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Thus far Joe Turner has had two records released in the rock era, a style he himself had presaged since bursting onto the scene as the 1930’s drew to a close and in the process ignited the boogie woogie craze along with pianist and longtime cohort, Pete Johnson. By 1947/48, when many of boogie woogie’s attributes had been absorbed into the newly emergent rock ‘n’ roll it was logical that nobody on the scene would be more apt to cash in on the new platform than Big Joe Turner.

Yet both records subsequently bombed, commercially and artistically.

With their failure it was becoming increasingly unlikely that Turner, now 37 years old, in the process of bouncing unceremoniously from label to label and at risk of being viewed as something of a relic from a short-lived craze nearly a decade old by this point, would somehow turn things around and recapture his popularity by appealing to an audience that hadn’t even been first hand witnesses from when he’d first made a name for himself oh so many years ago.

In fact it was downright implausible. Laughable even.

But of course it wasn’t.

We know how this story ends, with Big Joe riding tall in the saddle as rock truly takes off, serving as its proud elder statesman and basking in its glory, transforming him from a fading star of a fleeting craze to lasting legend in a worldwide movement that has yet to see its brightness as a genre dim in the slightest even seven decades later.

Along the way Turner would become seen as the living embodiment of rock’s ability to revive and regenerate souls, not to mention careers, churning out a string of enduring hits and being respected by one and all throughout the next decade as well as lauded in the history books ever since.

This shouldn’t be surprising… well, his ultimate commercial success and recognition might be surprising, for often those deserving of both get neither, but rather his ability to connect with the rock crowd should come as no surprise, since he in fact could lay claim to helping to lay the foundation for it before the building actually went up.

The course he took to get there however is far more surprising.


I Worked Hard, Baby
Joe Turner’s catalog of songs is a thick one, but one that contains a lot things re-worked for different audiences over the years. He was a prodigious songwriter, albeit one who could not actually read nor write. Because he was such a versatile performer, not just in terms of pace, someone who was proficient with both ballads and uptempo romps, but also in terms of styles, he was able to refit his arsenal of songs for the blues, jazz and rock fields with startling frequency and credibility.

He was also, like most artists of this generation, someone whose main income was derived from performing live (Copyrights? Royalties? What are these strange words you speak to me, son?) and so he knew what worked in the very demanding world of appealing to the audience before you at the moment and he’d return to the same durable warhorses throughout his career.

Low Down Dog was one of those he kept coming back to.

When Turner made his national debut accompanied on piano by his buddy from the Kansas City scene, Pete Johnson, at the famed From Spirituals To Swing concerts in New York put on by legendary talent scout John Hammond in 1938, this was among the songs he sang. It was a storming take that foretold of rock more than a little.

It’s not surprising then that when his ensuing recording career got started he’d tackle this piece in that realm as well. But what’s odd (inexplicable really) is the fact he didn’t approach the song in that same way until, well… NOW.

In meantime he’d laid it to wax on two other occasions before this one and studying all three versions reveals more than anything just how the commercial musical landscape was changing. It’s a fascinating and informative history lesson courtesy of a man who navigated the scene at the time, not as the immortal he’d wind up being viewed as, but the working vocalist who needed to come up with the precise formula to keep plying his trade as the ground shifted around him.

In 1940 Turner cut this as Doggin’ The Dog while accompanied by just Willie “The Lion” Smith on piano, a charming, somewhat delicate version that seems to be almost a time capsule recording of the type of thing you’d hear in the clubs Turner was appearing in during those pre-war years. It has an archaic feel to it, like watching grainy sepia-tinted one reel films from the dawn of cinema wherein nothing seems quite real but rather an approximation of what is designed to be passed off as real.

Just a year and two weeks after recording it the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor sending America careening into a world war and this version of the song seems almost a wistful reminder of the slow, sedate “past” before the entire world was hurtled headlong into the noisy chaotic “future”.


As the war was coming to an end, quite literally in fact, Joe Turner entered a studio in Chicago on May 10, 1945, two days after V-E Day (celebrating the Allies victory in Europe for those of you who haven’t made it all the way through history class yet) to cut an updated version of the tune, now with familiar moniker of Low Down Dog attached to it and backed by a larger band anchored by his old stalwart on keys, Pete Johnson.

The musical changes of the intervening years are apparent in the presentation as this is the unquestioned full-on jazz rendition of the tune, replete with Bill Martin’s prominent trumpet that takes center stage throughout. The contemplative melancholia that marked the original recorded version is replaced by a quickened pace giving it a much jauntier feel, entirely appropriate for the era in which it appeared.

In that take on it Turner is not even the centerpiece, but rather just one facet of the performance as befitting the dominant jazz band aesthetics of the time. From Johnson’s dexterous intro on piano to Dallas Bartley’s steadily plucked acoustic bass, a mellow alto sax solo by John “Flaps” Dungee and an anonymous guitarist flashing a few nimble-fingered licks before Martin returns to the forefront squawking away on trumpet until Johnson steps in again to bring things back under control, it’s the ensemble which dominates this rendition, not Turner himself.

It’s not that Joe is a bystander on his own record as much as he’s simply deemed equal to, but no greater than, the other members of the group. In 1945 this was the accepted approach, vocalists were merely another instrument to be played when appropriate within the confines of the larger song, no more, no less.

