving, danceable R&B." Turner and Johnson participated in this innovation by taking "the traditionally laconic 12-bar blues ... upbeat and uptown," according to Rowland.
In 1936 Turner tried to make it in New York City but failed. Two years later he got another chance. Famed jazz promoter John Hammond was traveling through Kansas City when he caught Turner and Johnson's live act. Hammond was impressed and booked the duo to play at his Christmas Eve "Spirituals to Swing" concert at New York's Carnegie Hall.
"Spirituals to Swing" was a huge success, and with Hammond behind him Turner soon became a successful performing and recording artist. He and Johnson appeared on Benny Goodman's Camel Caravan radio broadcasts. He was booked into what became a five-year engagement at New York City's Cafe Society, and he recorded frequently with Johnson as well as pianists Art Tatum and Joe Sullivan.
Perhaps most significantly, his recording of "Roll Em Pete" with the Boogie Woogie Boys--Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis-- "ignited the boogie-woogie fever that subsequently swept the nation," according to Blackwell's Guide to Recorded Blues.
Through the late l930s and early 1940s Turner recorded often and successfully with the Vocalion, Varsity, Okeh, and Decca labels. He displayed himself as a line jazz singer, a blues shouter, and a master of boogie-woogie. His themes were "wine, women and song ... and [he] sang them in a way that let you know he'd researched his subjects well," according to Musician's Rowland.
In the late 1940s Turner, like many jazz singers, experienced a decline in popularity. He returned to Kansas City, and given the general direction of popular music, it seemed likely that he would fade into obscurity. But in 1951 he was approached by a young record producer named Ahmet Ertegun. Ertegun had recently started Atlantic Records and had a plan to make Turner a renewed success. Ertegun coupled Turner with a relatively unknown pianist and songwriter named Harry Van Walls. Over the next few years the duo knocked out one hit disc after the next, including "I'll Never Stop Loving You," "Bump Miss Suzie," and "Still in Love."
In 1954 Turner travelled to Chicago and New Orleans where he recorded some protean rock and roll. Rock proved fertile ground for Turner, and he became one of the few jazz/blues ingers of his generation to regain healthy record sales in the teenage rock and roll market. He hit the charts repeatedly with songs like "Morning, Noon, & Night," and "Lipstick, Powder and Paint." His biggest hit-- "Shake, Rattle & Roll"--became a teen anthem, though most kids heard versions of the song recorded by white artists Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.
While the 1950s were commercially successful years for Turner, some argue that they marked a deterioration in the quality of his material. David Penny in Blackwell's Guide to Recorded Blues commented that Turner's songs of adolescent love were "unworthy of his talent," and that it was only when he reverted to "such standards as 'Trouble in Mind' or 'Tomorrow Nights'... that the old Joe Turner shone through."
In the early 1960s Atlantic producers began saddling Turner's records with vocal choirs and symphonic string sections. Dissatisfied with this approach, Turner left Atlantic in 1962 and spent a decade playing clubs in Los Angeles, making an occasional film appearance, and releasing singles on the Coral and Kent labels.
In 1970 Turner was reintroduced to a national audience by the enterprising Bluesway label, and in 1971 he was signed by the Pablo label. Until his death in 1985 Turner remained a vibrant presence, recording a series of fine albums often surrounded by old colleagues such as Count Basie, Eddie Vinson, Pee Wee Crayton, Jay McShann, Lloyd Glenn, and Jimmy Witherspoon. Writing in Musician, Rowland recalled a 1981 appearance in which Turner was backed by the rock and roll group the Blasters. "Big Joe had just turned 70 and needed crutches to maneuver his ample frame and a stool on the bandstand," wrote Rowland. "But ... an amazing transformation took place: Swinging the mike in his mighty paw, Turner began to belt out rich swinging boogie woogie blues.... For two hours the room had exploded, and by the end it was the kids who were staggering."
by Jordan Wankoff
Big Joe Turner's Career
Toured regionally with Kansas City bands led by George E. Lee, Bennie Motein, Count Basie, and others, late 1920s to early 193Os; appeared with pianist Pete Johnson in the "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall and on Benny Goodman's Camel Caravan radio program, 1938; appeared at Cafe Society, New York City, 1939-44; recorded extensively for Vocalion, 1938-40, and Decca, 1940-44; recorded hit "Roll Em Pete" with the Boogie Woogie Boys; signed to Atlantic Records, 1951; recorded rock and roll and R&B hits in the 1950s, including "Shake Rattle and Roll," 1954, and "Teenage Letter," 1957; left Atlantic to play Los Angeles clubs, 1962; recorded a series of jazz albums on the Pablo label, 1970s.
Big Joe Turner's Awards
Silver Award for Male Vocalist in All-American Jazz Band, Esquire magazine, 1945; named Best New Male Singer, Down Beat magazine critics' poll, 1956; named Top Male Singer, Melody Maker magazine critics poll, 1965; Best Blues Record, Jazz Journal poll, 1965; Outstanding Achievement Award from Mayor Tom Bradley, Los Angeles, CA.
- Selective Works
- Boss of the Blues, Atlantic, 1956, reissued, 1976.
- Big Joe Rides Again, Atlantic, 1959, reissued, 1988.
- Texas Style, Evidence, 1971, reissued, 1992.
- (With the Count Basie Orchestra) Flip, Flop & Fly, Pablo, 1975, reissued, 1989.
- Things That Used to Do, Pablo, 1975.
- Midnight Special, Pablo, 1976.
- (With Pete Johnson) Jumpin' Blues, Arhoolie, 1981.
- The Best of "Big" Joe Turner, Pablo, 1982.
- Have No Fear, Joe Turner Is Here, Pablo, 1982.
- In the Evening, Pablo, 1982.
- (With Jimmy Witherspoon) Nobody in Mind, Pablo, 1982.
- (With Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, and others) Trumpet Kings Meet Joe Turner, Fantasy/Original Jazz Classics, 1982, reissued, 1991.
- Life Ain't Easy, Pablo, 1983.
- Kansas City Here I Come, Fantasy/Original Jazz Classics, 1984, reissued, 1992.
- Rock This Joint, Intermedia, 1984.
- (With Roomful of Blues and Doctor John) Blues Train, Muse, 1986.
- (With Jimmy Witherspoon) Patcha, Patcha All Night Long, Pablo, 1986.
- Memorial Album: The Rhythm & Blues Years, Atlantic, 1986.
- Greatest Hits, Atlantic, 1987.
- I've Been to Kansas City, Volume 1, Decca Jazz, 1990.
- Singing the Blues, Mobile Fidelity, 1990.
- Stormy Monday, Pablo, 1991.
- Everyday I Have the Blues, Fantasy, Inc., 1991.
- 1938-1941, L'art Vocal, 1992.
- Joe Turner with Milt Jackson, Roy Eldridge, Fantasy, 1992.
- (With Pete Johnson's Orchestra) Tell Me Pretty Baby, Arhoolie, 1992.
- (With Milt Buckner, Slam Stewart, and Jo Jones) Texas Style, Evidence, 1992.
- Stride by Stride, Solo Art, 1993.
- Big Bad and Blue: The Big Joe Turner Anthology, Rhino, 1994.
- The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Blues, Blackwell, 1991.
- Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers, edited by Sheldon Harris, Arlington House, 1979.
- Periodicals Living Blues, autumn 1972.
- Musician, May 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes to Everyday I Have the Blues, Fantasy, Inc., 1991.