I’m a big fan of the blues shouters. They’re among the oldest of the old school, and, like most of the blues greats, have pretty much left the scene.
Some of the greats, and some of my favorites, include Big Joe Turner, Joe Williams, Jimmy Rushing and Jimmy Witherspoon. They worked with big bands, including the great Count Basie, and in smaller combos. Sometimes they leaned over into jazz, but you could always hear how deeply their souls had been blessed by the blues.
The shouters were big-voiced, full-throated singers who just stood in front of the microphone and sang. They didn’t dance, or play guitar behind their back. They didn’t need to. The power and passion of their vocals said all they had to say. Their voices were their instruments, and they were masters of those instruments.
Turner is one of my favorites. He was born in Kansas City in 1911, the city where he later became a singing bartender, later a big band singer, and even later put his pipes to work and helped create rock ‘n’ roll.
“Rock and roll would have never happened without him,” songwriter Doc Pomus said in Rolling Stone, after Turner’s death in 1985. (Doc Pomus is another great story, but I’ll leave that for another day.)
There are many fine Turner albums, but my favorites tend to be a handful from his later years, recorded on the Pablo label, run by Norman Granz, a huge figure in the jazz world who produced shows and records by the best in jazz.
Turner sang with many of those jazz greats on these albums, with a more relaxed vibe than some of his more frantic but highly enjoyable earlier R&B and rock recordings. Big Joe was a natural for the extended play capacity of the LP — he could improvise blues verses all night long (probably a tribute to he singing bartender days in Kansas City), while the musicians had room to swing and stretch out behind him. Great stuff.
One of my favorites from that group is “The Bosses,” with Turner and Count Basie. It’s as smooth and easy as good whiskey, without losing the essential intensity of the music. Try it late at night with the lights down low.
Or just try any Big Joe, if you haven’t listened for a while, and remind yourself just how good he was. And if you never have, I think you’ll enjoy. Try him out with the video above.
And yes, I know I’ve left out huge chunks of his life and career. That’s your homework assignment…. but there will be no quiz.