Two years later rock is busy going about changing that mindset forever.

It’s Your Time Now
Turner was now ensconced in California, where club dates were taking up the majority of his attention. Record sales were secondary to live gigs, yet putting out records was still necessary to bestow some sense of “success” when promoting his appearances.

It’s likely that most of the places he was playing at the time of this session in November 1947 were, as of yet, largely unaware of the first rumblings of this new musical bastard child called rock ‘n’ roll but Turner clearly had a finger on its pulse all along.

This becomes evident by their decision to revisit Low Down Dog in a notably altered arrangement, one that harkens back to the excitement that marked the 1938 live rendition, in the process completely recrafting it stylistically from what had been laid down on record before. The approach they use within not only is in line with the rock scene that’s emerging, but it’s also far better suited to his own strengths as a vocalist when compared to the previous takes on it.

In other words, though he’d already performed it for years with different feels, the BEST way to deliver it was only now just being explored, at least on record. It was here that Big Joe Turner formally announced what in retrospect soon became quite obvious to everybody – that he was born to be a rocker.


Pete Johnson is back, his second appearance on the tune itself, and his intro isn’t THAT much different from the jazzier version from 1945. A little less florid maybe, a touch more heavy handed, but the real difference in his role comes after that intro, as he’s enlisted to pick up primary rhythm behind Turner’s vocals. That alone shifts the drive from the bass and trumpet tandem to the piano and drums, giving it more of an insistent modern feel right off the bat, storming forward, energetic and raring to go.

With the more dynamic backing prodding him on Turner’s vocal delivery improves greatly, matching their rhythmic approach with equal vitality which is where he truly excelled. He sounds invigorated, his raucous approach changing the message of the lyrics – but not the words themselves – in a notable way.

In his first take on it back in 1940 as Doggin’ The Dog he was insistent but still sad, telling his former love that he was justified in leaving her for her lack of respect for him despite his best efforts to please her. It was a tone of resignation he offered, a hard decision he’d finally come to and it fit the accompaniment quite well. Though he clearly wasn’t happy about the circumstances that led to this he saw no other option for himself and somewhat morosely bid her farewell.

His update of it as Low Down Dog from ’45 changed that outlook to one of a more carefree departure, but it comes off as being somewhat of a put-on for the approval of his buddies, in this case the band themselves who you envision urging him to head out on the town with them for a good time, drinking his troubles away. In that scenario it sounds less as if he’s leaving her forever and more as if he’s simply telling her off as he leaves for a night with the boys, his bravado more for show than anything else. You wouldn’t be at all surprised to find him straggling back home the next morning, hung over, knocking meekly on the door, almost begging to be let back in. The scene that would likely follow would be one of remorse and apologies on his part with Joe accepting the blame for the blow-up and going right back to being mistreated and unappreciated by his domineering woman.

On THIS Low Down Dog however the dynamics shift yet again and the what they come up with fits the story better than any previous delivery.

Now Turner sounds completely self-assured for the first time and thus fully in control of himself and the situation, acting rather than reacting. He has no regrets over his decision to walk out and by the sounds of it no thought of ever going back either. It’s the sound of a man convinced of his righteousness in what’s transpired and imbued with newfound confidence in himself as a result.


Down The Road I’ll Go
The lyrics of course remain the same in all three versions, but the context changes because Turner’s attitude changes with his deliveries. We never know what happens specifically to lead to this declaration of freedom but in the others he sounds as if he’s trying to convince himself of the wisdom of his decision as much as anything. Part of him, most of him perhaps, was having second thoughts, even as he stated his intentions to leave her in the first two go-rounds.

Not here.

In this one his sheer conviction gains him the upper hand throughout. He’s not saying this aloud just to see how it plays out, or to gauge how she responds and hope for some hasty concessions on her part, nor is he merely spouting off to see how it makes him feel to hear himself take a stand for once.

No, he’s saying it now because he MEANS it. This relationship is over he states in no uncertain terms and nothing she can say would make him change his mind, that is if he even would bother to listen if she broke character and tried getting him to stay.

The musicians on this one aren’t there for moral support or to push him to make this move that was a long time coming, as was the case earlier. Here they are simply a reflection of his own growing determination, his empowerment brought about by the simple act of standing up for your own best interests and having no uncertainty about that decision.

This Low Down Dog is the buoyant sound of freedom – the steady shuffle rhythm behind him symbolizing his walking out, Jack McVea’s ebullient sax solo that never once looks back as he heads down the street, even the trumpet, which is the last vestige from a past musical motif, here takes on an almost razzing tone, a self-satisfied smirk as he turns the corner and heads into the future.


The key lyric in all three versions is It’s your time now but it’ll be mine some sweet day.

In the first two renditions it still WAS someone else’s time just as he said, whether the girl in the story, or the music itself belonging to another era and another mindset, one in which he was simply visiting and thus felt slightly out of place in, even as gamely tried to fit in.

Here, at long last, it’s Joe Turner’s time.

That sweet day has finally arrived, as this became the first rock release of his to chart, albeit just briefly on the New Orleans Cash Box listings, and gave notice to anyone paying attention that he’s finally in his element once and for all. A rocker to the end.


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