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FREEDOM 1537; MAY 1950

 
 

 

In all walks of life an enduring image is often tied to first impressions based on appearance alone.

There’s surely an evolutionary reason why puppies seem endearingly cute and helpless while looking up at you, just as there’s a reason why grizzly bears roar and snarl and look vicious when you run across them in the wild. Once learned we keep that impression of them for the next time we meet one of their kind.

But there are times when what you see runs counter to what you expect, as Big Joe Turner proves when he opens his mouth and begins singing in a manner that seems remarkably out of place for such a hulking giant of a man who at times sounds almost as vulnerable as a motherless child left to fend for himself in a cold brutal world.
 

 

I Always Get A Bad Deal
Over the course of rock’s first two and a half years there have been few artistic journeys that have been more interesting – and at times frustrating – to follow than Big Joe Turner, a prodigious talent who for the longest time seemed cursed as he was saddled with conflicting musical ideals on a variety of record labels, each seeking to appeal to a different audience by tying him to material and arrangements that risked taking him further and further away from his strengths.

Though Turner was adept at singing all types of songs the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll in 1947 seemed heaven sent for him, as it was a style which emphasized the rollicking rhythms and boastful lyrics that he had a particular affinity for. It seemed all but certain that he’d soon become the genre’s shining beacon if there was any justice in the world. Yet save for a few stray sides along the way nobody really took advantage of his facility for it until he got to Freedom Records at the dawn of the 1950’s.

Yet while his short stint with the Houston label would prove to be his artistic reawakening, the songs he cut while there were hardly all nitro-fueled rockers. In fact, his sessions were split equally between the balls-to-the-wall uptempo cuts and downhearted laments, something Big Joe did equally well… provided the sidemen were up to the task.

With the top-notch band employed by Freedom Records that was hardly going to be an issue and so while it was those barn-burning tunes that served as the loudest declaration as to his dormant potential as rock’s most vibrant vocal act, it was the skill in which they carried out the vital flip-sides to those storming tracks, mournful ballads such as Life Is Like A Card Game, which showed just how skilled Big Joe Turner really was.

For despite his towering presence at 6’3”, roughly 240 pounds (and still growing!), few singers half his size had the ability to make you feel as sympathetic and protective of him as Turner when he made up his mind to wring out his soul for you.
 


 
 

Born With A Losing Hand
Though the vocal prowess of Big Joe was legendary… someone who literally did not require a microphone to be heard over the buzzing crowds in the Kansas City speakeasies where he learned his trade in the early 1930’s as a teen… Turner had remarkable sensitivity and texture in that voice when he dialed things down.

In many ways Joe Turner was musically bipolar, for while few people seemed as happy to be rocking when the party was in full swing, nobody ever seemed to feel the bitter pain of loneliness quite as deeply as Joe did once the party ended.

He always managed to convey this sorrow in a way that didn’t require him to sob and weep his way through songs like so many others did, but rather he was able to simply adjust the textures of his delivery to sell his misery, stretching and holding notes to their breaking point, flexing the muscles in his throat to warp his tone in subtle ways, and as a songwriter using his intuitive knowledge of melodies to emphasize the despondency of the songs by where placed the vocal markers.

On Life Is Like A Card Game he employs all these tricks and more, giving us a character beset with bad luck who seems to realize he’s never going to get any breaks in life, but is resolutely determined to keep plodding along and hoping fortune smiles down on him before his time here is through.

That’s a tough balance to maintain for anyone. The allegorical lyrics, which are loosely framed around poker hands without ever becoming too specific, are painting the picture of his downward spiral and as such he needs to impart them with the weight of a man sinking lower under the burden of failure. To do so he deepens his tone slightly, letting the words resonate in his massive frame to give them the heft they need without having to loudly project them. Yet at the same time he needs to also be able to slip in the optimistic undercurrent that sustains him in this story which he manages by merely tilting his head back at the end of those lines to let the words come out with more freedom to spread their wings as it were.

