Blues Shouter Joe Turner Dies; ‘Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll’

Times Staff Writer

Big Joe Turner, a 300-pound legend who learned to sing the blues as a Kansas City junkman and transformed decades of urban black music into the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, died Sunday at the age of 74.

Known as both “the last of the blues shouters” and “the grandfather of rock ‘n’ roll,” Turner died after a heart attack at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood after several years of failing health caused by diabetes, a hospital spokesman said.

Turner sang rhythm and blues songs such as “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “Corrine Corrina” and “Lucille” that became the foundation of a new genre of music when white singers such as Elvis Presley and bandleader Bill Haley popularized them for audiences of white teen-agers in the mid-1950s. The music took the name rock ‘n’ roll because those words appeared in the lyrics of several blues songs.


“He was matchless, one of a kind,” said Joe Williams, one of the most popular modern blues singers. “Without Joe Turner, there wouldn’t have been any Joe Williams singing the blues.

“Rock ‘n’ roll was a name that was put on the kind of music Joe Turner was doing after other artists took it and made it their own, or at least they sold more records--Bill Haley and Elvis Presley and that bunch.”

Rock music went its own way, but Turner remained a king of the blues, especially well known for “Chains of Love.”

“All his peers regarded him as one of the true giants of the blues . . . the continuation of the pure blues idiom,” Times jazz critic Leonard Feather said. “The records he made with Art Tatum, the pianist, in 1940 and 1941 are probably the greatest blues records ever made,” Feather said.

Mary Katherine Aldin, a blues historian who hosts a music show on radio station KPFK-FM, said Turner was the most-recorded blues artist in history, with nearly 200 albums and re-issues to his credit.

He began his 50-year career singing on the sidewalks of Kansas City, Mo., and ended it appearing in rock clubs in New York City and Los Angeles.


When Turner started out in the 1930s, the blues music of an earlier generation of American blacks, rooted in Gospel songs and Southern rural life, was evolving to reflect the black migration to the cities.

A City Denizen

“He didn’t know anything about picking cotton and country things like that because he was born in Kansas City,” Williams said. “I never saw cotton either because I was born in Chicago. He was the first blues singer I ever heard who I could understand his words, what he was singing about.”

A part of the New York City jazz scene of the late 1930s and 1940s, Turner appeared with the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands.

He was nominated for several Grammys, most recently this year for the album, “Have No Fear, Big Joe Turner Is Here,” Aldin said. His last album, “Patcha Patcha, All Night Long,” with blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, was released last month.

He had been ill with diabetes for 10 years and had been under treatment by dialysis for several years before suffering a stroke two weeks ago, she said.

Worked for Blind Man

Born Joseph Vernon Turner on May 18, 1911, Turner said that as a boy he trailed after two street singers, watching and listening to them as they accompanied themselves on harmonica and guitar. At the age of 13, he told an interviewer in 1982, “I earned 50 cents a day leading a blind man around with his guitar, singing with him.”

He worked as a junkman, with a horse and wagon, crooning blues to himself, “improvising the words,” he said, before he got his next job as a singer at age 21. His style was formed in the tough, smoky night clubs of Kansas City, when Prohibition had ended and the Depression had begun. When he wasn’t singing, he worked as a bartender.

“Before me,” he said, “most people sang slow blues. I put a beat to it. It’s a jumpier blues.”

Jazz critic and talent scout John Hammond, who had discovered Count Basie and Billie Holiday, brought Turner to New York in 1938 for a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Worked Top Spots

He sang with the Basie and Ellington bands, at the jazz-oriented Cafe Society and at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, long an important outlet for black music and a cradle of what later came to be called rock ‘n’ roll.

In 1951, he became a top-selling rhythm and blues singer with “Chains of Love,” and in 1954 he recorded “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”

There is some disagreement over the exact birth date of rock ‘n’ roll, but many music historians say that it began with the recording of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets in 1954. Haley quickly followed with a recording of “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” an example of the then-standard practice of white musicians “covering” or re-recording works by black rhythm and blues singers in a style that sold better to white audiences of the time.

Turner added to their repertoire with “Lucille,” and his version of “Corrine, Corrina,” a traditional blues song. All three became rock standards.

Kept to His Style

While other singers became rich on the rock boom, Turner went on singing his own version of the blues.

Although in recent years he had to walk on crutches and sang sitting down because of his failing health and immense bulk, he continued performing until only two months ago. As interest in the roots of rock grew, he appeared in punk rock clubs with bands of musicians a third his age.

In Los Angeles, he appeared at the Lingerie Club, sitting in a chair, his ham-like hand wrapped around the microphone, belting out blues for 90 minutes at a time. His last club appearance was at Tramps in New York.

“He had a big, beautiful God-given voice and he didn’t need any amplification,” said Williams, who said he had tried to pattern his own singing on Turner’s style until he decided that he could never match it. When they appeared together, he said, “I might have matched him for 20 minutes, but I’d be hoarse the next day if I sang like him all night long.

“Singers like that don’t come along anymore.”