Big Joe Turner

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Big Joe Turner
Big Joe in Hamburg 1973.jpg
Background information
Birth name Joseph Vernon Turner Jr
Also known as The Boss of the Blues
Born (1911-05-18)May 18, 1911
Kansas City, Missouri, United States
Died November 24, 1985(1985-11-24) (aged 74)
Inglewood, California, United States
Genres Jump blues, rock and roll, swing music
Instruments Vocals
Years active 1920s–1980s
Labels Atlantic, National, Vocalion, Decca, Pablo
Associated acts Pete Johnson, Count Basie Orchestra

Joseph Vernon "Joe" Turner, Jr. (May 18, 1911 – November 24, 1985),[1] best known as Big Joe Turner, was an American blues shouter from Kansas City, Missouri, United States.[2] According to the songwriter Doc Pomus, "Rock and roll would have never happened without him."[2] While he had his greatest fame during the 1950s with his rock and roll recordings, particularly "Shake, Rattle and Roll", Turner's career as a performer endured from the 1920s into the 1980s.[2] Turner was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, with the Hall lauding him as "the brawny voiced 'Boss of the Blues'".[2]


Early days[edit]

Known variously as The Boss of the Blues, and Big Joe Turner (due to his 6'2", 300+ lbs stature), Turner was born in Kansas City. His father was killed in a train accident when Joe was only four years old. He first discovered a love of music in his involvement at church. He began singing on street corners for money, quitting school at age fourteen to work in Kansas City's nightclubs, first as a cook, and later as a singing bartender. He became known eventually 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.[2] The Sunset was managed by Piney Brown. It featured "separate but equal" facilities for caucasian patrons. Turner wrote "Piney Brown Blues" in his honor and sang it throughout his entire career.

At that time Kansas City nightclubs were subject to frequent raids by the police, but as Turner recounts, "The Boss man would have his bondsmen down at the police station before we got there. We'd walk in, sign our names and walk right out. Then we would cabaret until morning."

His partnership with boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson proved fruitful.[2] Together they went to New York City in 1936, where they appeared on a playbill with Benny Goodman, but as Turner recounts, "After our show with Goodman, we auditioned at several places, but New York wasn't ready for us yet, so we headed back to K.C.". Eventually they were witnessed by the talent scout, John H. Hammond in 1938, who invited them back to New York to appear in one of his "From Spirituals to Swing" concerts at Carnegie Hall, which were instrumental in introducing jazz and blues to a wider American audience.[2]

Due in part to their appearance at Carnegie Hall, Turner and Johnson had a major success with the song "Roll 'Em Pete".[2] The track, basically a collection of traditional blues lyrics featured one of the earliest recorded examples of a back beat. It was a song that Turner recorded many times, with various combinations of musicians, over the ensuing years.

1939 to 1950[edit]

In 1939, along with boogie players Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, they began a residency at Café Society, a nightclub in New York City, where they appeared on the same playbill as Billie Holiday and Frank Newton's band.[2] Besides "Roll 'Em, Pete", Turner's best-known recordings from this period are probably "Cherry Red", "I Want A Little Girl" and "Wee Baby Blues". "Cherry Red" was recorded in 1939 for the Vocalion label, with Hot Lips Page on trumpet and a full band in attendance.[3] The next year Turner contracted with Decca and recorded "Piney Brown Blues", with Johnson on piano.[3]

In 1941, he went to Los Angeles and performed in Duke Ellington's revue Jump for Joy in Hollywood. He appeared as a singing policeman in a comedy sketch called "He's on the Beat". Los Angeles was his home for a time, and during 1944 he worked in Meade Lux Lewis's Soundies musical movies. Although he sang on the soundtrack recordings, he was not present for filming, and his vocals were mouthed by comedian Dudley Dickerson for the camera. In 1945 Turner and Pete Johnson established their bar in Los Angeles, The Blue Moon Club.

