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FREEDOM 1531; JANUARY, 1950

 
 

 

If ever there was a title that was a misnomer for the both the contents of the record and the impact of that record on the artist’s career, it was surely this one.

Big Joe Turner’s creative and commercial revival, long anticipated but with little tangible evidence that it was remotely imminent, was now officially underway. This release from his all-too-brief association with Freedom Records out of Houston would return him to the national charts for the first time since 1946.

The darkness that had enveloped Turner for so long was finally – and mercifully – letting in a whole lotta light.
 

 

I’m Goin’ Home
Having so effusively praised the other side of this record, calling it perhaps his best ever performance all things considered (certainly a debatable claim and one I might dispute myself when confronted with another equally stellar alternative) it would stand to reason that whatever he managed to do on this side would be virtually impossible to match that.

But while Adam Bit The Apple was a regional hit the bigger smash was actually this one and so it certainly had as much or more to do with his commercial revival as that other song which spoke more to his creative re-birth.

But BOTH sides – of this record and of Joe’s musical persona overall – were vital in cementing his legacy. While the energetic ravers were arguably more galvanizing to hear, they were made all the more effective by the melancholy feelings he mined so well on his ballads.

Still In The Dark, a song he’d cut twice already more than three years earlier, was re-imagined this time around making it a perfect fit in a style that rewarded the baring of one’s soul for the sake of art.

The first time he tackled what was originally titled I’m Still In The Dark was in January 1946 in Los Angeles with Bill Moore’s Lucky Seven Band which included some names we’re familiar with as rock fans, including Teddy Bunn on guitar and Shifty Henry (of Big Jim Wynn’s band) on bass.

It was a moderate-paced song that seems to belong to no firmly established genre. Its primary accompaniment is a deliberately mechanical piano, the kind of methodical progression that kids just starting out on the instrument are forced to play for practice all while Bunn takes his guitar on some much more rapid runs that seem to conflict with that. Though his playing itself is excellent it’s so all-over-the-place at times that it becomes distracting and as a result the overall song becomes too busy to make a deep impression.

Ten months later in Chicago, recording with some even bigger names backing him including Albert Ammons on piano, Tab Smith on sax and Red Saunders manning the drums, he slowed it down a little, both in pace and vocal enthusiasm, with Ammons taking a much different and much more active role on the keys while the guitar is altogether absent until a jazzy country-tinged solo later on, but in its place the horns take on the main supporting role behind Turner’s vocals, albeit far too bouncy down the stretch to hit the right mood. As with the original take on it though there’s much to admire here, this one wasn’t too focused either.

In other words they had a good song – lyrically and melodically – to work with, but in both cases they weren’t able to come away with great records out of it because the two sets of admittedly stellar musicians had no concept of how to bring out its best qualities. Maybe that’s why neither company released them at the time (National would reconsider once today’s remake became a hit, issuing theirs in a crassly shameless attempt to confuse buyers).

Three years later the house band at Freedom Records, the notorious Hep-Cats, had no such problems figuring out how to tighten it up and give Turner the musical platform he needed to turn this into gold.
 


 
 

My Train Rolled Up
The plot in all three versions, indeed most of the lines themselves, are the same in each take on the song. He’s only shifted the starting point of the story from San Pedro in Los Angeles where the first two takes were set to Houston, Texas where this version was cut, and instead of marking his arrival by having his boat land in port, he now gets off a train.

But geography and method of travel aside, the main action is found in the news that awaits him all of those stops.

His wife had remained back in New York City after he left the city to find better work (presumably as a fisherman in San Pedro whereas now he’s most likely toiling in the oil fields in Texas) and he’s anxious to reunite with her. Yet while he’s away from his woman he plans on “having himself a ball” when he gets off the boat or train, a plot twist that initially paints him as the bad guy in all of this.

Yet right after making this admission he already begins to turn the situation around by bemoaning the fact she never wrote to him while he was away and telling us that she had no problem spending the money he sent her. The hurt in his voice is palpable as he thinks back to when she was “as sweet as any gal could be” thanks to his financial largess. At this point we’re starting to see the reason for his own romantic perfidy and though still an excuse rather than a justification it adds a certain amount of weight to his side of the story.

