The Truthful Edge of Big Joe Turner

Last Friday around midnight, my wife Anna picked me up from the subway after a gig. As I opened the car door to load in my bass, I was hit by a blast furnace of music, not loud, but intense, like a freight-train. A fat, romping beat and a thundering, edgy voice that could only be one guy. As always when I unexpectedly hear great music coming from a radio, I was stunned and just stood there for a second, transfixed and shaking my butt in the cold like some spazzed-out lunatic. “Jeezus, it’s Joe Turner” – wow, does that ever sound good.” Anna gave me a look which, despite the smile in her eyes, said, “Bozo, could you put the bass in the car already, so we can get home?” Righto.

The voltage of it held me as I got in the car, this was “Hide and Seek”, one of Big Joe’s biggest jukebox hits from his peak of popularity sometime in the mid- ’50s. It’s far from his best work, but it still gets to me. The band was underpinned by a pianist – likely Pete Johnson – laying down some killer boogie-woogie, accompanied by a relentless, loping shuffle from the string bass and drums and some Charleston riffs from the horns. A beefy-toned tenor player took a honking chorus, sounding like a cross between Al Sears and Buddy Tate – man, this was good. But most of all there was Big Joe, with that mountain-jack delivery and hurricane voice.

It’s the voice of God, if God liked to party, which somehow I doubt. There’s just so much weight and raw authority in it, there’s never any doubt that he knows exactly what he’s doing and means every word, even if he’s singing, “Baby, come on, play hide ‘n’ go seek with me”. In most other hands this could be silly, but with Joe there’s a roaring urgency that makes it sound ferocious and serious, like life and death. And there’s so much swing there, not just in the energy and rhythm, but in the very sound of his voice. Just in case you’re wondering what “Hide and Seek” means, well…use your imagination, he ain’t singing about no kids at a birthday party. He’s singing about “making the beast with two backs”, doing the “horizontal mambo”, hiding the …..well, you know, ….schtupping.

My tastes in music are pretty diverse and I’ve come to like all manner of jazz, sophisticated and refined. But all that being said, I’ve never heard anything or anyone sound any better than Joe Turner doing his thing, shouting the blues like this. And he could do it in a slightly primitive honky-tonk, R&B kind of bag as here, or he could do it with some of the best jazz players in the world, like Count Basie, Frank Wess, Joe Newman, Pete Brown, etc. It makes no difference which style of backing, Turner always sounds this powerful and unique. He represents as well as anyone the intersection where R & B, jazz and the blues meet, a Kansas City street corner I like to hang out on regularly. Anyone who wants to hear him at his best should get his definitive 1956 Atlantic album Boss of the Blues, or one done for Pablo with Basie and some all-stars in the ’70s, called The Bosses. The documentary The Last of the Blue Devils is also not to be missed, as it offers a visual dimension to appreciating Turner and other greats of Kansas City music. 

Oo-oo-wee baby, here’s “Hide and Seek”:

 

 

This “Roll ‘Em Pete” is Joe Turner at his best. As Whitney Balliett once wrote, “You so beautiful, but you got to die some day” sums up the human condition in ten words. And all by himself, Pete Johnson is one hell of a band.

While I was glorying in Turner doing “Hide and Seek”, the thought struck me: this is what rock ‘n’ roll would have sounded like if Elvis Presley and a few others had never existed. There wasn’t much twangy guitar to be heard, it was mostly piano and saxophone. And there was more “roll” than “rock” in the beat, which was wider and more undulating, less frantic. It swung and wasn’t so brutally thuddy, like rocks being broken up on a chain gang. Turner’s other hits like “Cherry Red”, “Corrina, Corrina”, “Flip, Flop and Fly” and “Shake, Rattle & Roll” are similarly dripping with energy and sex, but not of the gyrating pelvis kind; they’re direct, but a little more subtle than that.

