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Big Joe Turner, Grandfather of Rock 'n' Roll

Getty Images / Redferns / Photo by David Redfern

Big Joe Turner, Grandfather of Rock 'n' Roll

Big Joe TurnerDuring a career that lasted six decades, Big Joe Turner helped pioneer rock and roll. We take a look back at his life and career 25 years after his death.

Joseph Vernon Turner Jr. went by many names during his lifetime: the Singing Barman, the Boss of the Blues, and most famously, owing to his outsized 6-foot-2-inch 300-pound physique, Big Joe. He's also been called the Grandfather of Rock 'n' Roll for his role in shaping the nascent art form.

Born in Kansas City in 1911, Turner's early life was not an easy one. His father was killed in a train wreck when Turner was 4 and at a young age Turner turned to street corner singing to help his family make ends meet. By 14, he'd dropped out of school and was working in night clubs – gaining entrance with the help of a mustache penciled on his underaged face. Though he started as a cook, he was soon putting his big voice to good use, simultaneously slinging drinks and belting out the blues for customers at The Kingfish Club and The Sunset, a practice that would earn him his first showbiz nickname, the Singing Bartender.

In 1936 Turner and piano-playing partner Pete Johnson headed to New York City. Despite landing a successful gig opening for Benny Goodman, the pair struggled to get bookings and soon found themselves back in Kansas City. But it wasn't long before the duo came to the attention of a record producer named John Hammond.

Hammond was one of the most influential figures in American music. Hed persuaded Goodman to hire black musicians, was responsible for discovering a 17-year-old Billie Holiday, and had brought Count Basie to national attention. He'd later discover Aretha Franklin, sign Bob Dylan to his first recording contract, and bring Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen to Columbia Records. He would also oversee the 1961 re-issue of then-obscure Robert Johnson recordings that would introduce the bluesman to a whole new generation of young musicians, notably two young English lads named Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

But in 1938, Hammond was busy organizing his first From Spirituals to Swing concert series at Carnegie Hall, which would introduce a wider audience to jazz and blues. Hammond signed Turner to play and it proved the big break Turner had been looking for. Soon after, Turner's "Roll 'Em Pete" became his first hit record.

Turner enjoyed a residency gig at Greenwich Village's Café Society, the first integrated night club in the U.S., before moving to Los Angeles two years later to be featured in Duke Ellington's review. He recorded for many labels during this period, teaming up not just with Pete Johnson but other pianists like Art Tatum and Sammy Price, as well as with small jazz combos. He also started appearing with Count Basie's Orchestra, which is where he came to the attention of the Ertegun brothers, founders of Atlantic Records.

One of the brothers, Ahmet Ertegun, can be heard in the shouting chorus of what would prove to be Turners biggest hit, a song that helped launch a new sound people were starting to refer to as rock 'n' roll. "Shake, Rattle and Roll," penned by Jesse Stone under his songwriting alias Charles E. Calhoun, would later be recorded by Bill Haley & His Comets, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Doc Watson.

The song changed Turner's life, making him an unlikely teen idol at 43. Later in 1956 he scored another big hit with "Corrine, Corrina," a song whose origins went back to the 1920s. In 1958 he recorded the last of his 20 songs to make the R&B charts, "(I’m Gonna) Jump for Joy."

After the 1950s Turner left rock 'n' roll to the kids and returned to the music of his early days, playing jazz and blues largely to European festival audiences for the remainder of his career. Two years before his death of a heart attack Nov. 24, 1985, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Two years later, he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and remains one of the few musicians to be honored by both.

Not bad for a musician whose career started on the street corner.