Monday, January 26, 2015

One Song at a Time: 'Sweet Sixteen' by Big Joe Turner

He lived up to his name: Big Joe Turner, the Boss of the Blues.

A good purchase.
The wonderful thing about greatest hits records -- at least the good ones --  is that you generally purchase 'em for the two or three songs you know really well, but they can point you in the direction of some other just-as-essential tracks you never would have known about otherwise. Case in point: Big Joe Turner's Greatest Hits. I purchased a copy of this compilation CD at a very decent (and probably long, long gone) used record store in Joliet, IL about twelve years ago. I'd just rewatched Clue and had "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" rattling and rolling around in my head that day, and the disc was only a couple of bucks. What the hey? That, my friends, was a good purchase. Big Joe Turner stands out from the other early pioneers of rock & roll. For one thing, he was about twenty years older than most of them. Born in 1911, he would have been in his forties by the time he became a national star, crooning for the kiddies. "The Boss of the Blues," they called him. He kept on performing until the 1980s, when he finally died at age 74 in 1985. (So weird to think he could have seen Back to the Future.) A thick-necked, broad-shouldered mountain of a man with a voice to match, Turner had been a bouncer in his younger days and looked like he could still whoop your ass between songs. He's the exact opposite of most of the male pop stars of the 2010s, who tend to be skinny, androgynous, "sensitive" white boys with high, thin, squeaky voices. I'm referring to the Biebers, Sheerans, Timberlakes, Smiths, Levines, and Styleses of the world. All those banty roosters put together wouldn't equal one Big Joe Turner. Anyway, one of Big Joe's less-remembered yet completely captivating hits is a slow blues lament from 1952 called "Sweet Sixteen." It was written by, of all people, recording industry super-mogul Ahmet Ertegun, who would go on to be (according to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) "one of the most significant figures in the modern recording industry." Ahmet had co-founded Atlantic Records just five years previously. Frank Zappa named one of his kids after this dude, if that's any indication.

As I see it, there are three stars on "Sweet Sixteen": singer Big Joe Turner, songwriter Ahmet Ertegun (who is slyly credited as "Nugetre" on the label), and pianist and orchestra leader Vann "Piano Man" Walls (1918-1999). It is Walls we first hear on the record: a few pretty, sad, isolated chords which, to me, sound like the musical equivalent of gentle falling snowflakes. Then, he hits us with the powerful triplets we expect to hear from piano-based blues of this vintage, accompanied by mournful, sympathetic saxophones. After a few bars, Big Joe himself steps up to the microphone to tell us, as slowly as possible, about his failed relationship with an impressionable, restless younger woman: "When I first met you, baby/You were just sweet sixteen/You just left your home, baby/Sweetest thing I've ever seen." Later in the song, Joe lets us know his ex-paramour was a runaway. "Now," he says, "you're gonna run away from me, too." When I think about the couple in this song, I always think about the relationship between gangster Odell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and naive young "country girl" Sheronda (LisaGay Hamilton) in Jackie Brown, except that the girl in this song seems to be a lot more impetuous and headstrong than the meek, misguided lass in the Tarantino film. The part of the song which really sticks with me, though, is when Big Joe Turner -- out of nowhere -- starts telling us about his family. "Well, my brother, he's in Korea/And my sister, down in New Orleans/Well, my mother's up in Heaven/Lord, what's gonna happen to me?"

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