Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.
Big Joe Turner: The Early Years
Joseph Vernon "Big Joe" Turner (1911-1985) was born in Kansas City, Missouri. As a young man, he worked as a bartender and singer to support his mother and sister. By happy coincidence, Turner grew up in Kansas City when it was a hotbed of jazz, with booming nightclubs, speakeasies and a plentiful all-night bar scene (yes, during Prohibition) fostered by a lax political culture and the city's location as a Midwestern crossroads. As reflected in the freewheeling atmosphere, the Kansas City jazz sound was distinct--more raucous and untamed, with shouting blues and energy to spare.
Boogie-Woogie and the Blues
In the early 1930s, Turner met pianist Pete Johnson, who played a mean boogie woogie, at the Backbiter's Club. Boogie woogie was a style of piano playing in which the left hand played a constant, steady background beat of eighth notes while the right hand offered variations of upbeat riffs on a melody.
Between serving drinks to patrons, Turner would sing, his big vocals filling the space. Eventually Johnson and Turner teamed up to popularize boogie woogie and shout blues (the singer performs without a microphone and shouts above the band) in the 1930s. They performed regularly at the Sunset Club in Kansas City. Turner also sang with the big bands when they came to town, and he became skilled in switching between musical styles.
Turner was a big man. Even as a teen he could slip into clubs because he appeared older than his years. With his deep, booming voice, he could outshout anyone without a microphone while still being musical. It gained him the nickname "Boss of the Blues."
To New York and Stardom
In 1938, Turner and Johnson went to New York City to perform in the From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. This concert, organized by music producer John Hammond, played to spectacular success (the show was completely sold out). It briefly led to a national craze for boogie woogie.
Turner moved to Los Angeles in 1941. He recorded songs, including "Doggin' the Blues" and "Sunday Morning Blues," and he appeared in several movies. His first big rhythm and blues, or R&B, hit came out in 1945: "My Gal's a Jockey." Some of Turner's songs were racy and filled with references to sex, so not all radio stations played them.
In 1951, Turner recorded a string of hits with Atlantic Records that blended R&B with early rock and roll, including "Chains of Love" and "Honey Hush." But he really made his mark with "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (the same song recorded by later rock artists. Turner's version is longer and more risque than the one made famous by Bill Haley). Having transitioned through blues, boogie boogie and R&B by the age of 50, Turner found himself a rock and roll star.
Turner returned to his roots in 1956 when he recorded an album for Atlantic Records titled The Boss Of The Blues Sings Kansas City Jazz. He worked with top musicians, including Pete Johnson, on tracks that had been early blues classics. It was a clear shout out to his roots and his hometown.
Into the 1960s and 1970s, Turner toured and performed throughout the country. He had a spectacular late career success with the 1983 album Blues Train, which won a Grammy Award. He continued to perform until his death in 1985 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
From his early years as a singing bartender in Kansas City speakeasies, Big Joe Turner parlayed his big voice into a career that spanned multiple musical styles and decades. He became a pioneer of early rock and roll but never left behind the style that gave him his nickname "Boss of the Blues."
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