Known for his big, warm sound, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine found inspiration in the blues and turned it into a hugely successful career in music. Known as "The Sugar Man" or the original "Mr. T," Turrentine produced dozens of original recordings, including a No. 1 hit and four Grammy nominations — first in R&B and then in jazz.
Born on April 5, 1934, in Pittsburgh, Pa. — a city that has produced more than its share of jazz masters — Turrentine was raised in a musical family. His saxophone-playing father was a big influence, as was his mother, who was fluent in stride piano, and his older brother, the late trumpeter Tommy Turrentine.
One of Turrentine's earliest influences on sax was Illinois Jacquet; the tenor great, famed for his honking technique, once encouraged a 12-year-old Stanley to sit in with him. At 17, Turrentine went on the road with bluesman Lowell Fulson. In 1953, he was hired by R&B saxophonist and bandleader Earl Bostic to replace John Coltrane.
A consummate musician who learned his craft through disparate experiences and influences, Turrentine received his only formal musical training during his military stint in the mid-'50s. In 1959, he jumped from the frying pan into the fire when he left the Army and went straight into the band of the great drummer Max Roach.
Turrentine married jazz organist Shirley Scott in 1960; during their partnership, they made some of their most heralded music together. When they moved to Philadelphia, they befriended Hammond B-3 organ pioneer Jimmy Smith, and Turrentine fully immersed himself in the jazz organ sound. He even recorded on Smith's classic album Midnight Special.
The organ-centered soul-jazz that Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott concocted provided Turrentine the perfect gateway to cross over into pop. His first foray in this new, more radio-friendly music began in 1969, when he signed with Creed Taylor's slick and successful CTI label.
Turrentine's first album for CTI, 1970's Sugar, yielded the classic tune of the same name. He continued with a string of pop-laced crossover albums, including the 1971 hit Don't Mess with Mr. T. His relative success, despite his continued ability to deliver in the straight-ahead jazz vein, led to a predictable backlash among critics.
Nevertheless, Turrentine persevered against the ever-changing landscape of jazz by tapping into his enduring, soulful sound and bluesy approach. He remained a favorite among jazz fans until his untimely death on Sept. 12, 2000.
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Link to NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library:
Kenny Burrell: 'Midnight Blue' (feat. Stanley Turrentine)