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MGM 10274; SEPTEMBER 1948



Rock ‘n’ roll’s first full year is in the books now and so it seems a bit odd that we’re only getting our second look at Big Joe Turner, one of the immortal names in rock’s first decade. Odder still is that, much like his first appearance here back in April with the underwhelming That’s What Really Hurts, Turner’s clearly not found his groove yet. In fact, he seems altogether lost.

If you were around in September 1948 and were told that this year old rock music hub-bub was going to get far more prominent in the coming years and that some of the artists releasing records these past few months were going to be churning out big hits for another full decade in the style, well let’s just say based on the track records of the early rock roster up until now Turner’s name would NOT be among the first chosen when picking which artists would leave a lasting impression.

To tell the truth, based on this and the preceding effort from last spring he may not be even considered in passing when scanning the names of budding stars and trying to determine who among them would be in this racket for the long haul.


The Boys Took Her Away From Me
Joe Turner’s basic style consists of two primary avenues which he’d ride to a long and fulfilling career. As a balladeer he’s at his best delivering forlorn laments, records that ache with rejection, the type of thing that one listens to in solitude at 3 AM, too distraught to do anything but moan along in misery. Turner did that as well as anybody who ever lived… but what he did even better was romp over a tough uptempo rhythm and belt his heart out like a man possessed.

Which explains why this record falls so short.

Mardi Gras Boogie is neither one nor the other, but stuck uncomfortably in between. It leans towards the latter musically, ramping up the musical spirit in a somewhat hackneyed manner, but lyrically it’s the type of rueful lament about loss that demands far more moderation.

Furthermore I think Turner knows this and feels somewhat stuck at the crossroads. I suspect the “Boogie” in the title is an attempt to connect more solidly with the fans that are propelling rock to ever greater rewards, but it’s attached to a story where boogieing is the last thing that you’d have on your mind. This conflict never resolves itself and so, whichever styled Turner you like best you won’t be satisfied with what you get here – he can’t cut loose and have a ball because the story doesn’t call for that, yet he can’t break down and cry either because the accompanying music won’t allow for it.

But there are a myriad of other problems too, as once again the horns seem bound and determined to hold Big Joe back. If uptempo it’s going to be, storyline be damned, they would’ve been wise to look forward rather than hearkening back to an outdated style of arranging that keeps the proceedings in a tight, mannered group structure that de-emphasizes individuality and frantic blowing, which as we know was what was propelling most of the big rock hits at this time.


Stay With Your Party
Making this apparent confusion all the more perplexing is the fact that two of those enlisted in the horn section, Maxwell Davis on tenor sax and Dootsie Williams on trumpet, would go on to do plenty to shape the future of rock ‘n’ roll on the west coast over the next decade. Davis became one of the premier producer/arrangers of all time, a genius in every role he tackled who still doesn’t get his full due despite a laundry list of immortal artists and records he oversaw and played on.

As for Williams, his playing career soon gave way to a career as an executive, one of the few blacks who owned his own record label, Doo-Tone, which released a lot of great vocal group sides in the mid-50’s including one of the first “crossover” hits that became an all-time rock classic. So if anybody would have their finger on the pulse of what was cutting edge you’d think for sure it’d be them.

Sadly they’re both culpable in the confused morass that Mardi Gras Boogie finds itself in.

Since the outdated horns dominate the arrangement it’d take a yeoman effort from Turner and the others to break loose from this impediment and bring something more exciting to the table. There are signs along the way that they might actually be trying. Tiny Mitchell chips in with a snaky guitar line that lurks under the surface, but after an early moment in the spotlight where it almost sounds as if he was mic’d too loud he is pushed to the background, never to resurface in the forefront again.

Pete Johnson, as always, won’t be so easy to keep quiet and sure enough his piano break mid-way through constitutes the most intense stretch of musical excitement on the record by a long ways, but just as you start getting enthused about it there are those horns again, sprightly but too classy to contribute to the delinquency of the listener, elbowing him out of the way which brings things back down to earth.

But now we come to problem number two, which is Turner’s indecision on how to tackle the lyrics.


False Hair, Long Curls
Big Joe Turner knows as well as any that his job is to deliver the song in a way that highlights the emotional undercurrents of the story, which in this case means pouring his heart out about a girl he picked up on his trip to the Mardi Gras only to have her leave him in Chicago for hipper cats than he. After a falling out with them however she comes back to Joe who, like a sad sack with no self-respect, takes her back in spite of her callously dumping him earlier.

On paper it’s a set up right down his alley and you can tell Joe is trying to keep the maudlin aspects of this intact, but the entire plot is too schizophrenic, jumping abruptly from elation to remorse and ultimately to resignation.

His phrasing when asking the rhetorical question that seals his fate as a chump, “Would you call me a sucker if I took her back?”, drops down in tone after the word sucker, like he’s expressing shame at being so devoid of pride that he’d let her treat him this way, yet the blaring horns and the ensuing piano workout give the impression that he’s downright happy to be treated like dirt as long as she’s back in his arms again.

As a result you never have any sympathy for his plight, either as a character in the tale or as a singer who’s lost his sense of direction. By the end he sounds as if he’s just going through the motions with no evident enthusiasm, knowing he’s lost the handle on this song and probably is hoping for another take in order to approach it a different way.

His voice, usually so full of verve and charisma, is almost mechanical now, trying in vain to find the right buttons to push to make this all come together somehow, knowing all the while that it won’t and perhaps cursing that yet another chance to jump headlong into the music that was MADE for him in many ways is slipping away once again.

How many chances would he get after all?

One Of These Days You’re Bound To Win
It’s not completely awful by any means, but it IS misguided and a huge let down because we know what the artist – as well as his cohorts on this – are capable of when clicking on all cylinders. What we get instead on Mardi Gras Boogie is the musical equivalent of wandering around in the dark, inching forward cautiously while trying not to bang your shins on anything that might be lurking in the shadows.

Hearing it in passing without paying much attention to the lyrical disconnect and just focusing on the overall sound we’d probably view it in a better light. Similarly if this were anybody else, someone just starting out with a blank slate, we’d likely pay a bit more attention to the strength of his vocal pipes themselves, which are still evident here, or rave a little bit more about Johnson’s contributions and in the process overlook some of its structural flaws, or at the very least not let it completely sour us on the record as a whole.

But this isn’t some wet-behind-the-ears kid with no résumé to his name, this is Big Joe Turner, dammit, one of the most formidable talents on the scene, someone who comes with lofty expectations, even then. When those expectations aren’t met, or worse, when you never can let yourself shake free of its shortcomings that seem so obvious and which the combined talents involved should’ve easily spotted and fixed in a quick woodshedding run-through or two, what choice are we left with? Do we pretend those problems can be overlooked, or do we hold them to the high standards artists of their caliber deserve?

I think by now you know the answer so I won’t prolong it any more.

I hate to say it, Joe, but you’re oh-for-two so far and as of this moment there’d be long, LONNNNNNG odds on you rebounding and going onto a Hall Of Fame career in the rock field any time soon.

Luckily for all of us Joe Turner kept rolling the dice to kick those odds in the ass down the road. You’d just never know it by this.


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