It starts to become clear that he’s deliberately keeping you off balance with his shifting mindset, hinting at but never completely tipping off the ultimate fate that awaits him – and us – as the story unfolds. The narrative brilliance of Turner becomes apparent when he now informs us that the last time he left “she was standing in the back door crying”, momentarily swinging our sympathy back to her before letting on that her feelings for him changed while he was away. Then, as you’re still hanging in the lurch, he abruptly pulls the rug out from underneath us revealing that the reason she’s been incommunicado lately is because she’s sharing her bed with another man.

Though it may not be a total surprise to find out she’s been untrue it winds up having the same impact by how he springs this on us in such an understated way, sort of circling around the topic before letting all of us, Turner and the listener alike, get this news from a friend of his from New York that he runs into who shatters his hope about reconciling with his baby by telling him in no uncertain terms that he’s a sucker and that if he can’t figure out what she’s doing then he’s Still In The Dark.

For a record that clocks in at just 2:47 it’s got enough depth for a novella and is made all the more poignant by how he arrives at this realization bit by bit until the final gut punch that we feel just as much as he does.

 

Have Me A Ball This Morning
Where this version really surpasses the others is in how it better modulates the shift from eagerness to heartbreak, easing us into it while still keeping the final twist of the knife somewhat unexpected. The previous renditions carried this transition out in too jarring a fashion and the music never matches that change, both bands remaining completely oblivious to the fact his marriage is breaking up.

Not so here. The Hep-Cats – almost acting as the musical surrogates for his New York pal who drops in on him to break the news – are the only ones fully aware of the ramifications from the start, giving this far more emotional resonance when the hammer drops.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised considering how good this band has shown themselves to be in the past but usually their strength lay in their ability to launch sonic attacks that could hit you from any angle – horns, piano, drums and bass or guitar – all of which were impressive enough on their own but absolutely unbeatable when working in tandem.

But on Still In The Dark they take on an entirely new approach, slowing things down to an absolute crawl, yielding the spotlight individually for the good of the overall ambiance they need to create, placing Turner in virtual isolation to better reflect his character’s plight as they subtly add color to his thoughts in the background.

Conrad Johnson’s alto sax adds the perfect mournful sound behind Joe, softly droning so that when Turner tells us he’s going out to have himself a ball at the start he sounds as if he’s doing so not because he’s going to enjoy it, but rather as a cathartic exercise to detoxify his system from a relationship he knows is doomed, even if he’s still unsure as to the pertinent facts of why it fell apart.

Actually all of the horns throughout this are just as stellar, their lightly prancing pace at the end sounding half-mocking and half-encouraging gives it a different feel and there’s absolutely no indulgent passage that might otherwise break the mood the song sets. Meanwhile Lonnie Lyons piano takes on a lot of different guises throughout this as well, preventing the arrangement from ever becoming monotonous while Allison Tucker’s subtle drum work lends just the right touch. Even Goree Carter’s subdued role on guitar, something which normally would have us cursing them for not giving him a chance to shine, fits perfectly as he adds discreet licks for flavoring.

But as good as all of them are it’s Big Joe Turner himself who shows why the human voice is still the most effective instrument known to man, letting his emotions guide his phrasing and emphasis until you absolutely feel his ache in every word. So contemplative and introspective does he sound that you feel almost guilty listening in, as the song’s construction practically implores you to turn away to give him his privacy all while knowing you’ll remain riveted to his emotional struggle, cruelly voyeuristic to the end.
 


 
 

You’ve Got A Home As Long As I’ve Got Mine
After more than two years of watching as Turner struggled with finding the right key to unlock his vast potential in rock with each of the songs contained on this single we finally have sustained justification for touting him as an unrivaled talent, both vocally and, though it’s not as widely acknowledged, as a songwriter as well which ensured the key he needed was within his grasp all along.

Nobody was better at exploring the depth of human emotions in rock’s history than Big Joe Turner. It was if he felt each twinge of regret, remorse, hurt and confusion to the very core of his being and could express those feelings in such a way that you were compelled to feel them too.

On Still In The Dark he does just that, aided by arguably the best band he’d ever encounter, and to have this not just return him to what he did best – on both sides of the single, as different as they were – but to have the two sides bring him his strongest commercial response was just icing on the cake.

The record itself, and more crucially this stop at Freedom Records in Houston that led to this resurgence, was like pushing a career reset button for this sleeping giant of an artist. From now on it won’t be a surprise when Big Joe Turner releases a great record, it’ll be a surprise when he doesn’t.

Welcome back to the big time, Joe.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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