BIG JOE Turner’s powerful vocals on the original version of ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’ propelled the late blues shouter into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but that honor didn’t help blues pilgrim Akio Yamanaka last year.
When Yamanaka, the editor of the Tokyo-based blues magazine Juke, went to Roosevelt Cemetery in Gardena to pay homage to Turner, who died of a heart attack in 1985, he found that the blues giant’s grave was unmarked.
That discovery inspired the Joe Turner Fund, a Los Angeles-based, nonprofit organization, to stage a benefit on Sunday at the Music Machine to raise the $8,000 to $10,000 required to move Turner’s body to Inglewood Cemetery. (The transfer is necessary because Roosevelt doesn’t allow anything more than a flat marker.)
The lineup for the benefit, scheduled from 4:30 to 11 p.m.: Phil and Dave Alvin performing together with a band, the James Harman band, Top Jimmy, King Cotton, the Bernie Pearl Blues Band and Rosie Flores. Turner’s only surviving relative, nephew Jerry Bryant of Canada, is also scheduled to attend.
“It blew my mind he didn’t have a headstone, and musicians get scared by that,” said Blasters singer Phil Alvin, who met Turner in 1968. “A lot of the benefit’s value is to pay attention to the very fact that people who are great contributors to society die without headstones while people who are minor players dance home with the money and mausoleums.”
Born in 1911, Turner first attracted attention as a Kansas City bartender who sang with jazz big bands during the 1930s. He got his first taste of national acclaim when he appeared with pianist Pete Johnson at John Hammond’s famed “Spirituals to Swing” concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1938.
The duo’s performance helped spark a boogie-woogie craze, but Turner’s popularity had faded by 1951 when he ran into old acquaintances Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson. They persuaded him to sign with their fledgling company Atlantic Records, and Turner’s memorable R&B and rock ‘n’ roll hits made him one of the cornerstones of the label through the 1950s.
Such Turner hits as ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’, ‘Honey Hush’ and ‘Corrine, Corrina’ became rock and blues staples. His career, sparked by numerous blues and oldies revivals here and the consistent interest of European audiences, continued through the 1980s despite his diabetes, which forced him to sing from a chair on stage.
© Don Snowden, Los Angeles Times, 4 October 1991