Cult Classic: Joe Turner-The Real Boss Of The Blues.

After enjoying a renaissance in its popularity during the early sixties, blues music was in doldrums. Soul had replaced the blues in popularity, and Stax, Atlantic and Motown were among the most successful labels. However, many of the new breed of rock bands had been inspired by the blues. This included Cream, The Yardbirds, The Animals, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Despite their patronage, interest in blues music was at its lowest in a longtime. This was why the late-sixties seemed a strange time to found a new blues label? However, that’s what Bob Thiele did.

For eight years, Bob Thiele ran Impulse, ABC’s jazz label and then when the jazz revival began, he convinced his bosses to let him found a blues label. This was Bluesway. However, he left ABC’s employ after a coup d’état at Impulse. The next step for Bob was forming his own labels.

When he left ABC’s employ, he decided to form a new label. Through working with some of the most innovative and creative musicians in the history of jazz, Bob Thiele realised that often, large record companies aren’t the best environment for innovative and creative musicians. Often, these musical mavericks didn’t thrive within such an orthodox environment. Their creativity is restricted, and they’re unable to experiment and innovate like they’d like. So, Bob Thiele decided to create an environment where this would be possible. This was Flying Dutchman Productions and its blues subsidiary Bluestime.

Before long, Bluestime became home to many of the artists formerly signed to Bluesway. This included one of Bob Thiele’s favourite blues players, Joe Turner. The man the called The Boss Of The Blues was approaching veteran status. Now fifty-nine, he’d been signed to ABC’s blues subsidiary Bluesway. Joe Turner would become Bob’s latest signing to Bluestime, where he recorded The Real Boss Of The Blues. It was a very different album and saw the veteran bluesman’s music given a makeover.

Bob Thiele realised that with many artists and bands name checking blues artists who’d influence them, some of the people buying their records would decided to find out what blues music was about. There was a problem though. Blues music hadn’t really moved with the times. The music was still the same as it had been twenty-years before, when the blues went electric. Back them, this was a step too far or many blues purists. What would record buyers and fans of Joe Turner think of Bob Thiele’s decision to turn his new label Bluestime into a contemporary blues’ label? 

Joe Turner had spent a lifetime playing the blues. He was born Joseph Vernon Turner Jr, in Kansas City, Missouri. When Joe was four, his father died in a train accident. However  from an early age, music was a constant in Joe’s life. He sang at church and later, sang on street corners. Then in 1925, fourteen year old Joe Turner quit school and inadvertently, his career began.

His first job on leaving school was a chef. He then moved on to working as a barman. During his time working in the bar, Joe gained the reputation as The Singing Barman. Soon, he and pianist Pete Johnson were making a living working in Kansas City clubs. One of the clubs was run by Piney Brown, who inspired one of Joe’s best known songs, Piney Brown Blues. During this period, Joe and boogie woogie pianist Pete Johnson were making a name for themselves.

So much so, that they headed to New York and appeared on the same bill as Benny Goodman. After that, Joe and Pete returned to Kansas City. New York weren’t quite ready for Joe and Pete. They were ahead of their time. It took until 1938, when talent scout John H. Hammond realised their potential. He asked them back to New York to play at his From Spirituals to Swing concerts. The bill featured everything from gospel, blues and swing. These concerts featured integrated audiences and helped bring jazz and blues to a wider audience. For Joe and Pete, success was just round the corner. This started with the hit single Roll ‘Em Pete.

After that, Joe became resident at the New York nightclub Cafe Society in 1939. Then in 1941, Joe took part in Duke Ellington’s revue Jump For Joy. This meant a Hollywood debut for Joe. Three years later, Joe was back in L.A. providing the vocals for MeadeLuxLew’s silent movies. Then two years later, Joe and Pete founded their bar The Blue Moon Club in Los Angeles. That year, he signed to National Records.

At National Records, Joe worked with Herb Abramson. Soon, Joe was enjoying hits with S.K. Blues, My Gal’s A Jockey and Around The Clock. He then duetted with blues shouter Wynonie Harris on Battle of the Blues. While the singles sold well locally, this didn’t translate to national success. However, in 1947, Joe signed to a new label that Herb Abramson co-founded with Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun…Atlantic Records.

During his time at Atlantic, Joe Turner released both blues and rock ’n’ roll. However, it was rock ’n’ roll that Joe made his name releasing. Between 1950 and 1956 and he enjoyed fourteen top ten US R&B singles. This included two US R&B number ones, 1953s Honey Hush and Joe’s biggest hit Shake, Rattle and Roll. This fusion of twelve-bar blues and rock ’n’ roll helped transform Joe into a huge star. It was also during this time Joe released his debut album.

