Joe Turner grew up in Kansas City, in the Twenties and Thirties, one of the most prolific and vital environments in the history of jazz. His influences were the great jazzmen who played the all-night jazz clubs that filled KC: Lester Young, Ben Webster, Pete Johnson, Count Basie, Buster Smith, Jo Jones, Mary Lou Williams, Dick Wilson, Hot Lips Page.
Today Turner stands out as a survivor of that great improvisational tradition, and one of the best blues singers still working or who has ever worked, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmy Rushing, down to the white English rock singers.
Big Joe Turner, as he is affectionately known, remained a relatively local talent in Kansas City until 1938 when his performances at Carnegie Hall placed him immediately in the forefront of modern blues singers. Turner appeared there Christmas Eve with his old KC accompanist, pianist Pete Johnson. Instrumental in bringing them to New York City was none other than the great mentor of jazz, John Hammond, who has been so crucial in instituting the careers of so many jazz legends. It was John Hammond who happened to catch Turner and Johnson in their home stomping grounds of Kansas City. Realizing the height of their blues performance, Hammond arranged for both of them to play at Carnegie Hall that same year. The concert was recorded and released as the Spirituals to Swing, paving the way for the emergence of Joe Turner as a vital blues interpreter.
Hammond then negotiated for Big Joe Turner to appear at the Cafe Society in New York City, an engagement that ironically enough lasted for close to five years. Big Joe also recorded during this era with pianists Pete Johnson, Art Tatum, and Joe Sullivan.
Turner didn’t return to Kansas City until the late Forties which saw him drop from favor, an eclipse no doubt partly due to the general decline in popularity of middle-period jazz which was an unfortunate feature of the new modernism. However, when the rhythm and blues vogue of the Fifties was established, Turner became one of its most successful artists, becoming by no means the first jazz veteran to survive a period of comparative neglect only to be newly discovered by a younger generation.
His style has changed not one iota since he first made his reputation, which is the highest compliment that can be paid him. Slowly the great succession of blues vocal artists who were once so numerous in the early days of jazz have steadily faded from the scene. The result is that today Turner is almost the last custodian of a great tradition.
Joe Turner died November 24, 1985.