Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Big Joe Turner and the Alcove Groupies

As I am getting ready for the opening of the Knickerbocker Cafe in Westerly, Rhode Island this Saturday, I keep thinking about all the great music I heard there in the old days. When the Roomful of Blues held court every Sunday night in the 1970's, there was nothing better than hanging in the alcove, drinking a beer and listening to great Kansas City rhythm and blues.

 I can still picture Duke Robillard in that cream colored suit playing his Gibson guitar with Greg Piccolo and the horns behind him. At that time, the cover versions of songs by the great Big Joe Turner were the best part of the show. Shake Rattle and Roll, Honey Hush and Switchin' in the Kitchen were the tunes that got the dance floor jumping and the alcove groupies bopping.

Those nights at the Knick with The Roomful introduced me to the music of Big Joe Turner. He became a standard on the turntable at Floyd's Hotel. Turner's music was pretty different than what most people were listening to at that time, but we loved it.

Big Joe Turner, who was known as The Boss of the Blues because of his ample girth, was born in Kansas City in 1911. His first interest in music came from singing in church. After his father died when he was 4 years old, he began singing on street corners and by age fourteen he was singing in bars around Kansas City. In 1936, he was playing in New York with boogie woogie pianist Pete Johnson when they were discovered by legendary talent scout and producer, John Hammond. He got them a gig at Cafe Society, which really expanded their audience.

 Through the 1940's, Joe played  clubs in New York and toured with various big bands including Duke Ellington. In 1954, he was signed to Atlantic records and recorded his break out hit Shake Rattle and Roll. This classic blues song crossed over to the pop charts and helped launch the rock and roll craze when it was covered by Bill Haley and the Comets. Check out the lyrics in Big Joe's original version:

Get outa that bed, wash your face and hands
Get outa that bed, wash your face and hands
Well, you get in that kitchen and make some noise with those pots and pans

Way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through
Way your wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through
I can't believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you

Turner was a great fit at Atlantic Records. Working with  Jerry Wexler (see my post from August 17), Big Joe recorded many classic songs including some written by Doc Pomus (see my post from September 18). My favorite of the Pomus covers is Boogie Woogie Country Girl, which Bob Dylan covered on the Pomus tribute album. It is a classic bit of rhythm and blues. Turner's massive voice and the big band behind him made for some great music.

I was lucky to see Big Joe play at the Knickerbocker one night in the early '80's. He was quite old at that point and weighed well over 300 lbs. He sang sitting on a stool in front of the band. Even then, he had a huge voice and it was special treat to see a legend in person. The alcove was rocking that night. After almost every song, Joe would yell out: "Let's have a hand for this band The Houseful of Blues". There was laughter in the alcove.

If you don't have any Big Joe Turner on your playlist, you are missing one of the great ones. Recommended albums include  Big Joe Turner: The Rhythm and Blues Years and Big Joe Rides Again. This begins with Switchin' in the Kitchen, which is my favorite Turner track and one of the best Kansas City style tunes ever recorded. Both are available on iTunes and from Amazon.

Hope to see you at the Knick on Saturday night.

1 comment:

  1. That was a great night. Joe was beyond his prime but when he stuck his microphone between his tits and hollared "shake rattle rock" it was the unmistakeable voice of Kansas City. Roomful did a great job of introducing icons like Joe Turner, Sil Austin, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and other to a new and younger audience. Johnny Nicholas and Ray Norcia did the same for artists as Rosevelt Sykes, Walter Horton, and S. P. Leary. I remember seeing Big Walter wandering around Watch Hill eating an ice cream cone. That was a vision!
    Peter Moore