24 June 2011

G. Bruce Boyer & Big Joe Turner Get Some Sugar

"Yea, boy. Get you a little sugar tonight.
Are you ready? You should be ready."

G. Bruce Boyer follows up on the smokey cool of Nina Simone with the operatic, Big Joe Turner, a blue's man who lacks Nina's notoriety but whose powerhouse voice must have raised the hair on your arms when heard live. I wanna thank Bruce for turning me onto Big Joe and for my new favorite 'gettin' sugar' song.

Joe Turner (1911 – 1985) was born dirt poor in Kansas City and never had a minute's formal education in music. Had things been different, Joe might have been a great American opera star. He had a staggering musical talent: a natural ear, an ability to remember thousand's of lyrics, and his pipes were capable of an instinctive subtlety as well as soaring majesty. Not to mention his manly, overwhelming, and commanding presence.

In a club or dance hall, with a rowdy crowd in front of him and a blaring orchestra behind, he needed no microphone to be heard in every corner of the room. At 6'2 and over 300 lbs, he wasn't called “Big Joe” for nothing.

As a teenager, I had heard rockabilly star Bill Haley's version of what some have called the first pop rock 'n roll song, “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”. It was a nice, fairly bland, harmless tune without any real smoke or sexuality about it.

Haley's recording in fact owed most of its fame to its use as the opening sound cut to the most popular juvenile delinquent genre film Blackboard Jungle. If white bread could sing rock 'n roll, it would sound like Bill Haley.

But the song itself was something else, and we were familiar with the original, by Big Joe. His version was a revolutionary experience to a kid just becoming very much aware of his sexuality. Joe picked that song up, filled it with lust, alcohol, a dash of the Devil's wit, and a dose of pulsating danger and turned it loose on the streets at midnight:

Like a one-eyed cat peeping in a sea food store,
Like a one-eyed cat peeping in a sea food store,
I can look at you, tell you ain't no child no more.

A year or two later I heard Big Joe in person, when he played at one of our local dance halls. After the band warmed up the crowd for half an hour with scorching renditions of “Night Train”, “Flamingo”, and “Unchained melody” , Joe lumbered out on the stage wearing a wrinkled tan gabardine suit that was billowing and draping around him as though it might have been made from a tent.

Directly at the center of the apron was a gleaming chrome mic. Joe gave the downbeat to the band with his left hand, pushed the mic out of the way with his right, and went immediately into a blistering version of my personal favorite “Cherry Red” that went on for about ten minutes. The whole ballroom pulsated like a gigantic heart.

He filled that hall with joy for the next hour-and-a-half, as one great blues tune after another came thundering out of him. He closed with, “Roll 'Em, Pete”, which contains the most existential set of lyrics ever heard:

You're so beautiful, but you got to die some day,
You're so beautiful, but you got to die some day.
All I want's a little loving' before you pass away.

The really interesting thing about Joe's performance was that he didn't move at all except for a finger snap or two. He just stood there like Mount Rushmore and let the sound pour forth. There were none of the physical gyrations and signature tricks we were used to seeing with the rock 'n roll musicians who played the dances.

No leg flailing, hip shaking, head tossing gymnastics; no hopping or skipping or rolling around on the stage. Joe just stood there with his arms at his sides and wailed like the solid force of nature he was. There were no gimmicks, no tricks, no pretense, no pandering. He just did his thing and you either got it or you didn't. And when Big Joe sang the blues, they stayed sung.

There's no doubt in my mind that, as a musician, Joe Turner was a genius, and his music a national treasure. And, not being an opera buff, I'm I'm not at all
disappointed by Fate.

And, oh yes, Big Joe appears in what I suggest is the greatest jazz documentary ever made: The Last of the Blue Devils. Check it out.

Selected Discography

Count Basie and Joe Turner: The Bosses (Pablo)

Joe Turner Texas Style (Black & Blue)

Joe Turner: The Boss of the Blues (Atlantic)

Big, Bad & Blue: The Big Joe Turner Anthology (Rhino)

Joe Turner: I Don't Dig It (Jukebox Lil Records)

Joe Turner, Milt Jackson, Roy Eldridge: Nobody in Mind (Pablo)

The Trumpet Kings Meet Joe Turner Pablo)


Anonymous said...

Great post! I could see this being on the back of a reissued vinyl. I was sucked in while reading this.

Anonymous said...

It's also funny that you post this. The store I just posted about on my blog had a few Joe Turner albums, but unfortunately not the one I was looking for. I liked his stuff on Atlantic the most. I haven't been able to find his album Rock & Roll for a decent price. Now, after this, I'm going to have "Chains of Love" and "Sweet Sixteen" stuck in my head all day. Which is absolutely OK with me.


Unclelooney said...

Election Night 1992-Dan Rather Says something like;
" Bill Clinton continues to roll through the electoral college like a big wheel through a Georgia cotton field."

He didn't sing Honey Hush though.

Anonymous said...

@ Unclelooney

Honey Hush is great, but unfortunately, it's my 3rd favorite song on that album. Chains of Love and Sweet Sixteen take the prize for me.

j. antoine said...

I have heard Joe Turner before, but I don't think I have really listened to him. I now think he deserves a bit more of my time. With lyrics like the ones in "Roll Em Pete" how could he not? Great post.

Jeff, Jill and Erin said...

Thanks for the post, I always enjoy hearing new (to me) artists! I used to share these musical finds with my Dad and he'd say oh yeah I remember them.

Good stuff, thanks again,

Dave said...

Now that's the way to leave the stage. Just turn and walk away. Too cool. BIg Joe and another Joe, Joe Williams are among my favorites. I'd give my left nut to sing like one of these guys.

Thanks for posting this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this tribute.

Anonymous said...

@ Dave

I think if you gave your left nut, you unfortunately would not be able to sing like them.