That same year he contracted with National Records company, and recorded under Herb Abramson's supervision. His first hit single was a cover of Saunders King's "S.K. Blues" (1945).[4] He recorded the songs "My Gal's A Jockey" and the risqué "Around The Clock" the same year, and the Aladdin company released "Battle of the Blues", a duet with Wynonie Harris. Turner stayed with National until 1947, but none of his recordings were great sellers.[3] In 1950, he released the song "Still in the Dark" on Freedom Records.[4]

Turner made many albums with Johnson, Art Tatum, Sammy Price, and other jazz groups.[5] He recorded with several recording companies and also performed with the Count Basie Orchestra.[2] During his career, Turner was part of the transition from big bands to jump blues to rhythm and blues, and finally to rock and roll. Turner was a master of traditional blues verses and at Kansas City jam sessions he could swap choruses with instrumental soloists for hours.[citation needed]

Success during the 1950s[edit]

Big Joe Turner performing on the Rock and Roll Revue (1955)

In 1951, while performing with the Count Basie Orchestra at Harlem's Apollo Theater as a replacement for Jimmy Rushing, he was spotted by Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, who contracted him to their new recording company, Atlantic Records.[2] Turner recorded a number of successes for them, including the blues standards, "Chains of Love"[6] and "Sweet Sixteen".[3] Many of his vocals are punctuated with shouts to the band members, as for the songs "Boogie Woogie Country Girl" ("That's a good rockin' band!", "Go ahead, man! Ow! That's just what I need!" ) and "Honey Hush" (he repeatedly sings "Hi-yo, Silver!", probably in reference to The Treniers singing the phrase for their Lone Ranger parody "Ride, Red, Ride"). Turner's records scored at the top of the rhythm-and-blues charts; although they were sometimes so risqué that some radio stations would not play them, the songs received much play on jukeboxes and records.

Turner had a great success during 1954 with "Shake, Rattle and Roll", which seriously enhanced his career, turning him into a teenage favorite, and also helped to transform popular music.[2] During the song, Turner yells at his woman to "get outa that bed, wash yo' face an' hands" and comments that she's "wearin' those dresses, the sun comes shinin' through!, I can't believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you."[7] He sang the number on film for the 1955 theatrical feature Rhythm and Blues Revue.

Although the cover version of the song by Bill Haley & His Comets, with the risqué lyrics partially omitted, was a greater sales success, many listeners sought out Turner's version and were introduced thereby to rhythm and blues. Elvis Presley's version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" combined Turner's lyrics with Haley's arrangement, but was not a successful single.

"The Chicken and the Hawk", "Flip, Flop and Fly",[6] "Hide and Seek", "Morning, Noon and Night", and "Well All Right" were successful recordings from this period.[3] He performed on the television program Showtime at the Apollo and in the movie Shake Rattle & Rock! (1956).[3]

The song "Corrine, Corrina" was another great seller during 1956.[3] In addition to the rock music songs, he released Boss of the Blues album in 1956.[5] "(I’m Gonna) Jump for Joy", his last hit, reached the US R&B record chart on May 26, 1958.[2]

Returning to the blues[edit]

After a number of successes in this vein, Turner quit popular music and resumed singing with small jazz combos, recording numerous albums in that style during the 1960s and 1970s.[2] During 1966, Bill Haley helped revive Turner's career by lending the Comets for a series of popular recordings in Mexico.[3] In 1977 he recorded a cover version of Guitar Slim's song, "The Things That I Used to Do".

During the 1960s and 1970s he resumed performing jazz and blues music, performing at many music festivals and recording for Norman Granz's company Pablo Records.[3][5] He also worked with Axel Zwingenberger.[5] Turner also participated in a 'Battle of the Blues' with Wynonie Harris and T-Bone Walker.[8]

During 1965 he toured in England with trumpeter Buck Clayton and trombonist Vic Dickenson, accompanied by Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band. Part of a studio concert was televised by the BBC and later issued on DVD. A sound recording of a club appearance made during this tour is not thought of sufficient sound quality to justify commercial issue. He also toured Europe with Count Basie and his Orchestra.

He won the Esquire magazine award for male vocalist in 1945, the Melody Maker award for best 'new' vocalist during 1956, and the British Jazz Journal award as top male singer during 1965. In 1977, Turner recorded "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" for Spivey Records, featuring Lloyd Glenn on piano. Turner's career endured from the bar rooms of Kansas City in the 1920s (when at the age of twelve he performed with a pencilled moustache and his father's hat), to European jazz music festivals of the 1980s.

