Friday, June 3, 2011

June 3: Big Joe Turner, "Shake, Rattle, And Roll"

Artist: Big Joe Turner
Song: "Shake, Rattle, And Roll"
Album: Shake, Rattle, And Roll (single)
Year: 1954

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

One of the more peculiar aspects of the music of the 1940's and 1950's was the number of artists who recorded complete covers of other performers' music.  In modern times, there is a great deal of copying a certain rhythm or musical progression, but during the early days of rock and roll, it seemed there was no problem with completely copying an entire song.  While it can be argued that it was these covers that served as the bridge from r&b and blues to rock and roll, it is still a bit shocking to see just how many of these "classics" were actually covers.  Among the artists who perhaps suffered a bit from a later performer re-working their songs was the great Big Joe Turner, and one can even make the case that it was his original recordings that had far more impact on the development of rock music than the later, more commercially successful versions.  Standing today as one of the truly great voices in music history, there is a power and presence to his singing, and one can easily understand just how he was able to bring to life entire rooms with his live performances.  Though Turner would release a number of moderately successful songs throughout the first few years of the 1950's, it would be 1954 that would forever change his life, as well as the face of music.  It was in April of 1954 that Big Joe Turner gave the world what remains one of the most important songs in all of music history: his unforgettable classic, "Shake, Rattle, and Roll."

Within the opening notes of "Shake, Rattle, And Roll," the true transition into the rock style can be heard, and yet the song is still firmly rooted in the "older" style, giving only a glimpse into what would develop in its wake.  The song is centered around the fantastic piano progression, and it is within this aspect of "Shake, Rattle, And Roll" that one can understand how swing movement was essential to the rock genre.  The rhythm and sway that the piano lends to the song is nothing short of perfect, and it also injects a wonderfully upbeat mood that runs into every other part of the musical arrangement.  The way in which the saxophone of Sam Taylor blends into the sound is equally impressive, and his performance further highlights the link to both the big band sound, as well as jazz.  The solo that he unleashes is also one of the finest in music history, and it gives "Shake, Rattle, And Roll" an amazing amount of depth.  However, as one might expect, it is the rhythm section that may be the most essential element of the recording, and it is in this aspect where the lineage of rock and roll becomes the most evident.  The bluesy swing that these two instruments carry through the entire song is as perfect as one can find anywhere else in music history, and it is the way in which the drums and bass are able to surround the rest of the sound and keep it as a single unit that makes "Shake, Rattle, And Roll" so superb.

Yet even with the phenomenal music arrangement, there is nothing quite like the deep, powerful singing and shouting of Big Joe Turner.  When one looks across the entire history of music, an easy case can be made that Turner was the greatest of the "blues shouter's," and one can find his vocal influence across a number of genres over the following decades.  On "Shake, Rattle, And Roll,"  Turner blends brilliantly with the music over which he is singing, and it is the fact that he is not overpowering the band that enables the song to sound so fantastic.  This balance is further highlighted by the fact that Turner matches not only the mood of the music, but the swinging pace, and there has rarely been a better example of a performer who understands the importance of rhythm within a vocal context.  It is also the way in which Turner keeps things light and fun throughout the song, and much like a majority of the early rock and crossover hits, "Shake, Rattle, And Roll" is far more about having a good time than it is about bringing "meaning" to the song.  The theme which Big Joe Turner sings about is as universal as one could possibly imagine, and even nearly half a century after it was released, the way in which Turner conveys these themes is still relevant.  It is the fact that his vocals are still just as powerful and enjoyable that cements his place as a legend, and the main reason his original version is still able to outshine later covers of "Shake, Rattle, And Roll."

Within weeks of its release, "Shake, Rattle, And Roll" found its way all the way to the top of the charts, even though some found the lyrics to the song a bit too risqué.  Yet it was perhaps due to its overwhelming popularity that a number of artists soon recorded their own take on the song, and it was at this point that one of the stranger moments in rock history occurred.  Only three months after the original was released, Bill Haley And The Comets recorded and released their own version of "Shake, Rattle, And Roll," and this too broke into the top ten on the charts.  The Haley cover featured lyrics which were "cleaned up" to ensure he did not alienate his fan-base, and as the decades have passed, most have become far more familiar with the Haley recording than the original.  However, it is within the Big Joe Turner version that the true soul of rock music lives, and to this day, none of the covers that have been released have been able to match the tone and mood of the original.  This in itself is a testament to the extraordinary performances and production found on the Big Joe Turner version, and while none of these performances will "jump off" the track, it is their ability to work so perfectly with one another that enables them to become so much greater than the sum of their parts.  While it remains slightly overlooked due to the later cover version, there are few songs that were more essential to the development of rock and roll than Big Joe Turner's monumental 1954 recording, "Shake, Rattle, And Roll."

No comments: