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ATLANTIC 939; MAY 1951

 
 

 

The obvious comparison to make is to a boxer, a former champ who took too many shots to the head over a long career and began to wear down, their speed gone, their defenses battered, their reflexes shot… but they still have that punch and still know how to get in there and mix it up.

For Big Joe Turner, someone who was rocking a full decade before the genre had the decency to finally be born and get officially christened for the world to take notice in 1947, his stops over the next two years were the musical equivalent of a fighter on the ropes, unable to get off his punches or avoid those of his opponents.

Occasionally he’d still land a mighty left hook and knock someone out, but for the most part it looked as though he was washed up, no longer a contender for anything other than a sad epitaph some night on the undercard where he’d get battered around the ring like a nobody.

But then in 1950 something changed. Turner landed at Freedom Records and was rejuvenated, musically and commercially, and in the process showed he could still outslug anyone.

Now with a new label the grizzled old pro climbs back in the ring in front of a full house to fight for the championship belt once again.

Who in their right minds wouldn’t want a ticket for this?
 

 

It’s Three O’Clock In The Morning, The Moon Is Shining Bright
Since we’re on record as stating unequivocally that the greatest run Joe Turner had as a record artist did indeed just come with Freedom, or at least his second and last session for them where every single cut was brilliant, it might not seem that Big Joe was in fact too big an underdog heading into this main event, so let’s set the scene a little better before we begin even though this story is pretty well known by now.

Despite Turner’s artistic rebirth and the huge commercial success he had with Adam Bit The Apple (on a regional basis anyway) and Still In The Dark, he was not necessarily in the best position as 1951 kicked off.

For starters there was his disdain for long term contracts which always kept him from putting down roots, taking cash for a session but in the process always being at the mercy of the label’s stylistic whims, not to mention the quality – or lack thereof – of their sidemen.

He’d lucked out at Freedom where Goree Carter brought him in and provided stellar backing for him along with the other Hep-Cats, as Joe meshed beautifully with them, spurring one another on like few had thought possible anymore. But Freedom had shut its doors in the fall, Conrad Johnson and the rest of the band were scattered to the wind and Turner was on the move again.

Still a big name, if not necessarily a big draw, he’d managed to secure a last minute gig at the Apollo Theater with Count Basie whose regular singer, Joe Williams, had fallen ill. Turner was the wrong man for the job, for while nobody questioned his voice or his ability to get to the inner depths of a song, the charts Basie’s band used were far too complex for someone used to boogie, barrelhouse and 12 bar blues patterns and Turner quickly fell out of step with them and was booed mercilessly by the audience.

Ahmet Ertegun had been there to witness this ignominious performance and sensing opportunity he raced to find the dejected singer, finally tracking him down at the Braddock bar next door where he was drowning his sorrows. Ertegun made his pitch – come with me to Atlantic, I’ll make you a star.

For once it wasn’t record company bullshit.
 


 
 

Tell Me What You Want To Do
That’s not to say there wasn’t SOME bullshit going on with this record, namely the writing credits.

Ahmet Ertegun wrote as much of this song as you or I did. In truth it was composed by our ol’ pal Doc Pomus – his first outside writing job at that – and Harry Van Walls, the session pianist who is as much a key component of the final record as Turner is. The latter at least got his name on the original pressing before he sold off his share later. Pomus was broke at the time so he didn’t even wait that long, selling his share before it was even cut for a paltry fifty bucks.

What Ertegun would’ve done without this song is anybody’s guess, for it’s kind of hard turning someone into a star, even someone as great as Turner, without quality material. But with Chains Of Love that wasn’t going to be a problem, for this was top shelf goods, an achingly slow song that allowed Turner to give voice to the despondency he’d felt after his Apollo Theater debacle.

The unusual thing about it though is this was ostensibly a love song, albeit one delivered by a man who is so dependent on this women for his happiness that he’s almost crushed by the weight of his devotion to her.

But then again that was right up Turner’s alley, for he could mine the depth of emotional songs like nobody’s business and here’s got a some of the choicest lyrical couplets of his career to unearth, all of it tied to a dirge like melody that uses Van Walls’ piano fills as the song’s flickering heartbeat. The rest is up to Turner to breathe life into.

Does he ever.

In a career that spanned almost half a century on record this is Turner’s most sensitive vocal performance. He’s delivering the lines with a delicacy that belies his hulking girth, gently caressing each word before stepping back to give it room to breathe.

That careful hesitancy, the way he lightens that commanding voice of his until it practically floats to the ground as if parachuting from his chest, aren’t things found on the page, only in his heart. Somehow he convinces you he’s living this in real time, that it actually IS “three o’clock in the morning” and he’s looking out his window across the city, light rain streaking down the glass, and hoping that the coming daylight will somehow heal his broken heart.

There have been plenty of rock songs about the downsides of love the last few years of course, but rarely if ever has anyone ached so while singing them as Big Joe does here.
 

Where Can You Be Tonight
Because of how impressive he is vocally it’s tempting to suggest that Turner didn’t need any help at all, that he could’ve carried this off by himself, but all great pictures need a frame to set them off and here he’s got a minimalist one to die for.

Co-writer Van Walls is the most prominent musician here, his skeletal piano echoing Joe’s cries, leading him on and responding to him in equal measure, embellishing moods and then almost cruelly leaving him out to dry before coming back at the last instant to provide a soft landing.

He’s playing plenty of notes, more than we usually get in fact unless the singer is accompanying themselves on piano, but he’s judicious in what he’s playing, hammering away at times but never forcing the pace artificially. Like a taunting sparring partner he’s dancing around Joe to make him sweat but during the bridge he eases off for a minute to let Joe wallow in his misery.

That, in essence, is the brilliance of the song and arrangement – Joe gives the impression of careful thought behind each sentiment, cushioning them with his silence which gets repeatedly broken by the piano serving as the bridge to the next line, a push-pull dynamic that never gets old no matter how many times you hear Chains Of Love.

They aren’t alone here though by any means, we get a bank of soft horns in the distance, almost surely Frank Culley among them, and at one point a guitar chips in with a key responsorial figure, muted but atmospheric before slipping back into the shadows.

The horns are pushed forward a little more down the stretch, their playing adding to the dull ache of the song, creating a mood that may be despondent but isn’t oppressively gloomy. For such a huge hit it’s an incredibly stark arrangement but anything more would be superfluous. It’s hard to improve upon perfection.
 


 

Are You Gonna Leave Me Or Love Me?
For the last half dozen years Big Joe Turner had constantly been on the move… not just from one record company to another, but also from one stylistic home to another.

Though he’d handled all these shifts with admirable grace, it was rapidly becoming a career full of dead ends. Just when he stumbled upon something ideally suited for him, such as with Freedom Records, he suddenly had it taken away. For a man turning forty this year, looking around him and seeing younger and younger artists setting the pace, it had to be an uneasy feeling to realize that he might not find many takers for what he had to offer much longer.

Chains Of Love ensured his story wasn’t over just yet.

The record sold and sold and sold some more, landing at #2 on the national charts and staying on those charts for more than half the year. Atlantic wisely gave him a long term contract and Turner wisely accepted, going against his longstanding resistance to being tied down, happy to have a permanent home at last.

From now on they were heading in one direction, head down, eyes forward, always moving and ready to take on all comers.

Having risen off the canvas, Big Joe was once again a champion.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Big Joe Turner for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)