In 1983, only two years before his death, Turner was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.[9] That same year, the album Blues Train was released by Mute Records company; the album had Turner paired with the team Roomful of Blues.[2] Turner received top billing with Count Basie in the Kansas City jazz reunion movie The Last of the Blue Devils (1979) featuring Jay McShann, Jimmy Forrest, and other players from the city.


Big Joe Turner died in Inglewood, California, in November 1985, at the age of 74 of heart failure, having suffered the earlier effects of arthritis, a stroke and diabetes. He was buried at Roosevelt Memorial Park, in Gardena, California.

Big Joe Turner was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.[10]


The New York Times music critic Robert Palmer said: "...his voice, pushing like a Count Basie solo, rich and grainy as a section of saxophones, which dominated the room with the sheer sumptuousness of its sound."

In announcing Turner's death in their December 1985 edition, the British music magazine, NME, described Turner as "the grandfather of rock and roll."[11]

Bob Dylan referenced Turner in the song "High Water (For Charley Patton)", from his 2001 album Love and Theft. Songwriter Dave Alvin wrote a song about an evening he spent with Turner titled "Boss Of The Blues". It was on his 2009 release, Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women. Alvin discussed the song in Issue 59[12] of The Blasters Newsletter.[13]

Dave Alvin would later collaborate on a second reunion album released in 2015 with his former Blaster's brother Phil Alvin featuring four Big Joe covers. Lost Time covers songs such as "Cherry Red", "Wee Baby Blues" and "Hide and Seek". The brothers met Big Joe Turner in Los Angeles while he was playing the clubs on Central Ave. and living in the Adams district between tours in the 1960s. Phil Alvin even opened for Turner a few times with his first band, Delta Pacific and Turner continued mentoring the Alvin brothers till his death in 1985. Big Joe Turner is pictured on the back cover of Lost Time.[14][15][16]

The biographical film The Buddy Holly Story refers to Turner as well as contemporaries Little Richard and Fats Domino as major influences on Buddy Holly, with Holly collecting their vinyls.

Mississippi John Hurt wrote and recorded various versions of a song called "Joe Turner Blues."[17] On a 1963 recording Hurt did for The Library of Congress, he is quoted as saying "best blues I ever heard was Joe Turner" before playing a version of the song.[citation needed]

Most famous recordings[edit]

Tracks marked as * were million selling discs.[19]



