Joe Turner, more commonly known as Big Joe Turner, was a Kansas City native born in 1911. Even as a boy, Turner was enthralled with music and had been known to use his mother's eyebrow pencil to draw on a mustache in order to obtain entrance into clubs and listen to the music when he was under-aged. However, this ploy was not always successful and he sometimes had to resort to perching atop garbage cans in the alleys behind the Vine Street clubs peering into windows to get a peek at the bands.
Finally, Big Joe Turner, who acquired the latter nickname because of his impressive size, secured a job in a club bartending, acting as a bouncer and singing in the 1930's. Here, Turner, who was known for the powerful voice that matched his large physique, met pianist Pete Johnson and the two men went to New York in 1936.
In 1938, the pair made an appearance at the "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, which included Big Bill Broonzy, Count Basie and the Golden Gate Quartet. The show was quite a success with Turner and Johnson playing songs like "Low Down Dog" and "It's Alright Baby."
While in New York, Turner and Johnson signed with the Vocalion record company, recording "Roll 'Em Pete" which was an up tempo number that Turner would rerecord over his career many times. In 1939, the pair also recorded the blues number "Cherry Red" for Vocalion accompanied by the trumpeter Hot Lips Page and a full combo band.
1940 brought a change in record companies as Turner and Johnson signed on with Decca Records where they produced "Piney Brown Blues." While with Decca, Turner also branched out to record a few numbers without Johnson.
During the war years, Turner migrated to the West Coast. In 1945, Big Joe signed on with National Records. Turner's stay with National Records, which lasted until 1947, resulted in his first national Rhythm and Blues (R&B) hit, "My Gal's a Jockey".
Turner, mainly accompanied by Johnson, had produced a number of records up until 1950, including one in which young Fats Domino played piano. Unfortunately, not many of these records had sold very well. But Big Joe soon got a break when he was filling in as lead vocalist with Count Basie's band at the Apollo Theater and the leaders of Atlantic Records stopped by to hear the band. Atlantic picked up Turner's recording contract and in 1951, Big Joe recorded the blues ballad "Chains of Love". After this point, Turner produced hit after hit including the songs "Chill Is On", "Sweet Sixteen" (which was later recorded by B.B. King) and "Don't You Cry."
In 1953, Joe Turner's first song to top the R&B charts was "Honey Hush", which was later recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis. Jesse Stone, a writer for the Atlantic Record Company, composed the song that was perhaps Turner's biggest success, "Shake, Rattle and Roll." This song established Turner as a regular on the play lists of the "black" radio stations across America, and in fact it began to be played on the "white" radio stations, thus making Joe Turner the first black artist to cross over onto the white radio stations. At the age of 43, Joe Turner suddenly found himself an unlikely star at the very beginning of Rock and Roll.
"Shake, Rattle and Roll" would later become even more popular when it was remade by Bill Haley and His Comets, as well as by Elvis Presley. He produced a string of hits that followed "Shake, Rattle and Roll" including "Well All Right" and "Hide and Seek".
Some rock historians credit Big Joe Turner with giving rock its name. As early as 1941 he used the term "rock" in his lyrics when he sang, "I feel like rockin' till the rooster crows for day."
In those days rockin' or rockin' and rollin' were slang terms for sexual activity, and he may have been the first to use the phrase in a song.
Big Joe also appeared on a few episodes of a television program, "Showtime at the Apollo" in the mid 1950's. He appeared in the film "Shake, Rattle and Rock" in 1957 along with Fats Domino.
Turner managed to enjoy a few more hits with his remake of "Corrine Corrina", "Rock a While" and "Lipstick Powder and Paint." After these, the Atlantic Records Company recorded Turner on adult-oriented albums and he was once again reunited with Pete Johnson on piano. He remained with Atlantic until 1959 and then was fairly quiet throughout much of the 1960's.
In 1966, Turner produced an album with Bill Haley, who had been a long-time admirer. In the 1970's and 1980's Turner made a number of recordings with the Pablo label. These recordings consisted of impromptu sessions that paired various jazz musicians with Turner.
Sadly, because of his huge size, Turner experienced many health problems, which required him to sit down during performances. Big Joe Turner continued to tour until his death in 1985.
Page author: N.G.