Wednesday 23 July 2008

Big Joe Turner (1911 – 1985)

He had all the confidence, all the style and all the panache that one man could need. He commanded the stage with effortless ease and his rich baritone had the power and lift to simply soar above the loudest of bands. His movements were minimal but his presence was massive. The voice flowed on and snapped to the beat delivering some of the most lascivious lyrics ever recorded. Gritty but fluent arrangements, superb musicianship and perfectly drilled horn and rhythm sections drove the music along like a freight train. For that we must also thank Doc Pomus, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Jesse Stone (under the name, Charles E Calhoun) for writing them, and Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun for recording them on the great and wonderful Atlantic record label.

It’s impossible to improve on what Nick Tosches wrote (in “The Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll”): His voice, oceanic and commanding, resonant with that rumbling deep down in the ground which is the sound of the Devil chaining his third wife down, is a voice of power. Not in all of rock ’n’ roll has there been another singer quite like him.

For me his greatest recordings were the ones he made in his forties for Atlantic. The 1950’s was a golden decade for Atlantic Rhythm ’n’ Blues with classic recordings from Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker but for sheer energy and drive even these giants were surpassed by Big Joe Turner. Perhaps his finest hour in the studio came on November 3rd. 1955 when he recorded “Boogie Woogie Country Girl”, one of the most irresistibly rhythmic recordings ever made. Superb piano playing from Vann “Piano Man” Walls and drumming by Connie Kay, the latter to achieve fame in a very different musical genre with the Modern Jazz Quartet. Other musical greats who played alongside him included King Curtis and Elmore James (“TV Mama”). He had a deceptively casual approach to the whole business of performing that somehow made his work especially memorable and I never tire of listening.

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