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Successful second acts in popular culture are pretty rare, though when they happen can be quite memorable, and so when an artist manages to have a second act that overwhelms their wildly influential first act – at least in terms of historical recognition – it’s something to celebrate.

Big Joe Turner, who for rock’s first two years was a fairly steady presence on the scene but for the most part a total non-entity both commercially and creatively, pulled himself out of his doldrums once he signed with Freedom Records at the end of 1949 and reminded one and all what made him such a force in music when surrounded by the right personnel.

That he’s now left them for another label so soon after regaining his footing would seem to be a bad sign, for who was to say he’d mesh as well with a different band recording for a different company with potentially different stylistic aims, but once you see which company it is and who they’ve enlisted to back him, that’s when your fears subside, your excitement grows and you realize this “comeback” is in no danger of ending anytime soon.


Get In The Groove
The casual observer might assume by that introduction we were referring to Joe Turner signing with Atlantic Records for whom he’d score his biggest and most lasting hits throughout the 1950’s, but no, we’re not quite there yet, however this stop with Imperial is just as welcome for him, short though his stay here will be.

During rock’s first two full years Imperial Records was essentially just as much adrift as Turner was. They had a lot of releases and a handful by Charlie “Boogie Woogie” Davis which were actually pretty good, but nothing that sold nearly enough to make even a ripple on rock’s evolution.

Of course all of that changed in a big way in November 1949 when Lew Chudd signed Dave Bartholomew to head up his rock releases and within weeks Bartholomew had brought in the first wave of artists who’d quickly put Imperial Records on the map and make them major players on the rock landscape, a position they’d hold until Chudd sold the company in 1963.

Given that it’s rather uncanny how the recent career arcs of Turner and Imperial were so perfectly aligned and with Big Joe spending that time making the Gulf Coast region his unlikely home-base for his studio efforts you can see how natural it was that they got together starting with the rousing anthem Jumpin’ Tonight, a song which perfectly encapsulated both Turner and Imperial’s newfound outlook now that they’d both gotten their feet under them at last.

Let’s Get Together
The one thing that Dave Bartholomew wasn’t asked to do with this session was provide material, which considering he was chipping in with some truly great songs, or co-writes, on the work of Fats Domino, Jewel King and others, may not be the wisest move. Then again when Joe Turner is the one bringing his own songs to the table it’s pretty hard to find fault with that game plan.

Now as any Big Joe Turner aficionado knows he had a few go-to musical structures that he’d return to time and again, affixing new lyrics to reliable old frameworks and depending on the make-up of the band could make them fit snugly into a wide array of styles.

His signature uptempo song began as a duet between he and longtime pianist Pete Johnson dating back to the 1930’s when Roll ‘Em Pete took the nation by storm, igniting the boogie-woogie craze.

Over the years he cut that a number of times but also stripped it down for parts, keeping the basic melodic and rhythmic components and pulling out new stories from an almost bottomless well of stock phrases. Sally Zu-Zazz was one such rendition, a song that had it come out a few months later when rock ‘n’ roll first shot across the open sky would’ve been much better received.

He then utilized the same basic DNA for Ooo-Ouch-Stop, a song cut with The Flennoy Trio that all of about six people bought despite its brilliance.

So the idea had been around the block a few times and never failed to deliver fireworks in any rendition and now that he was on the upswing again it was only natural that he haul it out again, re-fit it with a new title – Jumpin’ Tonight – and some new lyrics to go with it and in the process confirm his allegiance to rock ‘n’ roll in case there were any lingering doubters in the cheap seats.


Everybody’s Jamming Now
Within a few seconds of the needle dropping there’s absolutely no doubt as to where this was cut. There’s a New Orleans feel pulsing through it thanks to the full arsenal of horns that kick this off, droning rather than honking, but with multiple parts weaving together to give it some depth.

The piano that anchors the track is being played by none other than Fats Domino rather than Bartholomew’s usual pianist, Salvadore Doucette, a little strange perhaps simply because as a contracted artist with Imperial himself it’s not like he’d be trying to pick up a few extra bucks as a sessionist, so the logical explanation is simply that Doucette couldn’t make it and Fats – not enough of a star to put on airs – filled in.

Unfortunately he’s not given enough to do, though what he does contribute is well-played, but it’s a basic boogie that stays largely buried in the mix, lending atmosphere without getting the chance to stand out.

The instrumental break is very cluttered, almost bordering on chaos at times, but kept just under control enough to not cause the track to break down completely. You have multiple horn lines swirling around Fats who hammers away on the keys while a sax solo by Herb Hardesty is trying its damnedest to whip things into a frenzy.

It’s a raucous sound they’re creating for sure, but a little unfocused and because of this it makes a lot of the appeal of Jumpin’ Tonight contingent on just what environment you hear it in.

If the party was already in full swing, the booze is flowing and the crowd is in the process of losing their minds this would be a perfect addition to the playlist. But if this was the record you were counting on to kick off those festivities it might fail to elicit the same response because it’s a little too busy for its own good. In those situations a record needs to gradually build to a peak and do so in a more streamlined fashion so it’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement even if you’re not paying close attention.

With this if you tried to follow along you’d risk getting lost and if you didn’t focus on it hard enough you may even think it was just a lot of noise… well, at least until Joe Turner set you straight.


Get On The Ball
It’s always a good sign when Turner is at the wheel of the car rather than in the passenger’s seat and while the musical vehicle he’s driving here might have a gas pedal that sticks a bit and its steering is a little loose, you still trust him to keep it on the road because nobody understands how to navigate all these fast turns like Big Joe and his leather-lunged approach.

The story – if you can call it that – is really just a series of loose-knit exclamations imploring listeners to lose their inhibitions, telling us in no uncertain terms to “Forget about tomorrow, just think about tonight” which is hardly the worst advice for such a freewheeling party as this conjures up.

In spite of the drunken sounds that you hear coming from the studio, Turner himself sounds fully sober, but in a good way, as in at 240 pounds or so when this was cut it’d take a whole lotta booze to get him to start slurring his lines. In other words, he’s fully invested in living it up like the others, he’s just holding his liquor better.

It’s a good thing too because the lyrics are what you really want to focus on in Jumpin’ Tonight, whether it’s him slandering the older generation by implicating “mother and dear old dad” in the debauchery or if he’s merely breaking down the effects of different whiskeys, his enthusiasm is what sells this brouhaha and makes you not mind having to step over broken bottles and passed out lightweights only to find the bathroom overflowing with people forcing you to relieve yourself in the fish tank.

But even then you likely wouldn’t care, for when Joe shouts the command to “Let’s get together and jump RIGHT NOW!” you can practically feel it in your chest… not to mention getting a contact high from the half bottle of Fireball he downed during the sax solo that you can smell on his breath.

If Turner’s this into the revelries then it’d be bad manners to take a look around at the destruction and suddenly remember you had choir practice across town, so you might as well pour yourself a drink and go wild with the rest of heathens and not worry about the sounds of the sirens getting closer, ready to throw you in the drunk tank until morning for simply enjoying life.


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