Big Joe Turner Biography

Joseph Vernon Turner, 18 May 1911, Kansas City, Missouri, USA, d. 24 November 1985, Los Angeles, California, USA. ‘Big’ Joe Turner (aka Big Vernon) began singing in local clubs in his early teens upon the death of his father, and at the age of 15 teamed up with pianist Pete Johnson. Their professional relationship lasted on-and-off for over 40 years. During the late 20s and early 30s, Turner toured with several of Kansas City’s best black bands, including those led by George E. Lee, Bennie Moten, Andy Kirk and Count Basie. However, it was not until 1936 that he left his home ground and journeyed to New York City. Making little impression on his debut in New York, Turner, with Johnson, returned in 1938 to appear in John Hammond Jnr.’s From Spirituals To Swing concerts and on Benny Goodman’s Camel Caravan CBS radio show, and this time they were well received. Johnson teamed up with Albert Ammons and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis as the Boogie Woogie Boys and sparked the boogie-woogie craze that subsequently swept the nation and the world. Turner’s early recordings depicted him as both a fine jazz singer and, perhaps more importantly, a hugely influential blues shouter.

He appeared on top recording sessions by Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins and Joe Sullivan as well as his own extensive recording for Vocalion Records (1938-40) and Decca Records (1940-44), which featured accompaniment by artists such as Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Art Tatum, Freddie Slack or Sammy Price, when Johnson, Ammons or Lewis were unavailable. After World War II, Turner continued to make excellent records in the jazz blues/jump-blues styles for the burgeoning independent labels - National (1945-47), Aladdin (1947, which included a unique Battle Of The Blues session with Turner’s chief rival, Wynonie Harris), Stag and RPM (1947), Down Beat/Swing Time and Coast/DooTone (1948), Excelsior and Rouge (1949), Freedom (1949-50), and Imperial/Ba’you (1950), as well as a west coast stint in 1948/9 with new major MGM Records. As the 40s wore on, these recordings, often accompanied by the bands of Wild Bill Moore, Maxwell Davis, Joe Houston and Dave Bartholomew, took on more of an R&B style which began to appeal to a young white audience by the early 50s.

In 1951 ‘Big’ Joe started the first of 13 years with the fledgling Atlantic Records, where he became one of the very few jazz/blues singers of his generation who managed to regain healthy record sales in the teenage rock ‘n’ roll market during the mid- to late 50s. His early Atlantic hits were largely blues ballads such as ‘Chains Of Love’ and ‘Sweet Sixteen’, but 1954 witnessed the release of Turner’s ‘Shake Rattle And Roll’ which, covered by artists such as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, brought the 43-year-old blues shouter some belated teenage adoration. This was maintained with such irresistible (and influential) classics as ‘Hide And Seek’ (1954), ‘Flip, Flop And Fly’, ‘The Chicken And The Hawk’ (1955), ‘Feelin’ Happy’ (1956) and ‘Teenage Letter’ (1957). At the height of rock ‘n’ roll fever, Atlantic had the excellent taste to produce a retrospective album of Turner singing his old Kansas City jazz and blues with a peerless band, featuring his old partner Pete Johnson. The album, The Boss Of The Blues, has since achieved classic status.

In the late 50s, Atlantic’s pioneering rock ‘n’ roll gave way to over-production, vocal choirs and symphonic string sections. In 1962 Turner left this fast-expanding independent company and underwent a decade of relative obscurity in the clubs of Los Angeles, broken by the occasional film appearance or sporadic single release on Kent and Coral Records. The enterprising Bluesway label reintroduced ‘Big’ Joe to the general public. In 1971 he was signed to Pablo Records, surrounded by old colleagues such as Count Basie, Eddie Vinson, Pee Wee Crayton, Jay McShann, Lloyd Glenn and Jimmy Witherspoon. He emerged irregularly to produce fine one-off albums for Blues Spectrum and Muse, and stole the show in Bruce Ricker’s essential jazz film, The Last Of The Blue Devils. Turner’s death in 1985 was as a result of 74 years of hard living, hard singing and hard drinking, but he was admired and respected by the musical community and his funeral included musical tributes by Etta James and Barbara Morrison.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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