Year Titles (A-side, B-side)
Both sides from same album except where indicated
Chart Positions Album
US Pop[20] US
1941 "Piney Brown Blues"
B-side by Pete Johnson's Band: "627 Stomp"
- - Non-album tracks
"Doggin' The Dog"
b/w "Rainy Day Blues"
- -
"Somebody's Got To Do"
b/w "Ice Man"
- -
"Careless Love"
b/w "Jumpin' Down The Blues" (Non-album track)
- - Joe Turner and Pete Johnson
1942 "Sun Risin' Blues"
b/w "Blues On Central Avenue"
- - Non-album tracks
1944 "Little Bittie Gal's Blues"
b/w "I Got A Gal For Every Day In The Week"
Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson Trio
- -
1945 "Watch That Jive"
b/w "Johnson and Turner Blues"
Joe Turner with Pete Johnson's All-Stars
- - Joe Turner and Pete Johnson
"It's The Same Old Story"
b/w "Rebecca"
- - Non-album tracks
"S.K. Blues" - Part 1
b/w Part 2
Joe Turner with Pete Johnson's All-Stars
- 3 Joe Turner and Pete Johnson
1946 "Mad Blues"
b/w "Sunday Morning Blues"
Joe Turner with Bill Moore's Lucky Seven
- - Careless Love
"My Gal's A Jockey"
b/w "I Got Love For Sale" (from Careless Love)
- 6 Have No Fear Big Joe Turner Is Here
1948 "Tell Me Pretty Baby"
b/w "Christmas Date Boogie"
- - Jumpin' The Blues
"Mardi Gras Boogie"
b/w "My Heart Belongs To You"
- - Non-album tracks
"Morning Glory"
b/w "Low Down Dog"
- - The Boss Of The Blues Sings Kansas City Jazz
1949 "Blues On Central Avenue"
b/w "Sun Risin' Blues"
- - Non-album tracks
"I Don't Dig It"
b/w "Rainy Weather Blues"
- -
1950 "Love My Baby"
b/w "Lucille"
- -
"Still In The Dark"
b/w "Adam Bit The Apple" (Non-album track)
- 9 And The Blues'll Make You Happy Too
"You'll Be Sorry"
b/w "Feelin' Happy"
- - Non-album tracks
"I Want My Baby"
b/w "Midnight Is Here Again"
- -
"Jumpin' At The Jubilee"
b/w "Lonely World"
- -
"Just A Travellin' Man"
b/w "Life Is Like A Card Game"
- -
"Back-Breaking Blues"
b/w "Empty Pocket Blues"
- -
1951 "Chains of Love"
b/w "After My Laughter Came Tears" (from Big Joe Is Here)
- 2 Rock & Roll
"Christmas Date"
b/w "Howd'ya Want Your Rollin' Done" (Non-album track)
- - Jumpin' The Blues
"Life Is A Card Game"
b/w "When The Rooster Crows"
- - Non-album tracks
"The Chill Is On"
b/w 'Bump Miss Susie"
- 3 Big Joe Is Here
1952 "Sweet Sixteen"
b/w "I'll Never Stop Loving You" (from Big Joe Is Here)
- 3 Rock & Roll
"Don't You Cry"
b/w "Poor Lover's Blues"
- 5 Big Joe Is Here
"Still In Love"
b/w "Baby, I Still Want You" (from Big Joe Is Here)
- - Rockin' The Blues
1953 "Blues Jumed The Rabbit"
b/w "The Sun Is Shining"
- - Non-album tracks
"Honey Hush" (later retitled "Yakity-Yak")
b/w "Crawdad Hole"
- 1 Rock & Roll
1954 "TV Mama"
b/w "Oke-She-Moke-She-Pop" (from Rock & Roll)
- 6 Rockin' The Blues
"Shake, Rattle and Roll"
b/w "You Know I Love You" (from Rockin' The Blues)
- 1 Rock & Roll
"Well All Right"
b/w "Married Woman" (from Big Joe Is Here)
- 9
1955 "Flip Flop and Fly"
b/w "Ti-Ri-Lee" (from Big Joe Is Here)
- 2
"Hide And Seek"
b/w "Midnight Cannonball" (from Big Joe Is Here)
- 3
1956 "The Chicken And The Hawk" / - 7
"Morning, Noon and Night" - 8 Rockin' The Blues
"Corrine, Corrina" (Original version)
b/w "It's The Same Old Story"
- - Non-album tracks
"Corrine, Corrina" (Re-recorded version)
b/w "Boogie Woogie Country Girl"
41 2 Rock & Roll
"Lipstick, Powder and Paint" / - 8 Rockin' The Blues
"Rock A While" - 12 Big Joe Is Here
"Midnight Special Train"
b/w "Feeling Happy"
- - Rock & Roll
1957 "After A While"
b/w "Red Sails In The Sunset"
- - Rockin' The Blues
"Love Roller Coaster"
b/w "World Of Trouble"
- 12
"Trouble In Mind"
b/w "I Need A Girl"
- -
"Teen Age Letter"
b/w "Wee Baby Blues" (from The Boss Of The Blues Sings Kansas City Jazz)
- -
1958 "Jump For Joy"
b/w "Blues In The Night"
- 15
1959 "Got You On My Mind"
b/w "Love Oh Careless Love"
- - Rhythm & Blues Years
1960 "Honey Hush" (Re-recording)
b/w "Tomorrow Night"
53 -
"Chains Of Love"
b/w "My Little Honey Dripper"
- -
"My Reason For Living"
b/w "Sweet Sue"
- -
1964 "I'm Packin' Up"
b/w "I Walk A Lonely Mile"
- - Non-album tracks
"Shake Rattle and Roll" (Re-recording)
b/w "There'll Be Some Tears Falling"
- -
1967 "Big Wheel"
b/w "Bluer Than Blue"
- - Singing The Blues
1968 "I've Been Up On The Mountain"
b/w "I Love You Baby" (Non-album track)
- - Boss Man Of The Blues
1969 "Shake Rattle and Roll" (Second re-recording)
b/w "Two Loves Have I"
- - The Real Boss Of The Blues
"Love Ain't Nothin'"
b/w "10-20-25-30"
- - Non-album tracks
"Night Time Is The Right Time"
b/w "Morning Glory"
- - Big Joe Turner Turns On The Blues
1973 "One Hour In Your Garden"
b/w "You've Been Squeezin' My Lemons"
- - Still Boss Of The Blues

