Joe Turner was born in Kansas City on 18 May 1911, and by the late 1920’s he was a singing bartender in a town where the Great Depression was hardly noticed.
“Roll ’em, Pete” Turner would roar from behind the bar to the stomping boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson, and the two of them developed these exchanges into a routine that took them all the way to Carnegie Hall in 1938.
A four-year run at New York’s fashionable Cafe Society ignited a nationwide boogie-woogie craze that provided the immediate impetus for the emergence of rhythm & blues and in retrospect, was the first spark that ignited what became the conflagration of rock ‘n’ roll.
Turner made classic blues records for labels big and small during the 1930’s and 1940’s, and in 1951 he was once again in the right place at the right time. While visiting New York to play at the Apollo Theatre with the Count Basie Orchestra, he was approached by Ahmet Ertegun, who signed him to Atlantic Records.
Chains Of Love, written by Ertegun – under the pseudonym A. Nugetre (read it backwards) – and recorded at Turner’s first Atlantic session, took him to #2 on the R&B charts, and in 1953 and 1954 rocking discs like Honey Hush and TV Mama began appealing to young white record buyers.
Turner topped the R’n’B charts in 1954 with the Jesse Stone composition, Shake, Rattle & Roll, sparking an immediate cover by Bill Haley and another by Elvis Presley two years later. The Beatles recorded it as part of an extended jam during the Get Back sessions in January 1969 and it eventually appeared on Anthology 3.
In his mid-40’s Big Joe Turner became an improbable teen idol and a true rock ‘n’ roll star. He kept up the momentum with a string of hits including Flip, Flop and Fly, Corrina Corrina and even Teenage Letter. During his ten years at Atlantic he also recorded The Boss Of The Blues, the definitive album of blues singing, Kansas City style, with a big band of jazz greats.
In the 60’s and 70’s Turner toured widely, making several triumphant “comebacks” in New York clubs, and receiving frenzied ovations in Europe. Settling in the Los Angeles area in the early 70’s, he recorded for Pablo with Dizzy Gilespie, Roy Eldridge and other jazz immortals, and he informally coached – and employed as a backup combo – a young white band that later became The Blasters.
Big Joe died of kidney failure on 24 November 1985. He had been suffering from kidney and heart problems (as well as diabetes) for years and had to perform sitting down after dragging his immense body, supported by crutches, to the stage.
On 9 December 1985, a concert was held at the Lone Star Cafe in New York, featuring Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Dr John, Mink DeVille, Herbie Mann, Johnny Copeland, Felix Cavaliere and others. The show, organised by Turner’s long-time songwriter friend Doc Pomus, was designed to help the singer’s family pay for outstanding medical costs.