Big Joe Turner was often called the Boss of the Blues, or the King of the Shouters, but he was much more. A pioneer in American popular music, he turned his raucous vocals, insistent rhythms and exuberant spirits into a seedbed for rock 'n' roll.
Turner, who died Sunday from kidney failure at age 74, had an enormous influence on such singers as Joe Williams, Wynonie Harris, Jimmy Witherspoon and Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson. Perhaps more important, he served as a link between the rollicking jazz of Kansas City in the '30s, rhythm and blues in the '40s and rock 'n' roll in the '50s. And indirectly, he was as much a founding figure in rock as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley.
Ironically, one of Turner's signature tunes, "Shake, Rattle and Roll," was better known than he was -- particularly after being sanitized and popularized by Bill Haley and the Comets. Other Turner classics included "Honey Hush," "Cherry Red," "Chains of Love," "Corrina, Corrina" and "Flip, Flop and Fly." Like many of the black sources of rock, he was often credited as an inspiration but never reaped much financial reward for his contributions to the form -- a situation he always took in stride.
For much of his last 20 years, Big Joe Turner was bedeviled with serious health problems, some related to diabetes and drinking, others to his tremendous girth. His 300 pounds proved too much for his 6-foot 2-inch frame to carry, and often in recent years he would perform seated in a chair, tapping out infectious rhythms on his cane and "shouting" in the strong, fearless baritone that had needed no amplification in the Kansas City nightclubs where he developed his style.
If the body had lost its strength, the barrel-chested voice maintained its explosive power, and Turner continued to perform until just a few months ago. Of course, he couldn't really afford not to. An all-star benefit to help defray the costs of his long illness, had been scheduled for next week at New York's Lone Star Cafe; the proceeds will now go toward paying funeral expenses.
On one of his first records, with boogie-woogie master Pete Johnson, Turner swore to "boogie my woogie until my face turns cherry red." That promise was central to his enduring appeal. There was a sense of freedom in his music, a visceral overview of life and love. Turner's songs, poetry rough-hewn and accessible, reflected an unflinching appraisal of troubled times, most often on a purely personal level.
"Love ain't nothin' but a lot of misery," he sang; and everyone always knew exactly what he was talking about when he'd launch into "After a While, You'll Be Sorry Baby" or "Let Me Be Your Dog" or "So Many Women Blues." Turner usually went into detail, much of it caustically sexual ("Midnight Rockin'," "Messin' Around") or humorous, and all of it irresistible. Sometimes he'd boast about his romantic exploits and skills; more often he'd vent his frustrations at the confusion and anxiety provoked by love wars.
He remained a majestic blues shouter until the end, a big wheel that kept rolling on from the rent parties and fish fries that inspired him to rock the blues back in Kansas City in the late '20s and early '30s. Turner, the first significant male blues shouter (singer seemed too genteel a word), jumped the rhythm in much the same way as his contemporaries Count Basie and Bennie Moten did on the big band front. Some of his greatest music was made in the company of such legendary boogie-woogie pianists as Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. During the five years Turner spent in New York, it was not uncommon to find all three pumping away behind Turner at the fabled Cafe Society nightclub, inspiring a boogie-woogie craze in that city that lasted until the mid-'40s.
Turner made the first of his hundreds of recordings in 1938, but after a number of successful years in the boogie-woogie fold, he went into a period of decline. His career was revived in 1954 by Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records, and after 15 years of selling mostly to blacks, Turner crossed over to a larger market that could finally appreciate not only his tremendous skills but his pervasive influence.
His most recent records included "Have No Fear, Big Joe Turner Is Here," "Kansas City Here I Come," and "Patcha, Patcha All Night Long," released last month.
Turner also recorded with such jazz giants as Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and with young revivalist bands like Roomful of Blues. No matter what the context, he always went for the muscle, whether it was as single pianist or with a big band, slipping into a relaxed yet exuberant groove -- his booming voice and rhythmic and melodic inventions testifying to his jazz roots, his truth-telling lyrics testifying to the blues base.
As he used to shout to Pete Johnson in the earliest nights in Kansas City, "Roll 'em, Pete, roll 'em boy . . . we all jump for joy." It was a philosophy that would hold up well for more than half a century.