Magically, as though the radio were reading my mind, next came “Hound Dog” – not the famous Elvis hit, but the earlier version from 1952 by Big Mama Thornton. Inhabiting a different emotional terrain than Elvis altogether – at once more primitive and more sophisticated – it just blows Presley’s version out of the water. The tempo is much slower, not rockabilly, but more of a rural blues feel with a sanctified-church beat. The basic rhythm is supplied by hand claps on two and four, with a string bass playing broken-time figures underneath. Throughout, there’s a razor-blade guitar supplying commentary and rhythm. The combination of this stripped-down backing and the funkier tempo with Thornton’s menacing voice and her rhythmic freedom makes the song much scarier and angrier, more sexual. Clearly, the central character here is more of the Baskerville, hound-of-hell variety, not to be trifled with.

Meanwhile, back in the car, I knew we were still in Canada because I was freezing my arse off, but musically speaking we might have been in Dallas, Little Rock, Memphis or Kansas City. I wondered aloud just what the hell radio station was playing all this raging music. Anna said it was Zoomer Radio AM 740, which surprised me a little, but maybe shouldn’t have. While it plays its share of schlock, AM 740 is one of the few local popular-music stations that doesn’t sound like it’s run by teenagers. It regularly devotes blocks of time to adult music of the past, such as big bands on Sunday nights. and Saturday nights dedicated to AM Top-40 hits of the ’50s and ’60s, before pop music became so mechanized. Judging by what I’d heard, maybe late Friday nights are devoted to R&B/blues or jukebox hits. I was enjoying it so much I almost suggested we make it a road trip and keep driving just to hear what they’d play next, but we needed to get inside.

                                                                  ***

The emotional edge and wallop packed by Turner and Thornton made me think of a conversation I had just after Christmas with a friend who is a veteran singer and also works as a producer on other people’s musical projects. Recently, he was approached by a group of young musicians who wanted him to produce their next CD, so he went to hear them live a couple of times. There was definitely some musical talent in place and they had some good arrangements, but their repertoire and overall direction were kind of all over the place. They told my friend they wanted to do jazz with “more of an edge” and asked if he could help them find that. Wondering just what the hell they meant, my friend answered that, to him, any “edge” in music comes from it being real, and that means trying to play or sing something that has some truth in it. The group’s approach tried to be too many things to too many people and he suggested they should try to focus on material that they were committed to, that had some real emotional meaning for them.

It may seem obvious, but this wisdom is often overlooked. Great musical artists in any style are compelling because they convince us of their emotional sincerity and the truth of what they’re doing, that it’s coming from way inside them and that they mean it. It can’t just be about technique or slickness, there’s plenty of all that to go around. I’ve come to think that the edge in anyone’s music comes from risk-taking, but when you come right down to it, telling the truth is taking a risk. It requires that you cut to the chase and say something, make a commitment. This is particularly true in a form as stripped-down as the blues, where there’s nowhere to hide. If you’re faking it and pussy-footing around on the blues, everybody knows right away and the eject-seat button is hit before you can say “outskirts of town”.

                                                           ***

Hearing Joe Turner on the radio like this, out of the blue – so to speak – made me think of a couple of stories about him and trumpeter Art Farmer, which appear in Bill Crow’s wonderful book, Jazz Anecdotes. I’ll recount them here in my own words and hope that Mr. Crow won’t mind:

In the late-’40s or very early-’50s, Art Farmer got a job playing in the trumpet section of the jumping big band led by Turner and Pete Johnson, which toured the juke-joint circuit constantly. Being a young man, Farmer was quite taken with Dizzy Gillespie and bebop, and whenever he got a chance, he tried to inject these more modern ideas into his solo choruses. This didn’t go over too well with Big Joe, who would glare at Farmer and alter the words he’d sing in his next chorus to something like this:

“Keep that bebop, play me some boogie tonight,

Boy, keep that bebop, gimme the boogie tonight,

Just play me some blues, everything’s gonna be all right”.

