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Big Joe Turner: Biography & Songs

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, we'll discuss the life and works of blues legend Big Joe Turner. Learn about how Kansas City native used his distinctive big voice and the unique character of his hometown's jazz scene to create a career that spanned decades.

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.

Big Joe Turner, 1955
Big Joe Turner, 1955

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