The Real Boss - of The Blues - Joe Turner©2003JCMarion


Part One -

The future "Boss of the Blues" was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in May of 1911. At a young age his father was killed in a train accident which left Joe to live with a number of relatives throughout his early years. About the year 1930, Joe who was always big for his age got a job as a bartender in a joint called The Hole In The Wall, and later at a number of night spots in his hometown such as The Backbiters, Cherry Blossom, Black & Tan, Hawaiian Gardens, Club Reno, The Subway, and Piney Brown's. In the mid nineteen thirties, Kansas City had a thriving music scene helped along by the notoriously corrupt Pendergast political machine which ran the affairs of the city. If the right palms were greased, the police and other authorities would leave you alone which led to the great incubator for swing, jazz, and blues that was such a part of the K.C. times in those years. The usual pianist at the Sunset Club was Pete Johnson, and soon Big Joe joined in with his raucous vocals over the new eight to the bar tempos which formed the basis of "boogie woogie" which would soon sweep the country. In 1937 New York music producer John Hammond was in Kansas City to hear Count Basie's band which was the outgrowth of former leader Bennie Moten's swing outfit. One night Hammond dropped by The Sunset and heard Joe and Pete and was duly impressed by the duo. Turner said thumbs down to an offer to go to New York and do vocals with the Basie band, but soon Hammond brought the Turner-Johnson combine to the Big Apple and club dates on 52nd Street and in Greenwich Village. Joe Turner was on his way.

In 1938 as the boogie woogie craze began to spread, Joe and Pete appeared on the top rated Camel Caravan segment called "Benny Goodman's Swing School". Hammond also had the duo appear as part of the landmark 1938 "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall that presented the modern musical history of African-Americans up to that point in time. Right after that concert in the first days of 1939, Joe made his first recordings for the Vocalion Records label. Joe recorded vocals with Pete Johnson, "Going Away Blues" on #4607, and "Cherry Red" / "Baby Look At You" on #4997, a jazz combo led by Oran "Hot Lips" Page - "Lowdown Dirty Shame" on #5531, and with the three kings of the boogie woogie piano - Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson - "Cafe Society Blues" on #5186. Joe appeared with the Harry James Orchestra at Chicago's Panther Room that year. He also recorded with Pete and Benny Carter on OK#6001 with "Joe Turner Blues" / "Beale Street Blues". In 1940 Joe signed with Decca Records and one side recorded with Hot Lips Page called "Piney Brown Blues" (named for the owner of the K.C. club of the same name) sold over five hundred thousand copies and was Turner's first big hit. Joe's first big radio shot was on the NBC network's "Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street" (which brought fame to Dinah Shore) with Pete Johnson in 1940.

During the rest of the 1940s Joe recorded for Decca with Art Tatum ("Wee Baby Blues" #8256, and his first version of "Corrine Corrina" #8563), Joe Sullivan ("I Can't Give You Anything But Love" on #5496), Willie "The Lion" Smith, toured with Duke Ellington, and then pianist Meade Lux Lewis with Willie Bryant, and on radio and in clubs on the West Coast. Decca #7889 with Page was "Blues On Central Avenue", a good seller in L.A. After the war and reunited with Pete Johnson he recorded "Johnson And Turner Blues" / "Watch That Jive" on National #9011. That year he won the Silver Award from Esquire magazine for top male vocalist finishing second to Louis Armstrong. In the late forties Turner recordings were issued by the Stag label and Dootsie Williams Deetone Records (the forerunner to his famous Dootone label). There were also sides for Bayou Records (owned by Imperial's Lew Chudd) and L.A.'s independent Swingtime label.

