Big Joe Turner’s hardest-hitting singles have been collected on a new compilation, titled Big Joe Turner Rocks.
Here’s how it would work, night after night in Kansas City. The band onstage would start a tune, introduced by the piano player, Pete Johnson. After the first chorus, the bartender, a big guy just out of his teens, would start singing blues. He didn’t really need a microphone, but he’d work his way to the one on stage anyway and carry on for a few more numbers. Then he’d walk back to the bar, pick up the bar towel and continue pouring drinks for the customers.
Joe Turner was born in 1911. He went to work to support his mother when his father died in the early 1930s, but he’d already been sneaking into clubs and doing guest stints with the bands in places like the Backbiter’s Club, the Hole in the Wall and the Cherry Blossom. His big break came when Pete Johnson, already a local favorite, gave him a regular gig at Piney Brown’s Sunset Café; it was there, in 1936, that John Hammond, in town to sign the Count Basie band, heard the duo. He told jazz fans in New York about them, and soon they had a gig at the Famous Door on 52nd Street. In 1938, Hammond included them in his famous Spirituals to Swing concert, and in so doing ignited the boogie-woogie craze. The two went into the studio to record one of their most popular numbers, “Roll ‘Em Pete.”
Those verses — the girl up on the hill, the eyes shining like Klondike gold and so on — would return in song after song, rolling, as he’d also say, like a big wheel in a Georgia cotton field. Turner was illiterate, but he also possessed a library of what blues scholars call floating verses; his was second to none. And, of course, there was that voice.
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