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Awesome Men Throughout History: Big Joe Turner

Looking back, we’ve featured a good amount of musicians in Awesome Men Throughout History. So it won’t kill us to add one more; this week, we’re taking a look at American rock ‘n roll/jazz/blues pioneer Big Joe Turner.

Big Joe Turner

Born in Kansas City in 1911, Joe’s story begins like just about every other black entertainer born after 1900: a religious upbringing giving birth to a love of music. Joe parlayed this into a job singing on street corners for money (his father died when he was 4, putting him in the unenviable position of breadwinner at a young age), and left school at fourteen to find his fortune. He ended up in the Kansas City nightclub scene, first as a cook, then as a singing bartender (his nickname was, appropriately enough, the Singing Barman).

By the time he landed a residency at the Sunset Club, Prohibition was in full swing. Granted, that didn’t mean much in Kansas City, but Joe did suffer the inconvenience of having his performances raided all the time. Luckily, the club owners had good enough political connections to work around that. As Joe himself put it, ?the Boss man [referring to local political machine boss Tom Pendergast] would have his bondsmen down at the police station before we got there. We’d walk in, sign our names and walk right out. Then we would cabaret until morning.? In other words, Joe spent Prohibition getting as drunk and laid as he wanted, and making a living in the process. Not bad.

His career went on in that fashion until 1951, when he was spotted by Atlantic Records founders? Ahmet and Nesuhi Erteg?n (who also had a close relationship with Ray Charles) during a performance in Harlem. The brothers signed him and he began cranking out hits, including blues standard ?Chains of Love? and ?Shake Rattle and Roll,? which became a huge hit that both Elvis Presley and Bill Haley covered.

Joe’s songs, it should be noted, were considered too indecent for radio play at that time, leaving only record sales and jukebox plays to measure his success. Lyrics like ?you’re like a one-eyed-cat/peepin’ in a seafood store? are pretty easy to figure out, and Joe’s live performances were full of raunchy ad-libs and gestures, which was a risk at a time when simply being a black man performing for white audiences was deemed a sexual risk. Some of Joe’s earlier blues material, particularly his duets with Wynonie Harris, was even dirtier, and in a pretty straightforward way considering that era’s restrictions on lyrical content.

What made Joe a success, when all was said and done, was his voice. His presence helped ? he was 6’2? and 300 pounds, a big man for the Jazz Age ? but he had a big, rolling voice with such operatic power that he didn’t always need a microphone to be heard over the band. He performed with Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, and Count Basie’s jazz orchestras, and was the bridge between the jump blues era of the 1940s and the rock ‘n roll era of the 1950s. He also performed at Carnegie Hall, and recorded the first song with a noticeable backbeat (?Roll ‘Em Pete?). For a guy who no one really talks about today, he’s one of the main reasons why rock ‘n roll exists at all.

It’s hard to sum up the career of a guy like Joe Turner in one page, but his awesomeness stems from the fact that his career flourished despite Prohibition, the Great Depression, a lack of formal schooling, and racial prejudice, and that it was built on a solid foundation of drinking, having lots of sex, and singing about drinking and having lots of sex. No one shook, rattled, or rolled like Big Joe Turner.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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