The father of rock ‘n’ roll, a towering figure in music across the years and possessor of one of the most expressive resonant voices in history who could effortlessly adapt his songs for virtually any style, tempo and instrumental backing, changing their meaning entirely without altering a single word by virtue of his delivery alone.

Turner was born in 1911 and a few years after his father was killed by a train when Joe was just four years old he got his first job leading a blind singer through the streets for 50 cents and his career in music was launched. He honed his timing by singing along to an uncle who was a nightclub pianist and when he was old enough – or LOOKED old enough, as the fourteen year old already stood 6’2” tall – he’d apply his mother’s eyebrow pencil to his upper lip to approximate a mustache and slip into the thriving clubs around town.

Kansas City in the 1920’s and 30’s was a wide open town that roundly ignored the edicts of prohibition, as liquor flowed in clubs which remained open 24 hours a day with gambling and prostitution viewed not as illegal vices but harmless sidelines. The added inducement to entering these dens of inequity was the music. Pianist Pete Johnson was leading the band at the Black & Tan and the under-aged Turner finally convinced him to let him sing, sans microphone, and his voice echoed throughout the room. He was hired as a bartender whose job it was to bring in the bootleg whiskey and start singing whenever the patrons weren’t spending to revive their interest.

The duo didn’t let the 21st Amendment ending prohibition slow them down any, moving to another club where they were discovered by legendary music producer John Hammond who invited them to appear at his From Spirituals To Swing concert at Carnegie Hall designed to expose black music to white society. The two promptly stole the show with what could be said to be the start of the rock approach on “Low Down Dog” with Turner’s uptempo shouting matched by Johnson’s storming work on the keys, launching the boogie woogie craze that swept much of the nation over the next few years with both Turner and Johnson reveling in the spotlight, playing extended gigs at the jumpingest joints in New York.

But what followed that period was indecisiveness as Turner’s versatility amidst the changing musical trends during World War Two ensured he was always able to record, but rarely had a consistent approach over a succession of releases. When rock ‘n’ roll came into being in 1947 Turner, despite being one of those who inspired it as well as immediately foretold of it with an earlier 1947 release, “Sally Zu-Zazz”, took awhile to get up to speed, bouncing from one label to another all of whom had different ideas as to how to best present him.

Not until the dawn of the 1950’s did he fulfill his destiny, first with a brief flurry of inspired sides for the Freedom label, then signing with Atlantic Records in 1951 where he was finally handled with a firm sense of direction while paired with the best musicians and sympathetic and enthusiastic producers. The result was a run of 18 hits in seven years including three of the biggest smashes of the entire decade firmly establishing his role as a rock giant.

Turner’s stature as an elder statesman of rock (he was in his mid-40’s at the time of his greatest success) and the regard he was held in by other artists, many of whom had originally been drawn to the music after hearing his early rampaging vocals, ensured he’d never fade away into history entirely. However by the late 1950’s with an ever-increasing focus on youth and with tamed down lyrics to get by the sensors Turner’s heyday was finally at its end after twenty years in the spotlight.

He returned to the musical settings he’d left behind more than a decade earlier, reunited with Pete Johnson and playing jazz festivals, cutting blues tracks and once in awhile appearing on a rock show, often backed by Bill Haley and The Comets, as Haley, who’d covered Joe’s “Shake, Rattle & Roll” in 1954 and had the Pop Hit while Turner’s was the biggest R&B hit of the year, had become great friends with Big Joe on tours throughout the fifties and even lent him his band to cut a record in the 1960’s.

Turner’s girth was now reaching four hundred pounds and with it came health problems including diabetes and kidney failure requiring dialysis treatment. Turner, who’d been robbed of songwriting credits, not to mention never paid royalties after leaving Atlantic despite their keeping his biggest songs in circulation and on compilation albums for decades, was forced to continue performing into his seventies, often while using a cane or while seated, just to make ends meet.

Like so many others even the Father Of Rock ‘n’ Roll saw those who made millions off him and his music turn their back on him. The thunder that was the voice of Big Joe Turner was finally silenced in 1987, dying at the age of 74 after a career that spanned fifty years and all of the stylistic stops along the way. As songwriter Doc Pomus put it, “Rock ‘n’ roll never would’ve happened without Joe Turner”.