Whilst at Atlantic Records that Joe Turner released his debut solo album, 1956s The Boss of the Blues. The Boss Of The Blues Sings Kansas City Jazz followed later in 1956. Soon, Joe was releasing at least one album a year. Rock and Roll followed in 1957. Then in 1958 Joe released Rockin’ The Blues. 1959 was the end of what was a golden period in his career.

After leaving Atlantic, Joe turned his back on rock ’n’ roll. No longer was popular music for him. Maybe it was a case of returning to what he loved. Unfortunately, this coincided with a downturn in his career. 

For much of the sixties, Joe combined playing live with recording a series of albums. This included Joe Turner With Pete Johnson’s Orchestra’s Jumpin’ The Blues, which was released in 1962 on Arthoolie. During this period, Joe’s albums didn’t sell well. Then in 1967, Joe recorded Singing The Blues for ABC’s jazz label Bluesway. Sadly, there was no followup. By then, Bob Thiele who ran Bluesway had been ousted. He founded Bluestime, which signed Joe Turner in 1969.

The newly founded Bluestime was trying to give blues music a more contemporary sound. For too long, many people felt, the blues had stood still. It was almost resistant to change. Not any more. Bob Thiele introduced fatback drumming, bubbling bass and rocky riffing guitars. This would all feature on the eight tracks that became The Real Boss Of The Blues.

For The Real Boss Of The Blues, a combination of old favourites and new tracks were chosen. Joe covered Charles Calhoun’s Shake, Rattle and Roll, Lou Turner’s Honey Hush, Carless Love and Leroy Carr’s How Long, How Long Blues. There was also a cover of Teddy McRae and Charles Singleton’s Lonesone Train and Joe’s Corrine, Corrina. Ted Murrell’s Two Loves Have I and Len Chandler’s Plastic Man completed The Real Boss Of The Blues. These eight tracks were arranged by Gene Page, produced by Bob Thiele and featured some top blues players.

When the band entered the studio to record The Real Boss Of The Blues, Bob Thiele had put together a crack band. The rhythm section included drummer Paul Humphrey, bassist Max Bennett and guitarist Louie Shelton. Tom Scott added tenor saxophone. Joe sang lead vocals, while Bob Thiele produced The Real Boss Of The Blues, which was released in 1969.

Despite Joe Turner’s music being given a makeover, The Real Boss Of The Blues wasn’t a commercial success. It passed both critics and music lovers by. Since then, The Real Boss Of The Blues has become a real rarity among blues fans. At last, this blues rarity has been release by Joe Turner and features the blues veteran doing what he spent a lifetime doing, singing the blues. That’s what The Real Boss Of The Blues does well.

Horns blaze, guitars chime and a wandering bass combines with a piano. They set the scene for Joe’s vocal on Shake, Rattle And Roll, which opens The Real Boss Of The Blues. Straight away, the years roll back for Joe. Fifteen years to be precise, when this gave him a number one single. Joe ensures the songs swings. Stabs of horns, pounding piano and riffing guitars accompany Joe. At the heart of the arrangement’s success are the horns and Joe’s despairing vocal as he gives a classic track a modern makeover.

Straight away, there’s a melancholy sound to Lonesome Train. Accompanied by rasping horns, rumbling bass and searing, blistering guitars, blues and rock combines. Heartache and hurt fills Joe’s vocal. It’s slow and oozes emotion. Enveloping Joe’s vocal is an arrangement that’s a fusion of power, drama and sadness. This results in one of the album’s highlights from The Real Boss Of The Blues.

Corrine, Corrina bursts into life, and is driven along by a harmonica, piano and rhythm section, complete with bubbling bass. Joe grabs the song, breezes life and emotion into it. It becomes a joyous celebration where Joe and his all-star band create a blistering slice of electric blues that truly, deserves a wider audience.

Slow, moody and bluesy describes Joe’s take on How Long, How Long Blues. Just a plodding bass, crystalline guitar and stabs of piano enter, before Joe’s lived-in vocal enters. It sounds as if he’s lived and survived the lyrics. At just the right moment, Bob Thiele drops the horns in and they’re the perfect accompaniment to Joe’s needy, pleading vocal.

