The Man Who Turned Blues Into Rock & Roll

Celebrating the birthday of blues shouter–turned–rock hero Big Joe Turner

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Ed Perlstein / Redferns / Getty Images

Big Joe Turner performs at the Zellerback Auditorium in Berkeley, Calif., April 10, 1979.

Muddy Waters got it right with his anthemic song, “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll.” And few figures ever personified that evolutionary link as clearly as Big Joe Turner, the blues shouter–turned–early rock and roll hero, who celebrates a birthday — it would have been his 102nd — on May 18.

“Shake, Rattle and Roll,” Turner’s signature 1954 hit, is a crystal clear example of a spirited traditional blues that, with a slamming beat grafted onto it, gets instantly transformed into a new musical form. In Turner’s epochal vocal performance you can hear the blues, boogie-woogie and rhythm-and-blues melding together, announcing that big changes were in the air.

A sudden pop star at age 43, the mighty Turner—a mountain of a man with vocal power to match his girth—had already been singing the pants off the blues for decades. Had his career ended in the early 1950s, Turner would still be remembered by aficionados as a vocal titan, a dynamic stylist whose collaborations with legendary pianists including Pete Johnson and Art Tatum, as well as such R&B hits as “Chains Of Love” and “Honey Hush” remain classics.

But with “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and a short run of later R&R hits, notably, “Flip, Flop and Fly” and “Corrine, Corrina,” Turner became a pioneer of a burgeoning new genre. He was rightfully inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, two years after his death.

“Shake, Rattle and Roll”  
With its earthy lyrics, drums and handclaps pounding out the beat, and full-force vocal from Turner, the hit version is proto-Rock and Roll at its best.


“Shake, Rattle and Roll”  
The swinging lilt of this version suited Big Joe, who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, a bedrock of  jazz and blues in the 1920s and 30s.


“Cherry Red”
 In 1956, Turner recorded his masterful album, The Boss Of the Blues, supported by his longtime partner, pianist Pete Johnson and a host of jazz luminaries. On this remake of an earlier blues hit, Turner, in prime form, is simultaneously majestic and downright lacivious.


“Flip Flop and Fly”
  A decade after his hit-making days were over, Turner remained a bluesman of the first rank. Here, with the great guitarist Otis Rush supporting him, he turns on the juice for a staid European audience .