boss of the blues

Large people often earn nicknames related to their size. This is particularly true in sports: in pro basketball think “Dunking Bear” Shaquille O’Neil, “Too Tall Jones” in pro football or “The Big Hurt” Frank Thomas in pro baseball. Blues players and singers are no exceptions either. Big Bill Broonzy (1903-58) was famous for combining rural and urban blues in Chicago, bypassing the electric guitar phenomenon to remain truly acoustic. Playing and writing blues songs in the same city was the huge (over six feet tall and weighing 300 pounds) Willie Dixon (1915-92), an upright bass player who was a former heavyweight boxer. To the south in Kansas City was “Big Joe” Turner (1911-85), of similar build to Dixon, who was a contemporary of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Richard and Etta James. Like a famous rock singer of later years, Big Joe Turner (real name Joseph Vernon Turner Jr) earned the nickname of “boss,” not only because he was big but also because of his commanding presence on stage, with his booming voice.

“Known variously as The Boss of the Blues, and Big Joe Turner (due to his 6’2″, 300+ lbs stature), Turner was born in Kansas City. His father was killed in a train accident when Joe was only four years old. He first discovered a love of music in his involvement at church. He began singing on street corners for money, quitting school at age fourteen to work in Kansas City’s nightclubs, first as a cook, and later as a singing bartender,” states “He became known eventually as ‘The Singing Barman,’ and worked in such venues as The Kingfish Club and The Sunset, where he and his piano playing partner Pete Johnson became resident performers. The Sunset was managed by Piney Brown. It featured ‘separate but equal’ facilities for Caucasian patrons. Turner wrote ‘Piney Brown Blues’ in his honor and sang it throughout his entire career.” Some of the lyrics are as follows:

“Well I went back to Kansas City
My little girl was gone
Yes I went back to Kansas City
My little girl was gone
Goodbye bye baby
I know you got yourself a better home.”

“Last time I seen my baby
She was standin’ on Hollywood and Vine
Yes the last time I seen my baby
She was standin’ on Hollywood and Vine
She was sure cool, she wouldn’t pay me no mind
Hollywood and Vine.”

Another reason Big Joe got the “boss” label was because he was a blues shouter: a blues singer capable of singing unamplified with a band. Other famous blues shouters of the day included Wynonie Harris, Duke Henderson and Jimmy Rushing (of the Count Basie band). Bill Dahl, writing in the online blog All Music, wrote that Turner was “the premier blues shouter of the postwar era whose roar could rattle the very foundation of any gin joint he sang within – and that’s without a microphone.” 

Blues shouting notwithstanding, Turner made a seemingly effortless transition to rock & roll in the early post-WWII era. Prolific Atlantic house writer Jesse Stone was the source of Turner’s biggest smash of all, “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which turned out to be his second chart-topper in 1954. “With the Atlantic brain trust reportedly chiming in on the chorus behind Turner’s rumbling lead, the song sported enough pop possibilities to merit a considerably cleaned-up cover by Bill Haley & the Comets (and a subsequent version by Elvis Presley that came a lot closer to the original leering intent),” suggested Dahl in the same article. “During his career, Turner was part of the transition from big bands to jump blues to rhythm and blues to rock and roll. He was a master of traditional blues verses, and at Kansas City jam sessions he could swap choruses with instrumental soloists for hours,” explains Wikipedia.

Big Joe’s talents were not limited to singing. “Turner appeared in several movies (including the documentary Last of the Blue Devils, 1979), at major jazz and folk festivals in the United States and Europe, on television, and in jazz clubs, recording continually into the 1980s. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987,” states Encyclopedia Britannica.

Big Joe Turner sings “Shake, Rattle and Roll”

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