From the get-go, the tempo rises on Careless Love. The rhythm section take charge, driving the arrangement along. Meanwhile, Joe’s vocal is frustrated and angry. With his band lock into a tight groove, horns are unleashed. They blaze above the arrangement, and really lift the track. It’s a transformation, as the song swings. That’s still the case when a flute enters. Accompanied by the horns, Joe heads for the finishing line doing what he does best, singing the blues.

Two Loves Have I has a much more contemporary sound. That’s down to the horns. They seems to have been influenced by soul music, that was popular during 1969. Having said that, Joe’s vocal is is reminiscent of Van Morrison  as he grabs the song and lives it. Meanwhile, horns bray and the rhythm section provide the heartbeat to the arrangement. With its much more contemporary sound, it’s another of the highlights of The Real Boss Of The Blues. Bob Theile, it seems, achieved what he set out to do, give the blues a musical makeover.

Honey Hush is a cover of Joe’s first number one US R&B single. That was in 1953. Here, the song takes on new life. A blues harmonica and meandering helps propel the arrangement along. The rest of the band provide the heartbeat. It’s the harmonica, Joe’s vocal and later, a blistering saxophone solo that are at the heart of the reinvention of one of Joe’s best known songs. His high kicking vocal sees Joe Turner roll back the years.

Plastic Man, an eleven minute contemporary blues track closes The Real Boss Of The Blues. A blistering bluesy harmonica and riffing guitars envelop Joe’s heartbroken vocal. The drums and pulsating bass provides the heartbeat to a track that’s slow, moody and bluesy. Riffing guitars soar above the arrangement, while bursts of boogie woogie piano add to this blues epic. It’s as if Joe and his band are enjoying the opportunity to stretch their legs musically on this glorious blues jam. Later, growling horns are unleashed, soaring above the arrangement. Just like the jazz bands Joe played in earlier in his career, everyone gets the chance to shine. There’s no passengers in this band, just top class musicians, who Joe inspires to even greater heights. This modern blues Magnus Opus proves the perfect way to close The Real Boss Of The Blues.

Bob Thiele’s decision to give blues music a makeover was as you’d expect, from a musical pioneer, an astute one. He realised that the blues had to change. It had stood still since the blues went electric. It it didn’t change, blues music risked becoming irrelevant. Should that happen, blues music could’ve ended up as just part of musical history, rather than a musical genre that evolved and continued to be relevant. The problem was, America didn’t seem to cherish the blues. Ironically, it took a group of British musicians to remind America of the importance of the blues.

Groups like John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers, Cream, The Yardbirds, The Animals, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones realised the importance of the blues. It was their inspiration. That’s why when artists like Joe Turner toured Britain, they received a hero’s welcome. They were held in a higher esteem in Britain than America. These musicians, realised, that without the blues, there would be no rock ’n’ roll. Essentially, they owed their careers to artists like Joe Turner. So British artiest were keen to promote blues legends. Sadly, many of them were eking out a living. Even with the patronage of some of the most successful groups of the sixties, Joe Turner wasn’t enjoying the popularity he once enjoyed. There was no option, the blues had to change.

Artists like Muddy Waters and B.B. King realised this. When Muddy recorded Electric Mud for Chess, he changed direction. Electric Mud was a fusion blues, rock and psychedelia. It’s one of the most groundbreaking blues albums ever. Meanwhile, B.B. King was the most successful blues player. He’d opened for some of the biggest rock bands and his music was heard by a wider audience. Joe Turner wasn’t as successful which  was why he had to change direction.

On The Real Boss Of The Blues, Joe Turner rolls back the years. It’s a vintage performance from the blues veteran. Accompanied by an all-star band, his music is given a modern makeover. Blues, jazz and rock combines. Drawing inspiration from rock music, fatback drums, riffing guitars and a bubbling bass feature on each of the eight tracks. Then there’s the horns. They variously blaze, soar and sound sultry. Add to this some stabs of piano and even some boogie woogie and the result is Joe Turner back to his best. Producer Bob Thiele and arranger Gene Page transformed Joe. The years rolled back and suddenly, Joe was producing some of the best music he recorded since leaving Atlantic. Sadly, not many people heard the music on The Real Boss Of The Blues.

Sadly, not many people heard the second coming of Joe Turner. The Real Boss Of The Blues was back, and back to his best. However, very few people heard The Real Boss Of The Blues which wasn’t a  commercial success. However, since then, a number of blues aficionados have championed The Real Boss Of The Blues, which finds Joe Turner, The Real Boss Of The Blues back to his very best on this oft-overlooked cult classic.

Cult Classic: Joe Turner-The Real Boss Of The Blues.







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