Monday, 21 November 2011

Joe Turner, Pete Johnson, 1938

[This post is dedicated to Brooklyn Baby, who loves boogie-woogie. So do I.]

In the mid-1950s, rock 'n' roll was the new thing and we'd spend summer evenings hanging out on the stoop listening to Alan Freed on WINS. Some early r&r hits had "camp" appeal, meaning they were so silly (make that stupid) that we enjoyed them. Ling Ting Tong by the Five Keys springs to mind; it begins, "I went to Chinatown / Way back in old Hong Kong / To get some egg foo young / And then I heard a gong..." -- and goes downhill from there.

Some of the records Freed played stirred me: Ray Charles' I Got A Woman, Joe Turner's Chains of LoveHoney Hush, Flip Flop 'n' Fly, Corinne Corinna, Shake Rattle 'n' Roll. (To me the Bill Haley megahit cover record of SR&R was, and is, unlistenable.) I've said in a prior post that in 1954 we teenagers thought Joe Turner was a new singer. How little we knew. In the Shapiro-Hentoff oral history Hear Me Talkin' To Ya, pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams recalls the heyday of Kansas City jazz during the early to mid-'30s:

A wild Twelfth Street spot we fell in regularly was the Sunset, owned by Piney Brown who loved jazz... Pianist Pete Johnson worked there... Now the Sunset had a bartender named Joe Turner and while Joe was serving drinks he would suddenly pick up a cue for a blues and sing it right where he stood, with Pete playing piano for him. I don't think I'll ever forget the thrill of listening to big Joe Turner shouting and sending everybody, night after night, while mixing drinks. Pete Johnson was great on boogie, but he was by no means solely a boogie player. It was only when someone like Ben Webster, the Kaycee-born tenor man, yelled "Roll for me -- come on, roll 'em, Pete, make 'em jump," that he would play boogie for us.
In 1938 impresario John Hammond brought boogie-woogie east for his "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, thus igniting a national boogie-woogie craze. This live recording from that concert is the closest we'll get to hearing what the singing bartender and Pete Johnson sounded like at the Sunset Club. Turner's magnificent voice fills the hall as amply as any heldentenor. As for Johnson, nobody did it better.

Roll 'em, Pete.

1 comment:

  1. They were powerful messengers of fierce joy, weren't they? Columbia has never reissued on CD the 1967 reunion at Carnegie Hall . . . also called FROM SPIRITUALS TO SWING -- where Big Joe and Pete came onstage to swing out so beautifully. It didn't hurt that their colleagues in swing were Buck Clayton, Ed Hall, Buddy Tate, Ray Bryant, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones. There's also a SWINGIN' THE BLUES where a fellow named William Basie is at the piano. As my dear friend S. Jones is wont to say, "Couldn't they get anybody good?" Nice post, Kid: thanks for the swingology!