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If you buy tickets for the NBA Finals and show up at the arena to find that the basketball game has been replaced on the docket by a Broadway play, chances are you’re going to feel let down – even ripped off – no matter how good the stage performance actually is.

Afterwards when you go to a restaurant and order a steak and are served lasagna instead it probably doesn’t matter much that the pasta dish tastes good and fills you up because you’re still perturbed that you didn’t get to bite into a well grilled piece of meat.

Similarly, if you expect to hear Big Joe Turner releasing another vibrant rocker in the midst of his best stretch of records to date and you get him paired with a band who are not entirely convinced that such a musical genre exists, or at least is one that they’re required to take part in, is it going to make you feel any better that the resulting stylistic hybrid record is actually pretty good… or are you going to disappointed that arguably rock ‘n’ roll’s best all around interpreter is being forcibly pulled further away from its center yet again?


The Dawn Is Breakin’ Through
We could’ve saved ourselves a lot of agony over trying to determine the answer to that last question by simply excising this side of Freedom 1545 from the roll call of rock songs we’re reviewing, especially since another – far less ambiguous – song by Turner on this label will soon follow, ending his association with them on a creative high note.

But playing it safe is never defensible when it comes to trying to get to the bottom of things, such as examining the myriad of musical avenues Big Joe Turner had laid out in front of him as the Nineteen-Fifties got underway, any of which he could do justice to if he were so inclined.

That one of those genres – rock ‘n’ roll – seemed most suited to his talents didn’t mean that he wasn’t also bringing a lot to the table when tackling different styles, and if rock itself needed him most to help define it there’s also no question that the others wouldn’t benefit from his presence in their own right should he choose to pursue them instead.

That’s what makes Midnight Is Here Again such a tantalizing “what if” to consider. It’s not completely alien to rock ‘n’ roll at this point, if for no other reason than Turner’s impressive emotional investment in the vocal which is a defining characteristic of all the best rock sides.

But it’s also being framed in a way that envisions a world in which rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t exist. In that alternate scenario there’d still be a place for a rousing singer like Turner who could wail away without drawing harsh glares or be locked up for disturbing the peace, but it’d have to be couched in a more orderly form of music that ensured nobody got too carried away by it all.


One Of These Days, Big Boy
The first thing that raises eyebrows here – at least when looking at the label – is the songwriting credits.

Though this has every attribute that Big Joe Turner made his name on – from the rhythmic flow to the sharp eyed lyrics and familiar vocal cadences – it’s attributed to Sol Kahal… the owner of Freedom Records.

Now record label heads copping writing credits for compositions they had nothing to do with hardly qualifies as headline news, but the odd thing is Sol Kahal wasn’t the type who did this sort of thing. In fact on the records we’ve covered that came out on his label he hadn’t done it yet and it seems rather unlikely he’d start now, with just a few more releases to go before packing it in.

But he DID have some musical training as a kid, sax, clarinet and piano, so it’s possible that he wrote it… or at least if you were tasked with “writing” a song for Big Joe Turner you probably could take his general approach and come up with a few lines that would fit his standard construction. They probably wouldn’t be as GOOD as these lyrics but it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility either.

But chances are it was Turner who wrote Midnight Is Here Again and the picture he paints is a vivid one, examining the dejection over his baby leaving him with a succession of innovative couplets that don’t rely on any of his more durable expressions, yet still retain that personal stamp of expression that we’ve come to know over his first dozen years as a recording artist.

To wit:

I feel so blue, I feel like my heart is wedged between the wall

It’ll be a lucky day when I get out from behind the eight ball

As always with Turner it sounds as if he’s coming up with these thoughts in the moment, each pause given over to contemplation over what feelings to express rather than how to deliver lines already settled upon. That might not seem like a particularly impressive feat, but it’s always amazing how much pathos it adds to a song when done right and nobody ever did it better than Big Joe Turner.

Equally impressive is the fact the song never steps wrong in its plotting, his sadness giving way to despair before finding hope that his anguish itself might be the key to winning her back, as surely he believes that if she can tell he’s so distraught over losing her she’ll reconsider because she knows his devotion to her is genuine.

Becoming more energetic to try and sell this is one of those things that may not work on paper but on record it comes across as perfectly logical, his soaring power becoming almost inspiring as he subtly ramps up his delivery to drive his point home.

Thinks I’m No Good At All
With so much to admire coming from the man in the middle of the room, here’s where we have to call into question the mindsets of the band entrusted to back him, for once again these guys have a curious concept as to what year this actually is, let alone what style of music Turner is attempting to carry out.

The opening to Midnight Is Here Again, with its high moaning bank of horns, might just as well be taken from an Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson track… something not so far-fetched when you realize that trumpeter Joe Bridgewater would play with Vinson for awhile.

It’s a pre-rock sound for sure, one stuck between the big band era and the small combo revolution that followed, trying to coax the more dramatic sounds favored in the former out of fewer horns as was the standard in the latter, something that worked for awhile in the mid-1940’s until bands discovered that it wasn’t the number of instruments that mattered, it was the overall approach. Once they began to focus on emphasizing the rhythm rather than melody you had something new… something vibrant… something called rock ‘n’ roll actually.

But these guys are blissfully unaware of this transformation that’s already taken place and as a result the record comes out of the gate sounding woefully out of step with everything going on in 1950… at least the circles Turner exists in.

Yet somehow Joe makes it work, or at least doesn’t clash with them which allows the two entities to get on the same page and as it goes along the band starts to adapt ever so much. The unnamed drummer is the standout here, providing a solid beat while the horns sigh behind him sympathetically.

The instrumental break – Vernon Bates on sax with the others prominently supporting him – is hardly exciting but it’s also not capsizing the record by taking it in the wrong direction altogether. They never see fit to muscle up the arrangement but at least they stop emphasizing the spit-polished orderliness that might’ve deep-sixed the impressive work Turner himself is laying down.

If by the end you still wish that Freedom Records’ house band, The Hep-Cats, were the ones given this assignment, you’ve probably managed to shift your attention away from them enough to appreciate everything else about this effort and come away with a good feeling about it all things considered.


I Hope You’ll Learn To Love Me Too
These kinds of records are really tough to properly put into proper context when handing out the (admittedly irrelevant) numerical scores.

As a pure record devoid of any stylistic expectations this fares much better. Maybe it’s not among Turner’s absolute best sides, but certainly very good and worthy of the green numbers.

Yet as a record that is being asked, fairly or not, to fit comfortably into a rock aesthetic Midnight Is Here Again can’t help but be weighed down by the outdated approach of the horn section. It just isn’t in step with the genre housing it and that’s a major detriment even as we can find other reasons to admire it.

To call this above average (6) for a 1950 rock release would be patently untrue, no matter how much you liked certain elements of it, yet to say it was deserving of being deemed subpar (4) also doesn’t reflect its quality.

So while this is far from average in how it reflects rock’s dominant traits at this point in time that’s the score it’s getting simply because the good and the bad cancel each other out leaving you with a record that is still well worth hearing no matter what you want to call it.


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