One Track Mind: Big Joe Turner, "Cherry Red" (1956)

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by Nick DeRiso

With a shout — and a persona — to match this barrel-house presence, Big Joe Turner lived up to his outsized name every night.

Turner’s emergence was tied to those brawny blasts, since Joe came of age in a time when singers had to project past big bands without the aid of modern technological advances in amplification. A bawdy sense of fun then carried him through the birth of rock and roll.

“Cherry Red” was originally featured on Atlantic’s “The Boss of the Blues: Joe Turner Sings Kansas City Jazz” and saw re-release last December as part of a sprawling reissue dedicated to label producer Nesuhi Ertegun called “Hommage a Nesuhi” — which also included previously reviewed cuts by King Curtis and Champion Jack Dupree; Ray Charles; and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

It remains one of these great moments of blues-lore ribaldry: “Lead me pretty baby, ’cause you know I can be led,” Turner brays. “Squeeze me pretty baby until my face turns cherry red.”

Turner concludes, risking both indelicacy and perhaps an infarction: “A lovin’ proposition will get somebody killed.”

Atlantic sparked the first big comeback of this former late 1930s-era boogie-woogie star’s multi-faceted career, after producers heard Turner on a fill-in date with the Count Basie Band — which had just seen the departure of Jimmy Rushing. The label subsequently issued a series of R&B- and rock-oriented sides, many of them big hits, including “Chains of Love,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “Honey Hush,” “Flip Flop and Fly” and “Corrine Corinna” in the early 1950s.

Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (embedded below) became a signature jukebox favorite, and was later famously recorded by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. That success helped him to induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Legendary songwriter Doc Pomus — he produced Turner’s 1983 album “Blues Train,” which included Roomful of Blues — once said: “Rock and roll would have never happened without him.”

Turner, born in Kansas City on May 18, 1911, remained a nimble figure in popular music through his passing in 1983. Not long after adapting into the R&B and rock genres, Turner found still another audience in his final incarnation with jazz fans on recordings like 1974’s “The Trumpet Kings Meet Joe Turner” date with Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge and others.

The sessions that produced “Cherry Red” were a return to Turner’s roots after his initial flirtations with the teen market, and featured songs associated with his hometown’s legendarily danceable blending of R&B and big band. Better still, “Boss of the Blues” was recorded with this swaying group of familiar Basie sidemen, a hand-in-glove moment. The well-worn 12-bar blues again jumped, jived and wailed.

“Cherry Red” was co-produced by Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Trumpeter Joe Newman, tenor man Frank Wess, in-the-pocket guitarist Freddie Green — Basie called him “Mr. Hold-togetherer” — and bassist Walter Page each make important contributions on this jump blues workout. Trombonist Lawrence Brown, who came to fame with Duke Ellington, also offers an eloquent solo turn, eliciting appreciative asides from Turner.

Still, I never quite get over hearing the song’s long-ago co-author Pete (“Roll ‘Em Pete!”) Johnson, Turner’s most important collaborator, return to open the tune. Cucumber cool, he leavens everything with a perfectly laconic piano signature.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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