Big Joe Turner had three careers. The singer was part of the hot Kansas City jazz scene in the 1930s, helping to popularize boogie woogie with pianist Pete Johnson. In the 1940s, he was a popular blues shouter, influencing many jazz singers of the decade and beyond.
But Turner is probably best remembered as the first to mash rhythm and blues with boogie woogie, resulting in jump blues—which was the musical DNA for early rock 'n' roll. Singer-songwriter Doc Pomus put it best: "Rock 'n' roll probably never would have happened without him."
Like Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Witherspoon and Sonny Boy Parker, Big Joe Turner was at heart a blues shouter—which meant that instead of crooning blues lyrics, he hollered them, often enthusiastically and with a gospel-like intensity.
Shouters worked with the foot-stomping blues beats of bands rather than meekly stepping in to deliver vocals when band arrangements made room for them. When the shouter was done, a horn or sax solo often followed before the shouter returned for a final chorus.
Shouters belted out their braggy, innuendo-filled tales of misfortune and enterprise—often with wit and colorful word play—shouting to overcome the audio strength of accompanying bands. Early shouters made up the words as they went along, and the best ones had to be as clever and inventive as the horn players who jumped in when they were through.
There also was a call and response component between the blues shouter and the band that invariably raised the excitement and energy level of live audiences. Joe Williams, Dinah Washington and many other jazz singers picked up on the popular blues-shouting trend of the period and adapted the sound to suit their styles.
But in the late 1940s, as bop and traditional blues vocals settled into a narrow specialty with a limited market, Turner became the exponent of a new, infectious singing style. In 1951, he signed with Atlantic Records and began recording a series of rhythm and blues songs, including Chains of Love and Sweet Sixteen, that fused the blues shout with an uptempo boogie-woogie beat, forming jump blues.
In early 1954, Turner went into the studio at Atlantic Records to record the song that would launch his third career. Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix in Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop—a History (2005) relate the story:
"Former territorial bandleader Jesse Stone and Big Joe Turner inadvertently sparked the rock 'n' roll revolution with their smash hit Shake, Rattle and Roll, recorded for the Atlantic label in February 1954...[The song] remained on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues Chart for thirty-two weeks, peaking at number one on three different occasions...Realizing the major breakthrough scored by Stone and Turner, Atlantic executives searched for a term for the new music.
'Jerry [Wexler] wanted to call this new departure 'cat music,' but of course the term 'rock 'n' roll' took hold as the popular description for this music,' [Atlantic Records' co-founder] Ahmet Ertegun explained. 'For Joe Turner it was just another record, and he didn't care what they called it.'
Bill Haley, a chubby country artist with a genial grin and spit curl plastered across his forehead, covered Shake, Rattle and Roll for the Decca label, sanitizing the lyrics and swapping a guitar for the saxophone as the lead instrument. Haley's version sold well over a million copies, largely due to its use in the 1955 film, The Blackboard Jungle."
After Shake, Rattle and Roll, Turner recorded a string of early rock 'n' roll hits, becoming one of the few vocalists in the jazz tradition to capture the imaginations of young listeners of the time without giving up his blues roots. Turner remained a bluesman at heart and soon returned to blues shouting. In 1959, he recorded what's probably my favorite Big Joe Turner album, Big Joe Is Here (it's available at iTunes).
Interestingly, Turner's and Bill Haley's versions of Shake, Rattle and Roll were first released on 78 rpm (in fact, one is being auctioned off now on eBay), and both Turner and Haley were inducted to the Rock Hall of Fame in the same year—1987.
Big Joe Turner is the missing link between jazz and rock 'n' roll.
Wax clips: To compare the two versions, take a look and listen to Big Joe Turner lip-synch to his Atlantic recording of Shake, Rattle and Roll here. It's from the 1956 film of the same name. Then look and listen to Bill Haley's version here. (Just nudge he bar past the Elvis section.) For an extra kick, here's Elvis's version, all shook up.