Not only does that visual image fit the scene – head down and chin tucked while thinking of all that’s gone wrong, but chin up and shoulders thrown back when gathering the emotional strength to endure – but doing so changes the technical aspects of his vocal projection as well, giving him the means for conveying the emotional shift required without ever making it too obvious.

His judgement in other words is flawless and though this doesn’t quite have the individual moments within to dazzle you, the entire performance is so unerring that it stands as one of his finest performances. In fact Billboard magazine in their review of this record tells us that “Turner is singing his best since his early days some 15 years ago”… and for once it’s hard to argue with their assessment.
 

Aces Are High
As great as Turner is though he needs the right support to give him the (pardon the pun) “freedom” to tackle this with confidence. If at any point he fears that the band is going to let him down, as we’ve seen in the past, he’ll try and overcompensate for their shortcomings and risk throwing the song out of whack.

With these guys however his mind is at ease for not only will they not get in the way or cross him up, but they’ll be deftly adding expressive touches of their own to bolster the mood he’s hitting on at any given moment. The fact that most sessions at the time were fairly loose, unstructured and with a minimum of preparation before the studio doors opened to cut four songs in three hours, makes the interplay between band and singer here all the more remarkable.

With Lonnie Lyons laying down a strong piano intro, deliberate in its pacing yet resonant in its effect, Life Is Like A Card Game fools you into thinking it’s going to be a little more vibrant than winds up being. Maybe it’s also setting up the hint of inner resolve that Turner will later reveal, but if so it’s just a faint flicker of that attitude before Goree Carter’s guitar comes in to bring those hopes back down to earth with bluesy melancholy lines that are sparingly used, yet they dominate your impressions of the song because of how Carter continually shifts them to respond to… and in many ways comment on… Turner’s proclamations.

At every turn Carter masterfully reflects Joe’s mood, downbeat in reply to the moaning sorrow and then surging with electricity when Turner seems ready to fight off the gloom by focusing on his stout determination to win out over fate by mere attrition alone. The more you focus on Carter – and even with Turner’s monumental presence you wouldn’t be criticized harshly if you did – the more you’ll be impressed with what he contributes, never seeming to play the same note twice, or at least never playing them in the same way, yet always finding a way to use those notes as if they were not just a voice unto themselves, but also the words and thoughts behind that voice.

In many ways the record is practically a duet between them, giving even more credence to Carter’s claim as the single best musician – not just guitarist – of rock’s first half dozen years.

But he’s hardly alone in deserving praise as Conrad Johnson leads the horn section with admirable discretion, adding considerable atmosphere without taking any attention away from the protagonist at the center of the room. Though it may come across as being a fairly discreet arrangement since it contains no big solos to have to work out, nor any shifts in tempo or even a bridge to force them into adjusting their approach midway through, but more than most tracks we’ve seen this shows just how cruical the compatibility between the musicians and the singer is when handing out credit for a successful record… and this one is another gem.
 


 

Now You Just Know Just How I Feel
In a career as long and diverse as Big Joe Turner’s there’s always going to be sides that slip through the historical cracks… either not big enough hits to be referenced years later by more shallow overviews, or not dynamic enough to jump out at casual listeners on first spin, or in this case without some particularly intense scrutiny over time it’ll come across as too subtle in its strengths to fully be appreciated by all but his most devout fans.

Yet if you were assembling a playlist of songs from Turner’s twenty year peak (1939-1959) to really explain his genius, it’d be hard to leave off Life Is Like A Card Game, particularly if you want examples of how skillfully he interacted with great musicians, all of them raising each other’s game by their choices and in turn being elevated in what they must deliver to live up to what they each laid down moments earlier.

More than anything though, songs like this showed just how effectively Big Joe Turner could completely upend your image of him from the lusty world-beater on his boastful scorchers like Adam Bit The Apple, to someone who evoked genuine concern for his well-being… a titanic physical specimen in appearance, yet an even more towering figure than that when it came to his artistry.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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