BIG JOE TURNER DISCOGRAPHY (Reviews To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):
(National 4017; April, 1948)
Stuck between two worlds as the band is out of step with Joe’s intent, clashing with his impressive vocals at every turn, sinking the record and delaying Turner’s ascent to the forefront of the music he was born to deliver. (4)

(MGM 10274; September, 1948)
Conflicting interests sink Turner once again, as the band wants to play in a spry fashion that runs counter to the maudlin storyline, leaving Joe bewildered and frustrated in his attempts at salvaging it despite some fine playing by Pete Johnson. (3)

(Aladdin 3013; October, 1948)
Turner’s third go-round with this tune on record but the first in the rock idiom where its lyrics take on entirely new meanings with his revved up delivery… the sound of a man enthusiastically declaring his freedom, and of a singer finding his place again in the music world as a unrepentant rocker. (7)

(MGM 10321; November, 1948)
A good song, very well sung and with sympathetic backing by the musicians for once, but entirely wrong for the rock setting it finds itself in. Recommended highly as a hybrid record, but this isn’t a hybrid record review so it regrettably falls short as a rock entry. (4)

(MGM 10321; November, 1948)
A storyline with solid potential done in by pedestrian lyrics, a largely outdated musical structure and a surprisingly lethargic Turner, making this yet another missed opportunity to establish himself as a noteworthy rocker. (3)

(Excelsior 533; December, 1948)
The stylistic breakthrough for Turner as a rocker, aided by the right attitude and fierce playing from the Flennoy Trio… Big Joe tears into this like a man possessed, proving that all he needed was the right situation to excel. (9)

(Excelsior 534; December, 1948)
Another torrid rocker that came from Turner’s all-too brief studio partnership with The Flennoy Trio, as the rolling piano rhythms and Lucky Ennis’s fluid guitar are in perfect lockstep with an ebullient Big Joe throughout this unapologetic rave-up. (8)

(Down Beat 152; December, 1948)
A song with great potential done in by sloppiness on Turner’s part as he loses his way lyrically down the stretch and made infinitely worse by the obnoxiously intrusive presence of the worst trumpets yet heard in rock ‘n’ roll’s earliest years. (3)

(Down Beat 154; January, 1949)
Another mismatched set of components for Turner to struggle through, as the horns pull him backwards while the storyline looks forward and poor Big Joe flounders in the middle unsure of where to turn. (3)

I DON’T DIG IT (version 2)
(MGM 10397; April, 1949)
Cut a year later than the Excelsior version yet sounding far more archaic in both instrumentation and attitude, this is a Turner who’s lost the will to fight and thus is headed down a path to nowhere. (3)

(MGM 10492; July, 1949)
Joe is in fine form here, roaring through this with aplomb but he’s weighed down by the horn section who haven’t been told it’s not 1945 anymore and so Turner’s road back to glory gets needlessly sidetracked by heading down a dead end street yet again. (4)

(MGM 10492; July, 1949)
More stylistic misdirection thanks to MGM’s myopic reading of the marketplace, as Turner tries his best to make this work but gets no help from the outdated horn charts once again thereby sinking another record’s chances of reviving his stagnant career. (3)

(Aladdin 3036; October, 1949)
All Big Joe ever wanted to do was be able to rock and as this two year old track with Wynonie Harris that finally saw release shows he was perfectly capable of doing so from the very start of the genre’s life and though his lyrics may be coded his message sure isn’t. (7)

(Aladdin 3036; October, 1949)
Though he sings with typical gusto Turner has no real song to bite into here and is reduced to swearing alongside a game Harris to try and add some punch to an otherwise unrewarding effort on everyone’s part. (3)

(Rouge 105; December, 1949)
A one-off session for fledgling Rouge Records which may have just been Turner’s way of giving local saxophonist Joe Houston a recording opportunity, the two Joes wind up making the most of it with Houston strutting his stuff admirably while Turner wails like no tomorrow. (7)

(National 9099; January, 1950)
Done in commercially by the stylistic shifts that occurred between when this was cut in late 1947 and when it was finally released, the performance itself of both Joe and the band is first rate and gives this a poignancy that is disarming. (6)

(Freedom 1531; January, 1950)
The greatest record Turner ever made, a storming rocker backed by the best band he’d encountered, allowing him to sing with a unbridled confidence about all of the earthly sins that rock ‘n’ roll so proudly celebrated. ★ 10 ★

(Freedom 1531; January, 1950)
The type of aching ballad that Turner excelled at is given a brilliant reading here as he utilizes a shifting mindset while winding his way through various plot twists until the final reveal, all while the top-notch band subtly adds colors that make the picture he paints all the more striking. (9)

(Freedom 1537; May, 1950)
Another devastatingly powerful downhearted ballad by Turner who works hand in glove with the band who seem to be commenting on – and adding to – each emotional nuance his voice delivers including injecting it with a modicum of hope. (8)

(Freedom 1537; May, 1950)
Despite a good theme to explore this is done in somewhat by the backing band who aren’t as forward thinking as Freedom’s usual sessionists which throws it out of balance, though Joe sounds commanding it’s lacking the musical aggression required to sell it fully. (5)

(Freedom 1540; July, 1950)
Though Turner himself is in fine form on this uptempo romp, the band (once again not the Freedom studio cats) are woefully behind the times with their arrangement, for while they try and match the tempo they can’t convey the same excitement as Joe. (5)

(Imperial 5090; August, 1950)
A new label and a new band but the same ol’ Turner who comes roaring out of the gate with a rousing call to arms… if Dave Bartholomew’s band is a little unfocused behind him, though suitably enthusiastic, Big Joe has no such trouble as he shouts up a storm. (7)

(Imperial 5090; August, 1950)
Joe gives us what we’ve come to expect with a song that checks all the boxes from theme to delivery, largely by recycling bits and pieces from other songs, but it’s no less effective because of its familiarity. (6)

(Imperial 5093; September, 1950)
Another rousing performance by Turner who at this point is hitting on all cylinders, as he’s paired again with Dave Bartholomew’s band who are equally stellar throughout with Frog Joseph’s trombone and Fats Domino’s piano standing out. (8)

(Imperial 5093; September, 1950)
By emphasizing his love for the woman who’s broken his heart rather than her cruelty that led to their demise Turner has his work cut out for him here but receives enough help from the band to explain his loyalty to her if not justify his decision to keep loving her in spite of that. (5)

(Freedom 1545; September, 1950)
An impressive performance by Turner who navigates the emotional terrain from sadness to despair to stubborn hope with unerring precision but the horn section plays as if they had no idea rock was even invented dragging it down when viewed in this setting. (5)

(Freedom 1546; October, 1950)
The final of his four sides cut with The Hep-Cats is perhaps the most emblematic of their shared mindset as the band gets multiple showcases that match Turner’s intensity eery step of the way making this track the very definition of what it means to rock and roll. (9)

(Aladdin 3070; October, 1950)
A three year old track hauled out of mothballs naturally doesn’t sound very current but Turner was already revealing his inclination towards rock here even if the band was largely sticking to a less forceful sound behind him. (4)

(Atlantic 939; May, 1951)
Turner achingly delivers what is the definitive ballad of his long career, wringing out every drop of its emotional essence while Van Walls’s piano echoes him, taunts him and spurs him on… a sparse and atmospheric masterpiece in every way. ★ 10 ★

(Atlantic 939; May, 1951)
What Turner does with this dusty old material is remarkable, injecting genuine emotion into what had been a well-written song cursed with an array of flaccid performances over the years, but the horn section is still lagging a few years behind Big Joe here. (6)

(Atlantic 849; October, 1951)
Perfectly situated between downhearted lament and upbeat optimism in the face of romantic defeat, Turner is stellar here delivering a tight story with some memorable lines while Harry Van Walls’ piano provides all of the musical shadings to compliment both moods at once. (9)

(Atlantic 849; October, 1951)
Another fantastic vocal from Turner, this time on an uptempo celebration of sex that is very well written with clever enough euphemisms to get the point across while still evading the censors, yet the saxophone is the only one keeping its pants on, lessening the overall impact. (7)

(Atlantic 960; February, 1952)
Turner deftly navigates the entire history of what has become a crumbling relationship with incredible pathos, sadly reflecting on life slipping away while the band pushes and pulls at him throughout giving it a constantly shifting backdrop for him to work from. (9)

(Atlantic 960; February, 1952)
You’d be wise to avoid the more commonly heard alternate take of this but even the original single version is fairly lackluster with an outdated arrangement, especially early on, and a vocal that is missing Turner’s usual spark. (4)

(Atlantic 970; June, 1952)
Though Turner does his best with this pastiche of recent hits, it’s missing everything that made those so special, giving us a premise without plot details and a morose arrangement without a melodic spark on a record that was devoid of any creative inspiration. (4)

(Atlantic 970; June, 1952)
An interesting composition offered up by Turner who unfortunately doesn’t get the support he needs to turn his writing and singing into a really compelling record as the arrangement is as simplistic as possible with no effort made to have it stand out. (4)

(Atlantic 982; December, 1952)
Uninspired rehash of past glories as Doc Pomus, Harry Van Walls and company come up with nothing new – nor try to – and not even Turner’s heartfelt delivery can salvage it, as this missed the charts entirely which is exactly what it deserved for its lack of effort. (4)

(Atlantic 982; December, 1952)
Hurt by being yet another in the onslaught of similarly themed ballads of late, it overcomes the fairly indistinct backing given to it with good lyrics and Turner’s delivery full of reflective sorrow, which results in a nice, if somewhat non-essential entry. (6)