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MGM 10321; NOVEMBER, 1948



Just one month after Big Joe Turner’s most forceful statement of intent to date to join the rock ‘n’ roll circus with the rousing Low Down Dog it seems that circumstance has returned him to the fog shrouded netherworld of musical uncertainty with Messin’ Around.

One step forward and two steps back doesn’t quite cut it this time around. If after watching Turner make numerous attempts at fitting into the expanding rock market without success before retreating to some antiquated shelter has left you skeptical of his commitment to this field, I wouldn’t blame you.

In fact, if you sarcastically predict you’ll soon see the hulking Turner peering out from behind the curtains at the rock audience waiting for him and at the first sign of the crowd growing restless Big Joe will hike up his skirt and run screaming out the back of theater… well, I wouldn’t blame you for that impression either.

At this point he deserves all the grumbling, eye-rolling, time-checking, impatient huffing you can muster.

But in spite of earning that impression with his unfocused releases to date I implore you… yet again… to give the big fella another chance. I say that even though he’s not about to reward you for that chance this time out either, as he forces us once more to wait for him to enthusiastically join us in the rock kingdom… assuming he ever will.

Feelin’ Low Down
Now it’s important to understand just what this means, and more importantly perhaps what it DOESN’T mean. It doesn’t mean that Turner has suddenly changed his mind about revealing his more rambunctious side, perhaps feeling a little awkward about cutting loose at his age (he was 37 now) amidst the younger generation who were claiming rock ‘n’ roll for themselves, and so he beat a hasty retreat to more sedate hybrid style where he wouldn’t stand out so much.

Not at all.

The truth is Turner as an artist in the period between the mid-1940’s after he left first Decca, and then National, two stable record companies where he’d made his name, to the early 1950’s when he landed at another stable company in Atlantic where he firmly re-established himself as a commercial force to be reckoned with, was rather adrift. A veritable ship without a port.

He had become a musical mercenary, someone with name recognition who’d fallen on some hard times when trying to keep connecting with a rapidly shifting marketplace, yet was still viewed as capable of scoring a hit if the stars were aligned properly. So for a period of a few years he sold his services to whomever wanted him for a lone session. Pay him in cash, assemble a solid group of professional musicians around him and he’d reach into his vast repertoire of songs and pull out anything you wanted to hear, then simply reshape it for whichever audience you felt offered the greatest potential.

Though marginally effective for putting a few bucks in his pocket and keeping his name afloat with the public it was hardly the best way to advance his career and determine his own musical direction. It sure wasn’t going to build a steady fan-base who are willing to invest their own time and money into him with the promise of what that investment holds for the future, rather than simply as an overpriced collection of dusty memories from past trips.

As a result of these tactics he’d swing wildly back and forth between approaches, one session’s stylistic motif being completely alien from the one which preceded it and the one which would follow. Thus it was hard to build any momentum commercially, especially when you added to the mix the fact that no company held on to him long enough to craft their own game plan for his career. In every case it was just a matter of throwing the record into the marketplace and hoping for the best.

And so, for the time being at least, he’s suffered for this lack of permanence and is in a way being punished for his adaptability as an artist.

Unlike Wynonie Harris, who idolized Turner and had found himself in a similar situation with his own career after his first wave of hits dried up, Harris was stylistically limited. Whereas Turner could shift on the dime for whatever type of music you wanted, jazzy, bluesy, rocking, uptempo or downcast, Wynonie was in high gear at all times. That made his options fewer, but ultimately kept him at least steered in one direction. The songs might suck, the band behind him might be all wrong, but he was always still the same artist you remembered fondly from the days when it had all meshed so well. When that bumpy unpaved road he was on happened to suddenly turn into a four lane smooth new highway called rock ‘n’ roll Harris was already shifting into fourth gear and raring to get to the front of the pack.

Turner on the other hand still found himself navigating the winding dirt roads in the sticks, heading down one dim side street after another, hoping to find his way back to civilization and maybe a gas station so he could refuel and get directions back towards hitsville.


I Really Don’t Know What To Do
Though he’d seemingly found his way last time out on Aladdin with Low Down Dog, the side we’re meeting up with today was cut for MGM, with whom he’d recorded the less than stellar Mardi Gras Boogie. The order of the releases therefore weren’t indicative of his mindset as much as they were simply based on the needs of the different labels who had material on him in the warehouse waiting to be released when an opening in the schedule allowed for it.

Truthfully, the song itself is not bad at all, but it’s just a little ill-fitting for the direction we need for him to travel if he’s going to make a go of it in rock. Messin’ Around is one of those hybrid songs, not quite blues – not with those horns that’s for sure – but was just blusey enough to have those in rock question its credentials some. It’ll still be let in the door to the rock nightclub, but the bouncer is going to give its I.D. an extra good going over before he gives Turner the okay to enter.

The horns though are what impart the mood, so you can’t get rid of them without leaving him completely adrift. The intro is an attention getter before they settle into a sighing responsorial voice, ironically a little poppish more than jazzy at that point. But the solo by the great Maxwell Davis is warm and mellow, comforting Turner in his despondency over the loss of his woman, not to mention perhaps the loss of an audience.