In January of 1950 the independent label National Records releases “It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame” and “Trouble In Mind” on #9099 advertised as on unbreakable vinyl-lite. In March, Joe’s version of “Adam Bit The Apple” on Freedom #1531 is selling well in New Orleans and Dallas. The Houston Texas based R & B independent label owned and operated by Sol Kahal also does well with the song “Still In The Dark” by Turner. In May “Just A Traveling Man” and “Life Is Like A Card Game” is recorded for Freedom on #1537. That month Joe joins drummer Felix Gross and his band on a series of one nighters in the Northeast. Members of the band include Frank Leviston on trumpet, Joe Swanson on tenor sax, Henry Sloan on trombone, T.B. Watson on piano, and Al Adams on bass. June of the year finds Joe Turner on MGM Records with a release of “Feelin’ So Sad” and “Moody Baby” on #10719. “Adam Bit The Apple” selling well in the San Francisco-Oakland area. In August Joe appears on still another label - this time Imperial with “Story To Tell” and “Jumping Tonight” on #5090. “Story” takes off in New Orleans as Joe draws a crowd during a two week engagement at that city’s Dew Drop Inn. At year’s end “Feeling Happy” is out on Freedom #1540.

In early 1951, "Feeling Happy" is a good seller in New Orleans. The Louisiana city continues to be a receptive market for the R & B style of the veteran Kansas City blues shouter. "Back Breaking Blues" recorded for Aladdin #3070 is a hot seller in February. That's five labels for Joe in less than one year ! In April of 1951 Joe appears with the Count Basie band at the Apollo Theater in New York City. While in the Big Apple, Joe makes a move that change his life and also change the musical landscape bog the country and then the world. He signs an exclusive three year recording contract with New York R & B independent label Atlantic Records. Turner is no longer a recording nomad. Despite the Atlantic deal, national Records releases "Rocks In My Bed" and "Howlin' Winds" on #9144 that month. Atlantic wastes no time as they release Turner's first record for them in May with "Chains Of Love" and "After My Laughter Came Tears" on #939. Joe then goes on tour with Helen Humes and Hal Singer's band throughout the Midwest. "Chains Of Love" starts to sell in the mid South and Texas. In July Joe joins the Joe Morris Blues Cavalcade show for a series of one nighters in Louisiana and the Southwest. The tune "Howling Winds" continues to sell in the South, but "Chains Of Love" his first for Atlantic Records seems destined to become the biggest seller in Turner's career. The song written by pianist Van Walls and Ahmet Ertegun (under the pen name "Nugetre") hits the number three mark in the national R & B sales chart. The tune's success results in an extended tour of the West Coast. Another result of the best selling record is the re-release of an old recording for the Okeh label - "Joe Turner Blues" and "Cherry Red" on #6829. In November Atlantic Records readies the followup to "Chains" with "The Chill Is On" and "Bump Miss Susie" with the Van Walls Orchestra on #949. "The Chill" starts off with big sales for Atlantic which causes Swingtime Records to re-release an old one from the shelf - "How Do You Want Your Rollin' Done" and "Christmas Date" on #269. Also in December Fidelity Records run by Art Rupe of Specialty issues another previous release with "Life Is Like A Card Game" and "When The Rooster Crows" on #3000

Joe Turner's "Chains Of Love" wound up being the number four best seller for the year 1951, and certainly the biggest record of Joe's long career. In February Joe does a live version of the song on Nipsey Russell's am radio show in New York. That month Joe turns up on one side of a new release from Dootone Records in Los Angeles. The song recorded some time before with Pete Johnson is "I Love Ya, I Love Ya, I Love Ya" on #305. In march Turner's third waxing for Atlantic is "Sweet Sixteen" and "I'll Never Stop Loving You" with Van Walls on #960. In May Turner stars with Count Basie Orchestra and The Five Keys at the Apollo Theater in New York. "Sweet Sixteen" is selling big in Texas and the South giving Turner his third straight winner for Atlantic. That month Fidelity releases another Freedom label retread recording of "Just A Traveling Man" and "Someday You'll Be Sorry" on #3007. In July Atlantic Records starts to market Joe Turner as "The Boss of the Blues" with his new record of "Don't You Cry" and "Poor Lover's Blues" on #970. Joe Turner heads to one of his old haunts, the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans for three weeks followed by a stint at Kansas City's Orchid Room in his home town. In September Joe joins Lowell Fulson for one nighters in Florida and Georgia, and then moves on to Ohio for a show with fellow Atlantic Records performers Ruth Brown and Willis Jackson and his band. In October Joe moves over to St. Louis for three weeks at Midtown Hotel and Lounge. Once again Swingtime Records releases "Christmas Date" for the holidays on #269. At year's end Atlantic releases "Baby I Still Want You" and "Still In Love" on #982.