Studio albums[edit]

  • The Boss of the Blues (1956)
  • Joe Turner (1958)
  • Rockin' The Blues (1958)
  • Big Joe is Here (1959)
  • Big Joe Rides Again (1960)
  • Singing The Blues (1967)
  • Texas Style (1971)
  • Life Ain't Easy (1974)
  • The Midnight Special (1976)
  • Things That I Used to Do (1977)
  • In the Evening (1977)
  • Kansas City Here I Come (1984)[21]




  • The Encyclopedia of Jazz and Blues - ISBN 1-86155-385-4
  • Jumpin' the Blues - Joe Turner with Pete Johnson's Orchestra - Arhoolie Records - Liner notes
  • Rocks in my Bed - Big Joe Turner - International Music Co. - Liner notes
  • The Chronological Joe Turner - 1949–1950 - Big Joe Turner - Classics Records - Liner notes
  • Rock and Roll - Big Joe Turner - Atlantic Records - Liner notes
  • Shout, Rattle and Roll - Big Joe Turner - Proper Records (Four CD boxed set - 2005) - Liner notes
  • I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter - Big Joe Turner - Spivey Records - 1977 - Liner notes


  1. ^ "Big Joe Turner". Retrieved 2013-06-30. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Big Joe Turner Biography | The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum". Retrieved 2013-06-30. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Biography by Bill Dahl". Retrieved November 17, 2009. 
  4. ^ a b c Whitburn, Joel (1996). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942-1995. Record Research. p. 453. 
  5. ^ a b c d Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues - From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. pp. 178–79. ISBN 1-85868-255-X. 
  6. ^ a b Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 3 - The Tribal Drum: The rise of rhythm and blues. [Part 1]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. 
  7. ^ "Shake Rattle And Roll". 1954-04-28. Retrieved 2013-06-30. 
  8. ^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues - From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 117. ISBN 1-85868-255-X. 
  9. ^ "Blues Foundation Hall of Fame". Retrieved 2013-06-30. 
  10. ^ "Big Joe Turner | The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum". 2013-04-15. Retrieved 2014-07-28. 
  11. ^ Tobler, John (1992). NME Rock 'N' Roll Years (1st ed.). London: Reed International Books Ltd. p. 413. CN 5585. 
  12. ^ "Blasters Newsletter Issue #59". Retrieved 2013-06-30. 
  13. ^ "Blasters Newsletter". Retrieved 2013-06-30. 
  14. ^ "Phil and Dave Alvin uncover more common ground on 'Lost Time'". LA Times. Retrieved 2015-10-07. 
  15. ^ "Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin: Lost Time". American Songwriter. 2015-09-15. Retrieved 2015-10-07. 
  16. ^ "New Album 'Lost Time' Out September 18 On Yep Roc Records — Dave Alvin". 2015-09-18. Retrieved 2015-10-07. 
  17. ^ "Joe Turner Blues - Mississippi John Hurt | Song Info". AllMusic. Retrieved 2016-05-23. 
  18. ^ "Malcolm X: Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack: Various Artists: Music". Retrieved 2013-06-30. 
  19. ^ a b c d e Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (Second ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 57. ISBN 0-214-20512-6. 
  20. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2003). Top Pop Singles 1955-2002 (1st ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 726. ISBN 0-89820-155-1. 
  21. ^ "Big Joe Turner | Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  22. ^ "Shake, Rattle & Blues - Michael Bloomfield,Big Joe Turner | Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-09-02. 
  23. ^ "Various – Boogie Woogie". Discogs. Retrieved 2015-12-13. 

External links[edit]