Saturday, April 02, 2016

*****Yes, You Had Better Shake, Rattle And Roll That Thing-With Big Joe Turner In

*****Yes, You Had Better Shake, Rattle And Roll That Thing-With Big Joe Turner In

From The Pen Of Bart Webber
In the old days, the old days when the songs were just starting to be weaned off of the old time religion gospel high heaven savior thing you know to testify, to consider yourself "saved" and had come down in the mud of speaking of hard, hard drinking, hard lovin’ maybe with your best gal's friend if it came right down to the core, maybe flipping the bird on you and running around all flouncy with your best friend, maybe some hard-hearted "do this do that" woman on your mind, yeah, the old birth of  the blues days, the blue being nothing but a good woman or man on your mind anyway, around the turn of the 20th century and you can check this out if you want to and not take my word for it a black guy, a rascally black guy of no known home, a drifter, maybe a hobo for all I know, and who knows what else named Joe Turner held forth among the folk. Old Joe would come around the share-cropper down South neighborhoods and steal whatever was not nailed down, including your woman, which depending on how you were feeling might be a blessing and if you in a spooning mod might be a curse on that bastard's head. Then Joe Turner would leave and move on to the next settlement and go about his plundering ways. Oh sure like lots of blues and old country music as it got passed on in the oral traditions there were as many versions of the saga as there were singers everybody adding their own touch. But it was always old Joe Turner doing the sinning and scratching for whatever he could scratch for. 

But for the most part the story line about old ne’er-do-well Joe Turner rang very similar over time. So Joe Turner got his grizzly self put into song out in the Saturday juke joints out in places like the Mississippi Delta where more legends were formed than you could shake a stick, got sanctified once old  Willie’s liquor, white lightning home-made liquor got to working, and some guy, maybe not the best singer if you asked around but a guy who could put words together to tell a story, a blues story, and that guy with a scratch guitar would put some verses together and the crowd would egg him on. Make the tale taller as the night went until everybody petered out and that song was left for the next guy to embellish.

By most accounts old Joe was bad man, a very bad man, bad mojo man, bad medicine as the folk call what ails but can't be fixed just short of as bad as Mister’s plantation foremen where those juke joint listeners worked sunup to sundown six days a week or just short as bad as the enforcers of Mister James Crow’s go here, not there, do this not that, move here not there laws seven days a week. Yeah, Joe was bad alright once he got his wanting habits on, although I have heard at least one recording from the Lomaxes who went all over the South in the 1930s and 1940s trying to record everything they could out in the back country where Joe Turner was something like a combination Santa Claus and Robin Hood. Hell, maybe he was and some guy who lost his woman to wily Joe just got sore and bad mouthed him. Passed that bad mouth on and the next guy who lost his woman to somebody pinned on Joe, Joe Turner, yeah it was that old rascal that did her in. Stranger things have happened.

In any case the Joe Turner, make that Big Joe, Turner I want to mention here as far as I know only stole the show when he got up on the bandstand and played the role of “godfather” of rock and roll. Yeah, that is what I want to talk about, about how one song, and specifically the place of Big Joe and one song, Shake Rattle and Roll in the rock pantheon. No question Big Joe and his snapping beat has a place in the history of rhythm and blues which is one of the musical forbear strands of rock and roll. The question is whether Shake is also the first serious effort to define rock and roll. If you look at the YouTube version of Big Joe be-bopping away with his guitar player doing some flinty stuff and that sax player searching for that high white note and Big Joe snapping away being  very suggestive about who should shake and what she should shake you can make a very strong case for that place. Add in that Bill Haley, Jerry Lee, and Elvis among others in the rock pantheon covered the song successfully and that would seem to clinch the matter.      

In 2004, the fiftieth anniversary of the debut of Shake by Big Joe, there had been considerable talk and writing again as there is on such occasions by some knowledgeable rock critics about whether Shake was the foundational song of rock. That controversy brought back to my mind the arguments that me and my corner boys who hung out in front of Jimmy Jack’s Diner in Carver, a town about thirty miles south of Boston, had on some nothing better to do Friday nights during high school (meaning girl-less, dough-less or both nights). I was the primary guy who argued for Big Joe and Shake giving that be-bop guitar and that wailing sexy sax work as my reasoning while Jimmy Jenkins swore that Ike Turner’s frantic piano-driven and screeching sax Rocket 88 (done under an alias of the Delta Cats apparently for contract reasons a not uncommon practice when something good came up but you would not have been able to do it under the label you were contracted to) was the be-bop beginning and Sam Lowell, odd-ball Sam Lowell dug deep into his record collection, really his parents' record collection which was filled mainly with folk music and the blues edge played off that to find Elmore James’ Look On Yonder Wall. And the other corner boys like our leader Frankie Riley lined up accordingly (nobody else came up with any others so it was those three).

Funny thing Frankie and most everybody else except I think Fritz Taylor who sided with Jimmy Jenkins sided with me and Big Joe. The funny part being that several years ago with the advent of YouTube I started to listen to the old stuff as it became available on-line and now I firmly believe that Ike’s Rocket 88 beats out Shake for the honor of the be-bop daddy of rock and roll. As for the old time Joe Turner, done come and gone, well, he will have to wait in line like the rest of us. What do you think of that?

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