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We’ve been on the brink of a full-fledged commercial revival in the fortunes of Big Joe Turner before. His stint with Freedom records saw him score huge regional hits out of the gate while hitting his aesthetic high point during his time there.

But that time was short-lived owing to Turner’s habit of eschewing long-term contracts combined with the shaky financial situation of the label itself which shut down soon after releasing their final sides from their brief association with Big Joe.

Adrift once again and aging out of the demographic he was now situated with, that may have proved to be an all-too brief swan song had Atlantic Records not come along when they did and with fresh material, stellar musicians and top notch production allowed Turner’s comeback to reach full-flower as he scored two massive hits on the national charts over the past year.

Now he cements his renewed status as a star with this, his third such release to break the Top Three and while it’s clear that his artistic peak had in fact begun before he arrived on Atlantic’s doorstep, we’ve now reached the point where we no longer have to wonder how long it will last.


Lord, What’s Gonna Happen To Me?
Big Joe Turner was a titan. Larger than life in both size and talent, he had a voice that could cut through the thickest fog, yet unlike the shouters who admired him most like Wynonie Harris, the brilliance of Turner often revealed itself best in the more downcast songs where his pathos took on added poignancy because it was coming from someone who appeared so powerful from a distance.

It’s this quality which helps to set Sweet Sixteen apart. Written – allegedly – by Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun, the song on the surface has an almost unsettling air. Turner is a full grown man of forty-one who (it would appear) is singing about a girl who is no more than a junior in high school, maybe just learning to drive, still going on dates with guys her age where both have an 11 o’clock curfew.

By contrast Turner hasn’t been to bed earlier than three in the morning since Herbert Hoover was in the White House!

Yet the onus would is taken off the song because of Big Joe’s vulnerability in how he sings it. Even if you completely misread the composition you still wouldn’t hear him as a horny old geezer fantasizing about being with a girl who was all of two years old when he and fellow Kansas City hot shot Pete Johnson set the music world on fire and launched the boogie woogie craze in 1938, but rather Turner comes across as someone daydreaming about a girl from his distant past even if the song’s lyrics paint a far more ambiguous scene.

That’s the difference between a great song and a great performance. B.B. King later had a slightly bigger hit with this same song in the 1960 (albeit somehow credited to King and Joe Josea, the alias of professional song thief and Modern Records owner Joe Bihari) but as good as that version was, even King readily admitted “To me Joe Turner is Sweet Sixteen”.

He definitely wasn’t alone in that impression.


Anything I Asked You To
As with his earlier Atlantic sides, you can’t credit Turner without bestowing almost as much praise on pianist Harry Van Walls, who shapes the musical motif in ways that heighten the drama tenfold.

There’s a chance of course that he co-wrote the song, as he did with Chains Of Love, and sold credit, but even if he were just a hired gun his contributions here are palpable as the very first sounds you hear are of his piano tentatively entering the picture, their notes ringing with a delicately haunting tone before the horns ease alongside him.

Right away you know Sweet Sixteen is a long ways off from so many later songs which used that age as a way to incorporate the blossoming of adulthood and the male desire for those girls which accompany that stage of life in an almost mystical fashion.

Instead this is a song of utter sadness reflected by the inability to hold on to that picture of innocence that seems frozen in time.

Turner’s hesitancy in delivering each line, almost seeming to have to gather himself before each one to muster up the internal fortitude to put his feelings into words, is remarkably powerful. Though he’s singing in full voice it somehow still sounds intimate, like we’re eavesdropping on his private musings over a girl who is in the process of breaking his heart.

That too is key here, the way the song isn’t about just that one point in time – thankfully he MET her first when she was 16, she isn’t anymore – but rather it deftly covers the years they’ve been together and how their relationship changed along the way without ever being too specific. Time condenses in such a way here that we never are quite sure when things began to go wrong, only that it was a slow drawn out process that reflects real life in ways most songs determined to maintain narrative clarity don’t attempt.

But it’s that sense of things slipping away from Turner which elevates the song into a higher realm. The shift from talking about the girl to him reflecting on his family being gone as well would seem to be incongruous on the surface but it speaks to his sense of isolation that is overtaking him now that their relationship is on the rocks. Of course the way in which Turner’s voice aches on the closing line of that stanza has the ability to make the thought of merely facing an empty house at night seem like a burden too heavy for one man to bear.

The arrangement by Jesse Stone similarly works wonders with your sense of perspective throughout the record, which at times seems to be building towards some ebullient redemptive payoff thanks to the horns swelling behind him, yet those hopes are quickly – and cruelly – dashed when Walls’s piano drags them back into the shadows.

Music often can be wonderfully reflective of ONE emotion in a song, be it joy or sadness, excitement or anger, but to navigate conflicting emotions in a way that gives voice to each of them while remaining centered on the overriding mood at the center of the record, which is Turner himself, is infinitely more difficult, yet on Sweet Sixteen they never step wrong. Anybody left alone with their thoughts, rehashing a relationship that didn’t quite work out despite moments of giddy optimism, will immediately recognize the way the instrumental track fluctuates between the highs and the lows of such memories.

We know Turner won’t get back to where he wants to be with this girl, and more pointedly he knows it too, but rather than feeling like we’re intruding on his private misery most of those listening will tread lightly when listening in because we’ve all been there too.


Sweetest Thing I’ve Ever Seen
In a career that lasted a half century, spanning multiple genres, as well as multiple styles WITHIN those genres, the catalog of Big Joe Turner is almost as daunting to get your arms around as the man himself.

But while single disc samplers or a short streaming playlist of big hits is bound to come up woefully short in getting across just what an amazing singer he was, you do have to start somewhere. While the rollicking uptempo classics are sure to be more widely heard and easier to embrace in passing, the true genius of this man can best be found on songs like Sweet Sixteen.

Here he balances the power of his voice with the weakness of his heart… contrasting purely emotive expressions with a deeper understanding of the feelings behind them… revealing his standalone abilities at the same time he’s showing his peerless interplay with a first rate band.

It’s a perfect record, flawless in every way, a towering achievement from a man who not long ago seemed as if he may just be reaching the end of the line as a consistent force on popular music.

Now, just two years later, he’s back on top and at the peak of his interpretive powers with a vast eager audience hanging on his every word again.

The way it should be.


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