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The rock career of Big Joe Turner has been a rather tumultuous one so far, filled with undeniable high points along with some awkward lows as he attempted, not always successfully, to fit into the style of music that he seemed born to excel at.

Many of his failures along the way were the fault of the record labels who steered him in other directions or put him with a band that were not on the same page as he was, but even when he had great material, a top-notch backing unit and the aesthetic results were dynamic, the commercial success was more hit and miss.

Until recently that is when he landed at Atlantic Records and scored his biggest hit of his career to date with a song that featured him at his absolute best vocally, wringing out the pathos of the composition with each inflection of his mighty voice.

But one hit alone does not make for a full-fledged career revival, you need to follow that up with something equally potent in order to firmly establish this is a viable renaissance and with this release Big Joe Turner unquestionably did just that.


Lose Your Low Down Worried Blues
Not that consumers in 1951 knew this at the time, but the encouraging thing about this record – both sides in fact – is the songs were recorded at the same April recording date that produced Chains Of Love, the song which was still ruling the charts nearly six months after its release.

In other words, they hadn’t just gotten lucky that first time out, they had great material, a first rate band and strong production across the board and now were reaping the benefits of it with back to back singles that were hard to beat as The Chill Is On reached #3 on the national charts, albeit in just a two months stay rather than more than half a year that its predecessor enjoyed.

But while the stats simply confirm his renewed popularity in black and white numbers, as always the true test lays with the record itself and Joe Turner made sure he had something to sink his teeth into with a self-penned song that finds a comfortable middle ground in terms of both pacing and subject.

It’s essentially a ballad concept delivered in a medium tempo strut, a sad lament about a girl leaving which is generally handled in a morose tone of voice by most artists, Turner included as evidenced by the most famous song from this same session.

Maybe because of that, or more likely because Turner wanted to flex different creative muscles, they delivered something a lot more spry which has the interesting effect of allowing each individual listener to glean something different from the track. If you focus on what he’s saying and the descending melody, you tend to pick up on the sadder qualities and it comes across as a song that is weighed down by his pain and thus unable to go any faster.

Yet if you’re on a dance floor or at a party, the loping gait gives the impression that the music is pulling a reluctant downhearted Big Joe out onto the floor to help him shake off his despondency, re-invigorating him despite his sorrow.

Either way the effect is a powerful one, making for a record that takes on different tints and hues depending on the lens through which you view it.


Tell The World I Do
Some guys – and gals – wrote tons of their own material, had countless hits and enduring classics, yet never get mentioned among the great songwriters of their era. Aretha Franklin is one, Joe Turner is another.

In both of their cases their singing abilities tend to overwhelm the rest of their talents to such an extent that you somehow forget they’re multi-dimensional artists who are expressing themselves with their words as well as their voices.

Historically speaking Turner may be unfairly penalized as well for the fact that he had a grab bag of phrases – and even full stanzas – that he returned to time and again, re-crafting new songs out of stock ideas, which surely makes his claim to fame as a songwriter a little more dubious in the skeptical eyes of some critics. But over the course of a long career his work speaks for itself as memorable lines flow effortlessly from his pen showing lyrical cleverness and melodic infectiousness both of which are present and accounted for here starting with the lead line that sets up the entire thematic premise – “The thrill is gone and the chill is on, my baby’s goin’ away”.

It’s concise, catchy and establishes the plot and his own response with a minimum of fuss and follows it up with the tag-line “I don’t know when she’s leaving, I hope she don’t leave today” which shows that he’s as much a bystander in his own fate as the audience is. Right away you get the entire picture of his predicament and state of mind with three-dimensional realism.

Throughout The Chill Is On his more energetic delivery doesn’t throw you off as you’d expect, but rather reinforces that feeling of helplessness over his situation. He almost seems to be taking it in stride, not because he isn’t sad but because he realizes he’s powerless to stop it from happening and he’s maintaining a stiff upper lip to salvage his self-respect.

In one of the best moments he even throws in a slyly subversive sexual come-on to the girl by announcing “My telephone number is Cherry I-812”, something that probably doesn’t make any sense to people of our generation, but back then the seven digit numbers often started with the location. So his town being called Cherry would use the numerical stand-ins for CH which would be 2 and 4.

The “I” would also be a 4, which means dialing the full number he gives you wouldn’t connect you with anyone since there’s only six, not seven numbers in it, but the real point isn’t to have you calling some bewildered lady in Cherry Hill, New Jersey or Cherry, Illinois and asking for Big Joe, but rather the joke is about “eating a cherry too”, which if you need an explanation to understand allow me to go back in time yet again in order to give you another number to call that charged you a couple bucks a minute for some anonymous lady to purr sexually obscene things in your ear.

But I digress…


Come On Over Baby When You’re Lonesome
Because Turner is so indelible here, projecting a resilient optimism in the face of emotional loss, it might be easy to overlook the band (easier still because aside from Harry Van Walls the personnel remain unverified) who deftly match Big Joe in maintaining the precarious balance between buoyancy and misery.

The former tends to win out musically on The Chill Is On starting with rapid fire horns trading off with Van Walls with some crackling drums thrown in for good measure.

The piano is the centerpiece, as Van Walls’s left hand is sluggishly setting the rhythm which represents the dire circumstances of the situation from Joe’s perspective, while his flamboyant right hand is the one urging his friend to get out from under the black clouds brought on by this break-up and dance in the sunshine.

It’s almost a schizophrenic performance in that regard, as Van Walls never betrays either perspective. His two hands are working entirely independently of one another and yet retain a consistency thanks to how he employs both, picking and choosing his spots for the latter while the former never wavers.

The horns take on a bigger role in the mid-section with their gently throbbing lines before giving us a sax solo that is decent enough, though hardly transcendent, surely seeking to limit the amount of enthusiasm shown on a song ostensibly about grief. Had they gone too far in the other direction and had the sax crying that’d create an entirely different impression that would clash with Turner’s newfound outlook which wouldn’t work either, so essentially it’s a compromise, albeit a sensible one that allows the record to not lose its way even if it’s not adding anything notable in the process.

But what you’ll remember in the final tally isn’t the individual parts but rather how all of it seems to come together organically, laying out a gently rolling musical bed for Turner to ride to the end without seeming to exert any force in the bargain.

It’s a record that sounds as natural and unforced as any we’ve come across, showcasing a great singer who’s spent far too long in the wilderness and now suddenly discovers much to his delight that he’s finally found a home.


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