“The Boss of the Blues”
Providing an essential link between the blues and rock 'n' roll, Big Joe Turner is best remembered for his classic 1954 hit "Shake, Rattle and Roll," one of the pioneering songs of rock 'n' roll. Although Turner enjoyed his greatest recorded success with Atlantic Records between 1951 and 1956, rock 'n' roll was actually his second (or third) successful musical career.
He started out as an important member of the burgeoning Kansas City jazz scene and helped popularize boogie woogie in the late '30s with pianist Pete Johnson. He also pursued an influential career as one of the most potent blues shouters of the '40s. He was one of the few jazz and blues singers of his generation to become popular with the teenage rock 'n' roll audience. After spending the '60s in relative obscurity, Big Joe Turner returned to jazz and blues, singing on the Pablo label with the likes of Count Basie and Jimmy Witherspoon.
Big Joe Turner began singing in Kansas City clubs in his early teens and formed a musical partnership with boogie woogie pianist Pete Johnson near the end of the '20s. Touring with regional bands led by Bennie Moten and Count Basie, among others, Turner first went to New York in 1936, returning in 1938 with Pete Johnson to perform on Benny Goodman's Camel Caravan CBS radio show and the legendary Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall, the first concert series to promote black music to white audiences.
Big Joe Turner soon took up a four-year residence at the exclusive Cafe Society Uptown and Downtown clubs in New York with Johnson, often joined by Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. The three pianists became known as the Boogie Woogie Boys, and Turner's debut recording of "Roll 'em Pete" with Johnson launched the boogie woogie craze. Usually accompanied by Johnson, Turner recorded for National Records from 1938 to 1940, producing the classic "Cherry Red" in 1939. He then recorded for Decca from 1940 to 1944, usually backed by Johnson, but occasionally accompanied by Willie "The Lion" Smith, Art Tatum or Freddie Slack. In 1941 Turner traveled to Hollywood to appear in Duke Ellington's "Jump For Joy" revue.
Subsequently based largely on the West Coast, Big Joe Turner continued to record with Johnson after World War II, first for National (1945-47), where he scored a smash rhythm and blues hit with "My Gal's a Jockey." His National recordings were later issued on Savoy. Through 1950, Turner recorded for labels such as Aladdin, RPM, Downbeat/Swingtime, MGM, Freedom, and Imperial (in New Orleans). In 1949, for National, he recorded "Battles of the Blues" with rival Wynonie Harris, scoring his second R&B hit in 1950 with "Still in the Dark" on Freedom. The Aladdin and Imperial recordings were later issued on EMI, and the Swingtime recordings on Arhoolie.