“The Singing Bartender”
Big Joe first sang on Kansas City street corners for tips. Later as a young teenager he worked at gin joints as a cook, bouncer and bartender. While he slung drinks and pulled beer taps at the Kingfish Club, he started belting out bluesy lyrics. Later he did the same at the Sunset Club where he hooked up with boogie-woogie piano great Pete Johnson. The rockin anything-goes Sunset Club was run by Piney Woods in the middle of an anything-goes Kansas City run by Boss Pendergast. The club was so hi-filutin it offered “Separate but Equal” toilet facilities for its white patrons.
By 1936 Big Joe and Pete Johnson had conquered the neighborhood and left for bigger things in the Big Apple. They got several gigs, even appeared with Benny Goodman, but couldn’t quite break through to the big time. Back to Kansas City they went. In no time the great music promoter, John H. Hammond took notice. He invited them to Carnegie Hall to perform in his “From Spirituals to Swing” concert.
As expected they tore up the joint. They got the suits and frilly gowns rocking down. Getting a gig at Carnegie Hall in the 30s was like appearing on Ed Sullivan in the 50s or Johnny Carson in the 60s. Soon after hooking up with Hammond, Big Joe and Pete Johnson recorded Roll’em Pete in 1938. Back when phones were party lines and radios were consoles, that song was boogie’n with a backbeat. Maybe a crystal-ball peek into the R&B future.
Then, along with two more boogie piano geniuses, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, Big Joe became a regular at the Cafe Society Club in New York City. The Manhattan, pinky-out, French-collared beautiful people were now introduced to the greatest boogie music on earth. “Gettin down” was in.
Treat yourself to a little taste by YOUTUBEing Meade Lux Lewis’ Boogie Woogie or Boogie Woogie Dream with Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons burning down duel pianos. That video is introduced by a lithe, young, cappuccino beauty named Lena Horne.
More recordings would come. Cherry Red, Wee Baby Blues, I Want a Little Girl, Piney Brown Blues & Rocks in My Bed. Big Joe jammed with Duke Ellington, appeared at The Apollo, and performed in musical films. In 1945 he signed with National Records and opened his own gin joint, the Blue Moon Club. In ’47 My Gal’s a Jockey became his 1st national hit. Soon after he cut a swinging duet with Wynonie Harris.
In 1951 Ahmet Ertegun took in a show at the Apollo and saw Big Joe Turner getting busy with Count Basie. Ahmet jumped. He signed him to a fledgling record company called Atlantic. Chains of Love, Big Joe’s 1st million seller soon hit the jukeboxes. Big Joe and Ahmet got busy. Bump Miss Susie, Still in Love, Morning, Noon and Night, Lipstick Powder and Paint and Honey Hush,his 2nd million seller were released.
Long before microphones, amps and electrified guitars, Big Joe Turner had been called The Singing Barman, The Boss of The Blues and a Blues Shouter. But in 1954 his 300 pound, 6’2” frame would soon morph into a rock n roll pioneer.
SHAKE, RATTLE & ROLL, a 3-minute earthquake written by Jesse “Money Honey” Stone, shook the world by its pegged pants and zoot jackets. Big Joe Turner became a teen sensation at 43. Originally the term refereed to a dice roll, but the entire world now knew it meant sex. That song could not be ignored. The more the bible-thumpers banned it the more it crossed over to rich and poor, young and old, black and white. That same year Bill Haley and the Comets took it to the white stratosphere. In an interview Bill Haley told a reporter, “We stay clear of anything suggestive.” His version vanilla’d a few of the following lines…
Way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through I can’t believe my eyes, all that mess be-longs to you I believe to my soul you’re a devil in ny-lon hose Well, the harder I work, the faster my money goes
I said, shake, rattle and roll… shake, rattle and roll Shake, rattle and roll…shake, rattle and roll Well, you won’t do right to save your dog-gone soul
BUT THEY LEFT IN THE VERSE…
I’m like a one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store Well I can look at you and tell, you ain’t no child no more
Is it possible he wasn’t hip to that phrase? More hits came. Cherry Red, Corrine Corrina, Wee Baby Blues, The Chicken and the Hawk, Flip Flop and Fly. But Shake, Rattle & Roll secured his legend forever. Yea, others covered it. Bill Haley, Sam Cooke, Elvis, even the Beatles took a stab at it. But Big Joe’s romp is the musical avatar. Big Joe belted blues and R&B from the 20s to the 80s, a forgotten giant worth remembering and deserving of being in the first class of the Beach Music Hall of Fame.