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It’s safe to say that while Joe Turner’s voice might never be matched in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll he had the rare ability to be able to match those prodigious natural gifts with an innate understanding of the technical aspects of singing.

Few vocalists were as invested in their material more thoroughly than Turner, getting you to believe that no matter how many times he’d sung a song, or no matter what other songs he swiped the familiar stanzas from, he was somehow wringing those feelings from his very soul.

In a career that lasted a half century with a catalog that was nearly as wide as his waistline, one filled with plenty of hits and a fair share of misses, no matter which song of his you pulled from the shelf you were sure to learn something just by listening to how deftly Turner navigates the terrain.


I Want You To Listen With An Open Mind
On the surface it seems like the most obvious rule in the singer’s playbook should be to immerse yourself in the character you’re inhabiting and tell the accompanying story with the conviction of somebody who’s lived it, but it’s amazing how many over the years fail to do that.

Not Joe Turner, who manages to make the sentiments he’s sung in various incarnations sound as if he’s just thought of the words the moment before they reached his lips.

We know that’s not he case however, for nothing in the song he gives us today is original… the structure, the lyrics, the mixture of hope and forlorn rumination embedded in his delivery and the simple straightforward arrangement of a well-drilled band are all things that we’ve seen before from him. Depending on how cynical you are it even may give you the impression that everybody involved was content to just provide the label (Imperial now, in a brief stopover between more fruitful destinations) with something eminently usable without being anything particularly memorable.

Fair enough. Story To Tell was all of those things and thus it’d be fair to criticize him for having the gumption for airing out his well-worn bag of tricks for another showing. In the hands of any other singer a release such as this might be called lazy if you were being generous and a rip-off if you felt you’d been sold recycled items under a new title.

Yet when Big Joe Turner is the salesman it’s easy to be won over by yesterday’s fashions being given a new lease on life with an efficient band behind him and a renewed sense of confidence gotten from his recent commercial revival.


So Pretty… So Doggone Mean
From the rousing opening led by a full horn brigade to the sudden downshift in mood as Turner enters the scene, this record is smack dab in Turner’s comfort zone.

It’s not a remake of an older song per say, but you’d be excused for thinking it must be since you’ve heard all of these lines before, albeit in different incarnations and by different singers.

There’s a stanza from Chapter One of the dog-eared copy of Lyrics For All Occasions that novice songwriters pass around like the clap in a whorehouse and it’s sitting comfortably alongside a line pinched from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Matchbox Blues that Carl Perkins would later turn into a rock classic.

Even Turner’s off-the-cuff interjections – “I guess it’s my fault fellas…” – which sounds so casual are in fact phrases he’s re-used in every decade since the early 1930’s when prohibition was still the law of the land.

Yet DAMN if he doesn’t make it sound as if he’s just coming up with them in the moment and as as result it still works as good as ever.

This slight of hand trick is so effective that it’ll impress you far more than it’ll make you perturbed at having heard it before, especially since you’re not quite sure where you’ve heard all these stock lines out of him, sending you on yet another tour through the invaluable five disc Turner collection, All The Classic Hits, spanning his first fourteen years as a recording artist to see if you can’t reconstruct the pieces from where they originated in his songbook.

So what if the plot is standard issue melancholia that finds him lamenting his disintegrating love life, beset upon by another heartless woman who torments him by dangling that carrot on a stick to keep him at bay while she has plenty of fun without him.

Who cares if he’s trading in his self-respect for the chance to add another notch to his bedpost every once in awhile in exchange for letting her run around on him without consequence? Besides, it’s not as if he’s exactly unaware of his Faustian bargain with this woman. So mixed in with his moaning about her cold-hearted ways we get to hear him delivering a few critical assessments of her character flaws as well… maybe not in an accusatory manner, but his dim view of her scruples is laid bare in his delivery.

This relieves you of the burden of having to pity him because you get the feeling the real reason he’s bellyaching about her is because she’s been withholding her end of the deal, the occasional bedroom play-dates which allows her to get away with such actions in the first place.

As such this comes across like a well-rehearsed routine between the two of them, not grievous enough to sink into tragedy or serious enough for it to qualify as a drama, yet also not light enough for comedy but at the same time a little too weighty to be taken as a farce.

Because Turner understands this dynamic completely, not just the emotional roller coaster his character is going through but also the way in which outsiders view this pitiable guy, he’s able to make it seem fresh no matter how many times you’ve heard it all before.


I Wouldn’t Feel So Bad
For those expecting… maybe even hoping… for something with a little more kick out of Dave Bartholomew’s band you probably won’t be placated by the reminder that on songs like this the job of the musicians is to be subservient to Turner’s vocals, not compete with them.

In that regard they do a good job, lending the right feel to the song without dominating the mood. Fats Domino’s sometimes quirky piano fills are omnipresent giving the track a sense of character that keeps it from getting too maudlin as the horns play in tandem, eschewing melodic variation for a stately harmonic bed.

Even when Turner raises the urgency of his vocals the horns keep from getting carried away and if they veer ever so slightly into the jazz-pop vernacular down the stretch it doesn’t affect Big Joe who is wailing away, lost in his thoughts yet still riding the music like he were on a life raft, just going with the flow.

Story To Tell is not top shelf Big Joe Turner by any means yet it’s remarkably emblematic of his musical persona all the same. He’s covering familiar ground perhaps but doing so in a way that you’ve come to rely on and appreciate more because it checks off all the boxes without fail.

Sometimes it’s just a comfort to know that guys like Turner are always out there, always in good voice and always making records that give you what you expect.


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