BIG JOE TURNER: SHOUT, RATTLE & ROLL (1938-1954; 2005)
Big Joe Turner's firm place in history is that of «The Man They Stole Rock'n'Roll Away From», «they», of course, surmising Bill Haley and then Elvis Presley, both of whom made a bigger hit out of 'Shake, Rattle & Roll' than Big Joe could ever aspire to. Only with creepy black guy music gradually assuming its honored and hallowed place in mainstream musical press, Big Joe's R'n'B hits for Atlantic, in retrospect, eventually garnered the proper accolades.
What remains sometimes unclear to the average eye is that Bog Joe certainly did not start kicking major ass with 'Honey Hush' and 'Shake, Rattle & Roll' in boring 1954 — an impression one could get, subconsciously, if introduced to Big Joe through the retrospective Atlantic boxset, on which he appears around 1951, singing slow, languid, but burly ballads before, all of a sudden, launching into crazyass boogie three years later. In fact, he was already kicking that ass when Elvis was all of a mighty three years old — way back in exciting 1938, when him and his partner, boogie-woogie pianist hellraiser Pete Johnson, were spotted by John Hammond, brought to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall, and soon afterwards signed with Vocalion.
This is where the story begins for this 4-CD Proper Records compilation, sadly, out of print now, but one of the finest retrospectives of Big Joe's pre-Atlantic years; these days, an easier buy is JSP Records' All The Classic Hits 1938-1952, which has a little more material (5 CDs instead of 4) but does not, however, incorporate all of Proper's tracks either. My review will be of more concern for the overall pre-Atlantic period, anyway, rather than specifically targeted at any particular CD edition.
It should be noted that, for some reason, Big Joe, as of now, still has not received the «complete-in-chronological-order» treatment from any of the collectors' labels that have nevertheless given that honor to many much lesser artists — go figure — and complete discographies, with little chance of total success, have to be scrambled together from various compilations. Shout, Rattle & Roll, however, contains more than enough material to build up a proper picture of the man, and its omissions will trouble the obstinate fan and the historian far more than the casual listener.
Anyway, the story begins in 1938, and oh boy, what a fine beginning, these early boogie-woogie tracks with just Big Joe belting it out over Pete Johnson's rapid-fire proto-rock'n'roll. The lyrics don't matter — most of the time, they just seem improvised on the spot, extracted and mixed out of a mass-produced set of formulae ("I got a gal, she lives upon the hill..." etc.); what matters is the generated heat, and these two guys could generate plenty of it without even a rhythm session, let alone a big band. 'Roll 'Em Pete' is, of course, one of those pre-war tunes that one must necessarily hear before one dies, and fully deserves the status of «one of the earliest rock'n'roll songs»; but 'Cafe Society Rag', on which Pete is joined by not one, but two other piano giants of the times — Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis — is no less deserving of your attention, even if it's not really rock'n'roll. But who ever proved ragtime cannot rock?
As time went by, Big Joe began preferring to be recorded with bigger bands, and develop a soulful approach in addition to hellraising. To me, he never ever sounds equally convincing in that emploi: I love the big burly guy when he is being the big burly guy, not when he gives us the big burly guy's best impression of a sentimental oaf. But, to his great honor, he never ever mutated into the sentimental oaf completely, not even during the wartime and postwar years when the demand for soul-soothing sap and sentimentality increased so much that crooners and balladeers almost threatened to exterminate the world of popular music altogether.
In addition to cutting one single after another of similar-sounding, but always exciting jump blues, Big Joe had a solid knack of teaming up with all sorts of mega-players — or, rather, the mega-players always liked it when Big Joe came around, because what better stimulus can there be to tighten up one's playing than have it matched with one of the greatest blues shouters in the area? Credits here range from the already mentioned Meade Lux Lewis to Coleman Hawkins (a cheerful version of 'Shake It And Break It', originally made important by the grim Charley Patton); the incomparable Art Tatum (Big Joe dropped by Art's band in 1941 to sing 'Rock Me Mama'); Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew (some cuts from the early 1950s, right before his move to Atlantic), and plenty of others.
Even so, after cavorting with all that jazz nobility, Big Joe still took the time to get together with ol' Pete Johnson occasionally; their two-part tour-de-force on 'Around The Clock' from 1947 is one of the compilation's major highlights, and was later appropriated by Chuck Berry to form the basis of 'Reelin' And Rockin'. Right next to is the slightly cornily staged, but still entertaining 'Battle Of The Blues' between two of the epoch's biggest belters — Big Joe and Wynonie Harris, and as much as I respect Mr. Harris, my sympathies are clearly on Big Joe's side.
Of course, as a singer, Big Joe does not have the required versatility to easily last one through one hundred tracks of material — were it not for the constant rotation of musical whizz kids, at some point the monotonousness would be unbearable. He pretty much sings everything in the same key, tone, and manner, be it blues, ballad, or boogie-woogie: subtlety and modulation be damned. If the public did not clearly catch on to his style in the very beginning, there is little wonder that he couldn't locate the proper market for fifteen years after the fact, not before Ahmet Ertegun started having all the right ideas about correlating him with proper material.
Still, it should be stated very clearly that those fifteen years were not merely a preliminary footnote to the Atlantic period, and that stuff on the level of 'Roll 'Em Pete', 'Around The Clock', and 'Café Society Rag' is every bit as much a cornerstone of XXth century American pop music legacy as 'Shake, Rattle & Roll'. In the light of which, thumbs up despite all the filler; as for the Atlantic period, this will be taken up in the next review, since the Proper Records boxset stops dead in its tracks around 1954, right in the middle of that period.