This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #254: Shake, Rattle and Roll by Big Joe Turner.
Many people view Elvis as being the “King of Rock n’ Roll” but, did you know that the real birth of the musical genre we now call “Rock n’ Roll” started nearly a full decade before Elvis started swivelling his hips? (and even earlier than that if you consider a singer like Sister Rosetta Tharpe). Back in the early to mid-1950s, singers such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddly were making inroads when it came to transitioning from Blues and Soul and inventing a new type of music called “Rock n’ Roll”. While Soul grew on a foundation of Gospel as sung in Churches and segregated Clubs, the Blues was, primarily, played in Clubs. But, the beats that were integral in helping Rock n’ Roll to have its distinctive sound structure didn’t just come from Blues or Gospel; some of it came in the form of Doo Wop and Big Band Swing music. One of the most famous practitioners of this craft was a man known as Big Joe Turner.
Big Joe Turner was born all the way back in 1911! All throughout his life, he was known for the deepness and power of his singing voice. Like many singers of colour, Joe Turner honed his skills in church. However, it wasn’t long before he met a kindred spirit in the form of a piano player named Pete Johnson. Together, they began performing a musical style known as “Boogie-Woogie”, which centred on the piano providing the rhythm/beats and Big Joe Turner using his voice to maintain the fast tempo. Turner and Johnson owned several night clubs of their own and were able to provide a living for themselves but, it wasn’t until they came to the attention of Big Band leaders such as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Count Basie that Turner started to attain a certain level of national attention.
Turner’s biggest break occurred at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, when he was spotted performing by a two men named Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun who, in turn, were opening a new record company called, Atlantic Records. Desperate for talent to populate their new label, the Ertegun Brothers signed Big Joe Turner and encouraged him to explore new directions for his existing musical style. One of the first songs he recorded for Atlantic Records was the seminal classic, “Shake, Rattle and Roll”. While not the first song to explicitly mentioned the “Roll” from “Rock n’ Roll”, Big Joe Turner’s version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” is an obvious foundational piece in the evolution of the genre. Occurring as it did in the early 1950s, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” was one of the very first popular songs to contain, what was to become known as, a “Rock n’ Roll” beat. It did this without a single guitar string being strummed or plucked. The steady beat came from partner, Pete Johnson’s piano. Turner, for his part, provided an essential ingredient in “Rock n’ Roll”; that being, sexuality. The opening lines to the song were considered very risque for the times, as Turner instructs a woman in bed to get up and wash her face and hands. The mere fact that this powerful black man was singing about being in the bedroom of a woman was almost unheard of in those days. The fact that he was merely encouraging her to get up and get dressed so they could go out dancing is almost irrelevant.
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” went to the top of the R&B Charts, which was where artists of colour were confined back then. The song became a bigger hit on the white-centric Pop Charts when Bill Haley and the Comets recorded it and then, a decade later, when Elvis harvested this song for himself and made it his own. In the history of “Rock n’ Roll”, Big Joe Turner is not a name that springs to mind as readily as some like Elvis, The Beatles and so on but, he was a pivotal figure in helping connect Big Band Swing with the new, emerging genre of “Rock n’ Roll” in the 1950s. By adding elements of Big Band music, which was familiar and unthreatening to white audiences, Big Joe Turner, helped to expand the range of “Rock n’ Roll” and helped keep it from being relegated to being merely an offshoot of the Blues. Without the contribution of he and his partner, Pete Johnson, “Rock n’ Roll” may have only ever been considered “Black music”. But, because of his efforts, a song like “Shake, Rattle and Roll” proved to be a key transitionary piece that allowed “Rock n’ Roll” to be more easily accepted by white audiences…..much in the same way that, decades later, the musical mash-up between Run-DMC and Aerosmith allowed Hip Hop to gain entry into the white marketplace, too.
Big Joe Turner may not be the first name most people think of when it comes to the legendary figures in the history of “Rock n’ Roll” but, those who know their music, appreciate what he managed to accomplish and why it was so important. Not surprisingly, Big Joe Turner was one of the very first musicians inducted into “The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame”. As you watch the video below, note the skill with which Turner uses his voice to control the tempo of the song and, as well, how his voice and the beats established by the piano and the brass sections of the orchestra behind him, alternate and complement each other in order to give a fullness of sound.
*One note: there were “clean” and “explicit” versions of this song. The version where the song starts in the bedroom is the explicit version. This version, being aired for broadcast, starts off in the kitchen and is considered the clean version of the song.
Regardless, this song kicks and it is hard not to tap your toes and clap your hands as Big Joe Turner sings. So, without further delay, here is one of the most important and influential singers in the history of “Rock n’ Roll”, Big Joe Turner, with one of the very first true “Rock n’ Roll” songs, “Shake, Rattle and Roll”. History is in session. Enjoy!
The link to the video for the song, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Big Joe Turner, can be found here.
The link to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame website entry for Big Joe Turner, can be found here.
Thanks to KEXP for recognizing and supporting artists from all genres of music. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.