Years later, Farmer and Crow worked together in Gerry Mulligan’s quartet and late one night, they were driving together after a gig and went into a huge roadside diner to get something to eat. It was deserted and they took a seat to wait for some service, which wasn’t exactly forthcoming. Nearby was a cash register equipped with one of those microphones on the side with a flexible goose-neck stand, so food orders could be barked to the kitchen. Suddenly, the normally staid Farmer grabbed the mic and, in a perfect impersonation of Joe Turner, belted out: “It was early one Monday mornin’…. and I was on my way to school ….”. Crow just about died laughing as a couple of startled heads popped out of the kitchen and Farmer sat down, saying with a twinkle in his eye, “I’ve always wanted to do that”.

These stories remind me of another very funny one about an equally unlikely jazz couple – John Abercrombie and “Brother” Jack McDuff – told to me by my good friend, the talented guitarist Ted Quinlan. It cracked me up when I first heard it, and McDuff’s terse punch-line has been a kind of buzz-phrase with Ted and me ever since.

But first, a couple of disclaimers are in order. Because I heard this story long ago, I’m a little fuzzy on some of the musical details and may have taken some license with them, but the gist of it is true. And the story should in no way be interpreted as any slur on John Abercrombie, for a couple of reasons. One, I both like and admire Abercrombie as a musician because he’s become one of the most original and important voices on jazz guitar in the last thirty years – no mean feat considering how many pickers there have been in that time. And two, Abercrombie told this story on himself and somewhat at his own expense, as a means of illustrating an important point to young musicians, which reflects very well on him. Anyway, here it is:

Ted Quinlan heads the guitar department of the jazz program at Humber College and brought in John Abercrombie to do some workshops and concerts. One morning, Abercrombie was set to do a master class for the guitar students and, as it was early, Ted went to get some coffee for John as he was setting up. When Ted returned, Abercrombie was in the middle of telling a story from his time as a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Like the students he was addressing, Abercrombie was in those early days a little short on knowledge and experience, while attempting to negotiate his way through the dizzying maze of information he was being hit with. Harmony, theory, chord-scales, modes, the myriad approaches to improvising in the complex, post-Coltrane jazz world.

As he began to do more playing and his name got around, Abercrombie was called to play a night with McDuff’s band in a local club. There wasn’t any time for a rehearsal, but the funky organist’s approach and repertoire were centered around the blues, so no worries. The first tune was an up-tempo number on “Rhythm” changes and during his solo, Abercrombie tried to throw in all the stuff he’d been working on at school – complex harmonic ideas and rhythmic groupings, chord substitutions, the works, in an attempt to impress. He played a lot of notes, but wasn’t swinging much and McDuff just kind of glared at him.

Next up was a medium-tempo blues and Abercrombie’s solo was more of the same, he tried to play everything he knew all at once. This time McDuff grabbed him and got all up in his face, snarling “Play the blues, motherfucker!!”.

Hemingway couldn’t have put it more succinctly.

 

© 2015 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

7 thoughts on “The Truthful Edge of Big Joe Turner

  1. Another great post Steve, thanks. What was the radio station you were listening to? Seems we all need to know.

    Jim Northover

    • See this paragraph from Steve’s post:
      “….. I wondered aloud just what the hell radio station was playing all this raging music. Anna said it was Zoomer Radio AM 740, which surprised me a little, but maybe shouldn’t have. While it plays its share of schlock, AM 740 is one of the few local popular-music stations that doesn’t sound like it’s run by teenagers. It regularly devotes blocks of time to adult music of the past, such as big bands on Sunday nights and Saturday nights dedicated to AM Top-40 hits of the ’50s and ’60s, before pop music became mechanized. Judging by what I’d heard, maybe late Friday nights are devoted to R&B/blues or jukebox hits. I was enjoying it so much I almost suggested we make it a road trip and keep driving just to hear what they’d play next, but we needed to get inside.”

  2. Wonderful Archives of Jazz !!Your’e sounding as though you go back as far as I
    do!! Blue Vocalions !,and if it wasn’t for you I would never have seen a red Peacock. Plus a quote from Balliett !! Cold days out seem to make a lot of warm reminiscing in the library !! So theres another reason to live in Canada.
    Best , Terry

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *