Personalities | Big Joe Turner | Forties | Jazz & Blues
Joseph Vernon Turner was born on 18 May 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri. He dropped out of school after sixth grade and worked with blind singers on the streets. The blues was in the air in Kansas City and when Turner joined in with the street singers he would make up blues lyrics. Turner was functionally illiterate and never learned to read or write properly.
He studied records in his late teens to learn songs and cited Leroy Carr, Lonnie Johnson, Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters as favourites. By the time he was 17, he had teamed up with Pete Johnson at the Backbiter’s Club. There were no microphones at the time and Turner’s voice became the stuff of legend as locals told stories of hearing him 10 blocks away. He became the first of a new breed of performer: the blues shouter.
A Fruitful Partnership
In the early 1930s, Turner and Johnson moved to the Black and Tan club, where Turner learned to tend bar. After Prohibition ended in 1933 the pair moved to the Cherry Blossom, a larger spot which had a floor show, including the orchestra of George E. Lee. It was during this time that Johnson and Turner travelled to out-of-town locations such as Omaha, Chicago and St. Louis. In early 1935 the pair moved to the Sunset Café, where they were heard by John Hammond and invited to appear at the Spirituals To Swing concert in New York. A big hit at the concert, Johnson and Turner soon joined forces with Albert Ammons and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, and began a four-year run at a New York nightclub, Café Society, which featured black entertainment. Johnson and Turner made their recording debut for Vocalion (including ‘Roll ’Em Pete’) but Joe moved over to Decca in 1940. He was a guest vocalist on jazz dates featuring the Varsity Seven, Benny Carter, Joe Sullivan and Art Tatum, and was paired with artists such as pianists Sammy Price and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith on his own recordings.
In the summer of 1941, Turner went to Los Angeles to appear in Duke Ellington’s musical Jump For Joy. Turner was added to the cast after the show had opened but Ellington had written a blues for Turner to perform in the show, ‘Rocks In My Bed’. It became Turner’s signature song following the show’s close in late September, and his return to New York’s Café Society.
In 1945, Joe Turner signed with National Records. He was travelling constantly and National managed to record him in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, backed by small groups that often included horns. In 1947–48 he recorded sessions in California for Aladdin, Swingtime and MGM. He lived in New Orleans for a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and he recorded for Freedom and Imperial during that time, but in 1951 he signed with Atlantic Records; here began the period of his greatest popularity.
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