Before midway through this Rhino 16-song compilation of Turner's records for Atlantic, it's impossible not to notice just how much the music hops, bops, and, well, rocks. The beat is poppy and the singing is loud and direct and forceful. Expecting a pioneering precursor to rock (Turner was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 as an Early Influence, after all), one is confronted with what sounds suspiciously like honest-to-God rock 'n' roll itself.
The truth is that, for listeners raised on modern rock or one of its myriad pop offshoots, many old blues, R&B, and rock pioneers simply don't rock as hard as they did before. Jerry Lee Lewis still sounds salacious after all these years, but his piano riffs are no longer as frenetic as they once were. For white teenagers raised on Georgia Gibbs, Jerry Lee teetered at the brink of anarchy, tearing at the reins of how fast music could be played; for sheer speed, "Great Balls of Fire" has nothing on Steve Vai going apeshit on his fret. For those accustomed to the screeches, moans, and outright emoting of modern rock, the laconic grit of a Lightnin' Hopkins may take repeated listenings before its sly threat sounds as dangerous as it once did.
Turner, however, belongs to that group of rare -- and potentially more marketable -- pioneers whose work needs no cultural recontextualization to be appreciated. Like Howlin' Wolf or Elmore James (whose ferocious guitar makes a guest appearance on this disc's "TV Mama"), Turner's work has a raw power that transcends the limitations of time, context, and tempo. Unlike many other blues and R&B artists, Turner's work can be taken on its own terms by listeners born and raised on the music that Big Joe helped establish.
However, it would not be fair to anyone concerned to lump Joe Turner with Elmore James or Howlin' Wolf. For whatever similarities the intense, electrified blues of James and the Wolf shared with the early rockers, their music also carried with it the Delta blood and sweat that they had learned from their own lives and from pioneers like Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, blood and sweat that, perhaps understandably, teenagers in varsity jackets and poodle skirts didn't want to hear about at their sock hops. With the exception of an ill-advised psychedelic album that the Wolf released in 1968, neither James nor Wolf seriously attempted to cut into the teenage market that was, to use Joe Turner's phrase, "pepping up" black music (James died in 1959, just missing the blues revival in Europe that would, through musicians and blues aficionados like the Rolling Stones, Kinks, and Animals, spark Stateside interest in the blues among white teenagers).
Big Joe Turner, however, did attempt to cut into the sock hop market.
Even more surprisingly, he succeeded. A truly rotund 43 year-old by the time when "Rock around the Clock" officially gave birth to the genre in 1955, Turner would have seemed an unlikely candidate for mainstream success. He was the wrong age, the wrong weight, and the wrong race to be competing for the fresh-faced listeners of Eddie Cochran or Gene Vincent.
In his favor, though, Joe Turner had, since shortly after he signed with the fledgling Atlantic Records in 1951, already been in the process of "pepping up" his output, even before the white cover artists got to it. After a few bluesy outings like "Chains of Love" and "Sweet Sixteen" (both included here), Joe, already a jump blues shouter, emphasized the jump and the shout and, in 1953, scored a #1 R & B hit with the self-penned, self-produced, up-tempo "Honey Hush". By the time rock was officially born, Joe Turner had already been pepping up the blues for years.
Moreover, like the similarly hefty Fats Domino in some of his faster numbers, Joe never tried to fake being a teenager. He simply was what he was, a full-grown (and then some) man singing songs with rhythm and pep and which were rock 'n' roll by default once the term came along. How else to explain that even Elvis at his svelte, fiery, hip-swiveling peak couldn't steal "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" from Joe? Elvis's version, which appears on his Complete '50s Masters box set, is youthful and lip-smackingly, tongue-lollingly horny. But it is also clearly the work of a young man not long out of his teens. Joe endows his version with all the knowing experience of lust and post-lust that a young man can only fantasize about. For all its hand-clapping beat, the anger of the song is an adult anger that takes a voice like Joe's, forceful, not young, not old to adequately express. A fresh-faced young man, no matter how great a singer, could not reflect the lived-in experience that comes across in Joe's voice.
As such, Turner's work, like the work of blues masters Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James, both artists whom he did not much resemble, often now sounds fresher and stronger, more current, than the work of early rock pioneers like the Everly Brothers, who can sound too closely associated with a specific generation of youths now gone gray. Artists like Neil Young, John Lennon, and Lou Reed have been given credit for being able to make good rock music into middle age and beyond. True enough, but Joe Turner had already proved that it could done decades before. When the genre was still in its infancy, he was already demonstrating that rock music, far from being a youth fad, was music for the ages, for all ages.