Known variously as The Boss of the Blues, and Big Joe Turner (due to his 6'2", 300+ lbs stature), Turner was born in Kansas City and first discovered his love of music through involvement in the church. Turner's father was killed in a train accident when Joe was only four years old. He began singing on street corners for money, leaving school at age fourteen to begin working in Kansas City's nightclub scene, first as a cook, and later as a singing bartender. He eventually became known as The Singing Barman, and worked in such venues as The Kingfish Club and The Sunset, where he and his piano playing partner Pete Johnson became resident performers. The Sunset was managed by Piney Brown. It featured "separate but equal" facilities for white patrons. Turner wrote "Piney Brown Blues" in his honor and sang it throughout his entire career.
At that time Kansas City was a wide-open town run by "Boss" Tom Pendergast. Despite this, the clubs were subject to frequent raids by the police, but as Turner recounts, "The Boss man would have his bondsmen down at the police station before we got there. We'd walk in, sign our names and walk right out. Then we would cabaret until morning".
His partnership with boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson proved fruitful. Together they headed to New York City in 1936, where they appeared on a bill with Benny Goodman, but as Turner recounts, "After our show with Goodman, we auditioned at several places, but New York wasn't ready for us yet, so we headed back to K.C.". Eventually they were spotted by the talent scout, John H. Hammond in 1938, who invited them back to New York to appear in one of his "From Spirituals to Swing" concerts at Carnegie Hall, which were instrumental in introducing jazz and blues to a wider American audience.
Due in part to their appearance at Carnegie Hall, Turner and Johnson scored a major hit with "Roll 'Em Pete". The track, basically a collection of traditional blues lyrics featured one of the earliest recorded examples of a back beat. It was a song which Turner recorded many times, with various combinations of musicians, over the ensuing years.
In 1939, along with boogie players Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, they began a residency at Café Society, a club in New York City, where they appeared on the same bill as Billie Holiday and Frank Newton's band. Besides "Roll 'Em, Pete", Turner's best-known recordings from this period are probably "Cherry Red", "I Want A Little Girl" and "Wee Baby Blues". "Cherry Red" was recorded in 1939 for the Vocalion label, with Hot Lips Page on trumpet and a full band in attendance. The following year Turner moved to Decca and recorded, "Piney Brown Blues", with Johnson on piano accompianment. But not all of Turner's Decca recordings teamed him with Johnson; Willie "The Lion" Smith accompanied him on "Careless Love", while Freddie Slack's Trio provided the backing for "Rocks in My Bed" (1941).
In 1941, he headed to Los Angeles where he performed in Duke Ellington's revue Jump for Joy in Hollywood. He appeared as a singing policeman in a comedy sketch called "He's on the Beat". Los Angeles became his home base for a time, and in 1944 he worked in Meade Lux Lewis's Soundies musical films. Although he sang on the soundtrack recordings, he was not present for the filming, and his vocals were mouthed by comedian Dudley Dickerson for the camera. In 1945 Turner and Pete Johnson opened their own bar in Los Angeles, The Blue Moon Club.
The same year he signed with National Records, and recorded under Herb Abramson's supervision. His first national R&B hit came in 1945 with a version of Saunders King's "S.K. Blues". He recorded "My Gal's a Jockey" and the risqué "Around the Clock" the same year, and Aladdin released his duet with Wynonie Harris, on the ribald two-parter, "Battle of the Blues." Turner remained with National up to 1947, but none of his records were big sellers. In 1950, he released "Still in the Dark" on the Freedom label.
Turner made many records, not only with Johnson but with the pianists Art Tatum and Sammy Price and with various small jazz ensembles. He recorded on several record labels and also appeared with the Count Basie Orchestra. In his career, Turner successively led the transition from big bands to jump blues to rhythm and blues, and finally to rock and roll. Turner was a master of traditional blues verses and at the legendary Kansas City jam sessions he could swap choruses with instrumental soloists for hours.