In the first part of 1953 Joe Turner made a few personal appearances and in the spring did a recording session in New Orleans. The result was a landmark jump blues tune called "Honey Hush" on Atlantic #1001. The flip was "Crawdad Hole", but it was "Honey Hush" that in the summer of 1953 caught the ear of a number of White listeners who discovered the "Boss of the Blues" for the first time. Joe Turner was on his way to becoming a rock 'n roll star, but that was still some time away. Joe hits his stride as "Hush" makes the national charts. He is booked for a number of tours through the South and Southwest. Joe Turner is now the number one male vocalist in the R & B field. Jubilee Records buys some old masters Joe recorded for the National label. Late in the year Joe is in Chicago recording for Atlantic. The result is "T.V. Mama" with Elmore James on slide guitar. The flip side is "Oke-She-Moke-She-Pop" on #1016. In early 1954 "TV Mama" sells well in a number of cities across the South and Midwest. In February Turner joins Chuck Willis at Lloyd's Manor in Newark, New Jersey. If "Honey Hush" was the first shot of the coming revolution, than Joe Turner's April recording of "Shake Rattle And Roll" on Atlantic #1026 was the frontal assault (the flip side was "Don't You Know I Love You"). Joe returns to New York's Apollo Theater in June. A big mid-summer tour of Texas and the Southwest is set with Joe Turner joined by Guitar Slim and T-Bone Walker. Joe Turner setting the stage for the rock revolution joins the point man of all of this when he hits the stage in Akron Ohio for Alan Freed's "Moondog Birthday Ball" along with The Five Keys, Al Savage, Faye Adams, and the Joe Morris band. About one third of the audience was made up of White teenagers, another sign of the times. In July Atlantic releases a series of 45 rpm EP's including one by Joe Turner containing four recent recordings. "Shake Rattle and Roll" gets into the top 25 on the pop charts via a cover recording by Bill haley & The Comets for Decca Records. In August Joe films a few kinescopes for television performing some of his tunes with Ruben Phillips and his band. In September Turner records "Well All Right" and "Married Woman" and is released on Atlantic #1040 with Van Walls band now listed as the Blues Kings. Turner and Chuck Willis tour the Eastern states in September. Alan "Moondog" Freed, now based in New York on station WINS, heavily promotes Turner's "Well All Right" and area teenagers soon all know who the "Boss of the Blues" is. In November Joe signs on for the "Top Ten R & B Show" to tour the country early in 1955. The lineup also includes The Clovers, Faye Adams, Charlie & Ray, Amos Milburn, Fats Domino, The Moonglows, Bill Doggett & his Combo, and the Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams band. In December Alan Freed makes plans for his first show in New York City. The landmark show called "The Rock & Roll Jubilee Ball" to be held at St. Nicholas Arena in Harlem. Along with Joe Turner on stage will be The Drifters with Clyde McPhatter, The Clovers, Moonglows, Harptones, Fats Domino, Danny Overbea, Red Prysock & his band, and the Buddy Johnson band with Ella Johnson and Nolan Lewis. Joe Turner is named the top R & B artist of the year by the juke box operators association. After an appearance at L.A.'s Savoy ballroon, Turner tours Northern California with Choker Campbell's band.

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