Unlike his past effort with Davis and Dootsie Williams on horns (two huge names in rock’s future themselves), on Mardi Gras Boogie, where they were decidedly out of step with the sentiments Joe was expressing lyrically, here they are all in simpatico with one another, everyone’s on the same page to reinforce the remorseful tone of Big Joe who is looking back over a romance well in the past that he can’t seem to get over.

Turner for his part is excellent. For such a big imposing guy he had the ability to make you feel completely sorry for him, to expose his own vulnerabilities in a way that usually invited sympathy rather than scorn and derision. There’s a reason why all of these record labels (now his third since departing National) kept taking chances on him without much to show for it. In the right setting he could still deliver the goods with the best of them.

Ahh, but there’s the rub. The fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench.

Is Messin’ Around, as delivered, the “right setting” for what we need in rock for November, 1948?

No. Not quite.


I Wonder Where You Could Be
We’ve touched upon this in various ways over our first fourteen months of rock’s lifespan here on Spontaneous Lunacy and it’s not something that I look forward to dealing with each time it surfaces.

These stylistic hybrids that keep popping up from time to time are musical quicksand, something you want to avoid at all costs because you know you’re going to be dragged down into the mire and struggle to get out. Even if you pull yourself free you’re still covered with all that slimy muck.

Yet here we are once again, forced to deal with it because it’s important to deal with. It’s part of history, a vital aspect of the formation and ultimate success of rock ‘n’ roll which required it to completely free itself of the stylistic similarities to surrounding genres of music.

If rock ‘n’ roll simply had become a connected subgenre of another already established genre, say jazz (its closest relative), or blues (not as close, but not completely distant either), or pop (alien in nature, but something all music seemingly aspired to being for the broad acceptance alone) then we’d have to think of it in entirely different ways. Not just musically, but culturally as well.

What separated rock from other styles was its outlook and that of its audience and the ways in which they differed from pop, jazz, blues, country and gospel (et. all). Not all songs had the same mindset of course, which is what crosses people up sometimes if they don’t trace the evolution from the very beginning, but the mere fact that rock was busy establishing its own perspective with its own clear boundaries was crucial to its survival.

Which is why hybrid songs pose such a problem, especially early on as rock is still waiting for the mold to harden. If artists who appealed strongly to an audience which ran counter to the main rock constituency… slightly older and more content, not nearly as restless, impatient and assertive as the rock crowd… and one that was far more prone to compromise and fitting in rather than standing out… then rock itself would’ve have been around long. It simply wouldn’t have been necessary.

Rock existed, then and ever since, precisely because it offered something different, something important that wasn’t available elsewhere to an audience that was eternally excluded from the accepted order of things.

To fit in Big Joe would have to reconcile that need of the potential audience with his own musical needs and hope those two entities would find common ground.

Hurry Right Home
But that still doesn’t settle the residency question of songs like Messin’ Around, which thematically, musically and otherwise might fit in another already existing style. It certainly CAN be included under rock’s umbrella, otherwise it wouldn’t be getting reviewed here, but just slipping in the door doesn’t mean it can be treated as if it were an entirely comfortable fit either. The ground rules and aesthetics rock requires still have to be adhered to when evaluating its overall merits AS rock.

In that sense it can’t help but fall a bit short. As a song… as a performance… it’s much better than the grade I’m forced to give it due to the setting we’re in. Far from being a rock elitist I have a deep interest in and genuine appreciation for all types of music (well, almost all) and without needing to conform to the borders of just one musical country Messin’ Around would have no problem being heartily recommended. And I DO recommend it, even for those who love rock most of all.

But I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it AS rock… or as the direction rock needed to pursue in order to find its own land to conquer, and that’s the problem.

It might be hard to fathom now but in a decade when James Brown cuts this same song and significantly alters the way its performed it might make more sense (or maybe less sense, depending on your outlook on such things). The difference is Brown tailored it to suit the needs of the audience at that time by ramping up the emotional content so that overwhelmed the musical structure which remained slightly outdated. Turner by contrast doesn’t quite find the way to pull off a similar balancing act here, letting the musical structure dominate the mood it creates rather than forcibly pulling it to another realm like Brown would down the road.

Therefore this version of this song by this artist remains slightly out of step with rock music circa 1948.

I Couldn’t Hide Even If I Tried
What matters here is not only the quality of the song itself, the vocals, the abilities of the musicians and the appropriateness of the arrangement for framing the song, but also how all of that fits into the larger rock picture, both at the time and heading forward.

To do this simply ask yourself if the record in question is representative of the standards of rock ‘n’ roll at the moment it comes out and/or is it looking ahead and charting a new and exciting course for rock to follow in the future?

The answer here to both of those questions is clearly no. It’s still good, very good in some ways, and it’s close enough to rock’s outlying areas to be counted, but it’s not on the vanguard of rock, nor is it even comfortably in the middle of rock’s sphere. Ultimately it’s given the benefit of the doubt largely because Big Joe Turner himself is going to wind up among rock’s most celebrated artists and in cases like that, both now and for its entire history, the boundaries become a little more flexible when considering what makes it on these pages and what doesn’t get included here.

The requirements for being given above average grades however do not change. Once you’ve been admitted into the review queue all that matters is how good the record is in regards to rock ‘n’ roll itself at the time.

In that regard, with a pang of regret, this too falls short. Nothing personal Big Joe.


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