In 1951, while performing with the Count Basie Orchestra at Harlem's Apollo Theater as a replacement for Jimmy Rushing, he was spotted by Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, who signed him to their new recording company, Atlantic Records. Turner recorded a number of hits for them, including the blues standards, "Chains of Love" and "Sweet Sixteen". Many of his vocals are punctuated with shouts to the band members, as in "Boogie Woogie Country Girl" ("That's a good rockin' band!", "Go ahead, man! Ow! That's just what I need!" ) and "Honey Hush" (he repeatedly sings "Hi-yo, Silver!", probably in reference to The Treniers singing the phrase in their Lone Ranger parody "Ride, Red, Ride"). Turner's records shot to the top of the rhythm-and-blues charts; although they were sometimes so earthy that some radio stations would not play them, the songs received heavy play on jukeboxes and records.
Turner hit it big in 1954 with "Shake, Rattle and Roll", which not only enhanced his career, turning him into a teenage favorite, but also helped to transform popular music. The song is fairly raw, as Turner yells at his woman to "get outa that bed, wash yo' face an' hands" and comments that she's "wearin' those dresses, the sun comes shinin' through!, I can't believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you." He sang the number on film in the 1955 theatrical feature Rhythm and Blues Revue.
Although the cover version of the song by Bill Haley and His Comets, with the risqué lyrics incompletely cleaned up, was a bigger hit, many listeners sought out Turner's version and were introduced thereby to the whole world of rhythm and blues. Elvis Presley showed he needed no such introduction. Presley's version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" combined Turner's lyrics with Haley's arrangement, but was not successful as a single.
Suddenly, at the age of 43, Turner was a rock star. His follow-ups "Well All Right," "Flip Flop and Fly," "Hide and Seek," "Morning, Noon and Night," and "The Chicken and the Hawk" all continued the good-time feel of "Shake, Rattle and Roll". He appeared on the television program Showtime at the Apollo during the mid 1950s, and in the film, Shake Rattle & Rock! (1956).
"Corrine, Corrina" provided Turner with another massive seller in 1956. In addition to the rock songs he found time to cut the classic Boss of the Blues album in 1956. On May 26, 1958, "(I’m Gonna) Jump for Joy," the twentieth and last of Turner's run of hits, entered the US R&B record chart.
After a number of hits in this vein, Turner left popular music behind and returned to his roots as a singer with small jazz combos, recording numerous album in that style in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1966, Bill Haley helped revive Turner's career by lending him the Comets for a series of popular recordings in Mexico (apparently no one thought of getting the two to record a duet of "Shake, Rattle and Roll", as no such recording has yet surfaced). In 1977 he recorded a cover version of Guitar Slim's song, "The Things That I Used to Do".
In the 1960s and 1970s he was reclaimed by jazz and blues, appearing at many music festivals and recording for the impresario Norman Granz's Pablo label, once with his friendly rival, Jimmy Witherspoon. He also worked with the German boogie-woogie pianist Axel Zwingenberger. Turner also took part in good natured 'Battles of the Blues' with Wynonie Harris and T-Bone Walker.
It is a mark of his dominance as a singer that he won the Esquire magazine award for male vocalist in 1945, the Melody Maker award for best 'new' vocalist in 1956, and the British Jazz Journal award as top male singer in 1965. In 1977, Turner recorded "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" for Spivey Records, featuring Lloyd Glenn on piano. Turner's career stretched from the bar rooms of Kansas City in the 1920s (at the age of twelve when he performed with a pencilled moustache and his father's hat), on to the European jazz music festivals of the 1980s.
In 1983, only two years before his death, Turner was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. The same year saw the release on Mute Records of Blues Train, an album which paired Turner with Roomful of Blues. Turner also receives top billing with Count Basie in the Kansas City jazz reunion film The Last of the Blue Devils (1979) which also features Jay McShann, Jimmy Forrest, and other players from the city.
He died in Inglewood, California in November 1985, at the age of 74 of a heart attack, having suffered the earlier effects of arthritis, a stroke and diabetes. Big Joe Turner was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987