TERRY GROSS, HOST:
You can make the case that no figure in the history of rock and roll was more incongruous than Big Joe Turner. He was six feet tall, weighing in at 400 pounds, and in his 40s when stardom hit. Our rock and roll historian Ed Ward says he was an improbable teen idol responsible for a load of rock and roll hits.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FLIP, FLOP, AND FLY")
BIG JOE TURNER: (Singing) Now, when I get the blues I get me a rocking chair. When I get the blue I get me a rocking chair. Well, if the blues overtake me, gonna rock right away from here. Now, when I get lonesome...
ED WARD, BYLINE: Here's how it would work, night after night in Kansas City. The band onstage would start a tune, introduced by the piano player, Pete Johnson. After the first chorus, the bartender, a big guy just out of his teens, would start singing blues.
He didn't really need a microphone, but he'd work his way to the one on stage anyway and carry on for a few more numbers. Then he'd walk back to the bar, pick up the bar towel and continue pouring drinks for the customers.
Joe Turner had been born in 1911 and went to work to support his mother when his father died in the early 1930s. But he'd already been sneaking into clubs and doing guest stints with the bands in places like the Backbiter's Club, the Hole in the Wall and the Cherry Blossom.
His big break came when Pete Johnson, already a local favorite, gave him a regular gig at Piney Brown's Sunset Cafe. It was there, in 1936, that John Hammond, in town to sign the Count Basie Band, heard the duo. He told jazz fans in New York about them, and soon they had a gig at the Famous Door on 52nd Street.
In 1938, Hammond included them in his famous Spirituals to Swing concert, and in so doing ignited the boogie-woogie craze. The duo went into the studio to record one of their most popular numbers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLL 'EM PETE")
TURNER: (Singing) I've got a gal lives up on the hill. I've got a gal lives up on that hill. Well, this woman's trying to quit me, but lord, I love her still. She got eyes like diamonds, shine like Klondike gold. Got eyes like diamonds, shine like Klondike gold. Every time she loves me, she sends my mellow soul.
WARD: Those verses - the girl up on the hill, the eyes shining like Klondike gold and so on - would return in song after song, rolling, as he'd also say, like a big wheel in a Georgia cotton field. Joe, you see, was illiterate, but he also possessed a library of what blues scholars call floating verses; he was second to none. And, of course, there was that voice.
In April 1951, Joe had an unfortunate gig at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, singing with Count Basie's band as a last-minute substitute for Jimmy Rushing. The audience laughed as he missed cues, but among them was Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic Records, who'd been trying to find Joe to sign him to his label, which was just emerging as a rhythm-and-blues powerhouse.
He found Joe drowning his sorrows in Braddock's Bar afterwards and offered him $500 for a session. They only recorded one number that time, but two years later, Joe tried again in New Orleans and recorded a smash.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEY HUSH")
TURNER: (Singing) Oh, let 'em roll like a big wheel in a Georgia cotton field. Honey, hush. I didn't come in this house, stop all that yackety yak. I didn't come in this house, baby, to stop all that yackety yak. Come fix my supper, don't want no talking back. Well, you keep on jabbering...
WARD: "Honey Hush" rocketed up the rhythm and blues charts and even saw some pop action, which was unusual in 1953. His next stop was Chicago in October where, with Ertegun and his new business partner Jerry Wexler in charge of the session, they tapped a young guitarist who'd just moved north from Mississippi, Elmore James, to play on the session.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TV MAMA")
TURNER: (Singing) I was in my bed a sleeping. Oh, boy, what a dream. I was in my bed sleeping. Oh, boy, what a dream. I was dreaming about my TV mama, the one with the big wide screen. She got great big eyes...
WARD: But it was a 1954 session right at home in New York, in Atlantic's offices - with the office furniture pushed against the walls to allow a hand-picked band of New York's best rhythm-and-blues musicians to set up, and Ertegun, Wexler and the song's arranger, Jesse Stone, singing backup vocals and clapping their hands, where Joe, at the advanced age of 42, made rock and roll history.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE, RATTLE, AND ROLL")
TURNER: (Singing) Get out of that bed, wash your face and hands. Get out of that bed, wash your face and hands. Well, you get in that kitchen, make some noise with the pots and pans. Way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through. Way you wear those dresses, sun comes shining through. I can't believe my eyes, all the mess belongs to you. I believe to the soul you're the devil and now I know.
(Singing) I believe to the soul you're the devil and now I know. Well, lord, I work as fast as my money goes. I said shake, rattle, and roll.
WARD: "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was recorded by Bill Haley almost immediately and Elvis Presley somewhat later. And, although they didn't use some of his more colorful verses, their picking the tune up ensured that it became one of the first rock and roll standards.
Improbable as it seems, Big Joe Turner was a star, and he had star billing on the various rock and roll revue tours he joined. He even appeared in a 1956 movie, "Shake, Rattle and Rock," where he split the music with Fats Domino. That was the same year that gave him his last big hit with an old blues standard.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CORRINNE, CORRINA")
TURNER: (Singing) Corinne, Corrina, where you been so long? Corinne, Corrina where you been so long? I ain't had no loving since you been gone. Corinne, Corinna. Corinne, Corinna. Corinne, Corinna, I love you so.
WARD: The backing group here is the Cookies, who'd soon join Ray Charles and become the Raelettes. Atlantic stuck with Big Joe Turner for a couple more years, but eventually they parted company. He never stopped working, though, and died in California in 1985.
I saw him performing in New York in the early '80s. He was living in the same apartment building as my friend Brian, and one day as we were headed back there, Big Joe was out front doing his daily exercises. Brian offered to introduce us, and as I shook Big Joe's big hand I said it's an honor to meet you. He looked me straight in the eye and said, yes, it soitainly is. I gotta say: It soitainly was.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in France. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at #nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.