Big Joe Turner (born born Joseph Vernon Turner Jr., May 18, 1911 – November 24, 1985) was an American blues shouter from Kansas City, Missouri. A blues shouter is a term for a blues singer capable of singing and projecting their voice over a band, usually without a microphone. Big Joe’s signature hit was his 1954 song, “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” and together with his piano accompaniment Pete Johnson, he help pioneer the transition of music from Big Band Jazz and Swing to Jump Blues and eventually Rock’n’Roll & Rhythm & Blues. His performance career stretched from the 1920s to the 1980s. His nickname “Big Joe” referred to his portly, 6’2″ 300+ lbs stature. He also held nicknames as The Boss of the Blues and The Singing Barman, the latter a result from his start singing in Kansas City nightclubs while working as a bartender.
Turner’s early interest music began with his involvement in his church. His father was killed in a train accident when Turner was only 4 years old, which led Turner to begin singing on street corners for money, and eventually into the Kansas City nightclub scene by the time he was 14. He eventually became known as The Singing Barman, and worked in such venues as The Kingfish Club and The Sunset, where he and his piano playing partner Pete Johnson became resident performers. Johnson and Turner first attempted to break onto the New York jazz scene in 1936, where they played alongside Benny Goodman, but after fruitless club auditions after that show, they returned to Kansas City. In 1938, notable music scout John Hammond invited them back to New York City to play at Carnegie Hall, where they scored a major hit with their song “Roll ’em Pete,” which was one of the earliest songs to feature a back beat…and helped introduce jazz and blues to a wider American audience.
Turner’s various gigs from 1939 to 1950 included a residency at Cafe Society, where he shared a bill with Billie Holiday and Frank Newton’s band, as well as playing in Duke Ellington’s revue Jump for Joy in Hollywood. He recorded many records for several labels including Decca, National and eventually Atlantic records, and sang not only with Johnson on Piano but also with small combos led by Art Tatum & Sammy Davis Jr. as well as the full Count Basie Orchestra.
His most famous 1954, “Shake, Rattle & Roll” featured a signature back beat as well as raw and risqué lyrics. He followed these up with several similarly joyful sounding recordings of “Well All Right,” “Flip Flop and Fly,” “Hide and Seek,” “Morning, Noon and Night,”, “The Chicken and the Hawk” and “Corinna, Corinna.” All of these songs are great for dancing, and helped cement Turner as an early Rock’n’roll star.
A great album to start your Joe Turn collection, which features all of the songs mentioned above, plus another personal favorite – The Midnight Special Train – is: