2020-03-10 02:44:54 UTC
In the annals of rock history certain names stand out as larger than life, their careers serving as towering monuments to the artistic achievements this music was capable of at its very best.
Nobody would dispute that Joe Turner is one of the biggest names there ever was.
Of course these legendary figures attained their status by virtue of a litany of massive hits that remain instantly familiar decades later and are universally beloved by generations of music fans.
This is generally not considered one of those.
But while it’s been mostly unheralded by historians and remains largely unknown by casual listeners alike, this might just be the single greatest record Big Joe Turner ever made.
Where’d You Go Last Night?
Up to now, despite a handful of excellent records – amidst some admittedly mediocre ones – Joe Turner has been more or less a nonentity in rock’s story, a singer seemingly born for this type of music who had yet to find the perfect situation to exploit its possibilities. The generally accepted thinking is that it won’t be until Turner lands at Atlantic Records in 1951 when everything clicks for him, as that label, one of the most storied in history, will finally be able to get him on the right path.
But that’s not the case.
THIS is where Big Joe Turner’s enormous rock legacy truly begins, recording for a star-crossed company that wouldn’t be long remembered but who, more than any other we’ve encountered, embodied everything rock ‘n’ roll was shaping up to be.
Freedom Records may have had comparatively little success in the marketplace but they had no trouble whatsoever in establishing who they were spiritually thanks to their tough as nails house band led by a versatile saxophonist in Conrad Johnson and his cohort Sam Williams, backed by a solid rhythm section in bassist Nunu Pitts and drummer Allison Tucker, and featuring two stellar musicians who doubled as solo artists for the label, pianist Lonnie Lyons and the unquestioned star of the company, mind blowing guitarist Goree Carter. Together they formed the Hep-Cats, the best collection of musicians… at least for this style of music… that Turner had yet played with.
How he GOT to Freedom Records is another story altogether, as we touched upon when he cut a one-off session with saxophonist Joe Houston for a tiny start-up label in Louisiana called Rouge Records back in December. The two Joes hit it off and apparently had been joined by Pitts and Tucker on those sides and naturally one thing led to another and they headed back across the border to join them for a single session in Houston just before Christmas 1949 where Big Joe Turner finally got his feet planted firmly in the rock ‘n’ roll ground with the storming Adam Bit The Apple, a prescient title if ever there was one for what was to follow.
The Juice Came Running Out
Okay, let’s get it out of the way here and now and admit that yes, Turner recycled lyrics more than an environmentalist recycles cardboard boxes. But that’s hardly a bad thing, not when he was so adept at fitting them into a new framework and here he finds the perfect use for some of best lyrics he ever came up with.
The story is taken from the Old Testament, albeit with an X-rated twist to it that those killjoy Apostles surely wouldn’t approve of. Adam Bit The Apple is a tale about sexual discovery that uses the familiar fiction of the Biblical Garden Of Eden – ya know, Adam and Eve – and transposes it to a modern secular world where sex isn’t a sin but a well-earned delight.
Now because these lines have been taken from a variety of sources they don’t always form a coherent plot. Joe starts off bitching about his woman who has been carrying on her own dalliances with other men, criticizing her more for how flagrant she is with her affairs than for the affairs themselves. But while he takes her cheating more or less in stride, he delivers these accusations with a particular flourish, rolling the words around his mouth to savor every last one, spitting out details about her hair and clothes that paints the scene in vibrant colors.
The music behind him is fueling this track with nitroglycerin, pushing Turner harder and faster than we’ve seen him in awhile. Though they start off with a lively horn intro that gets the pulse quickening they’re a little light in the power department at first, the higher tones taking some of the zip off their initial punches. But because they hit the ground running Turner has no choice but to move with them in lockstep and they never break stride once the entire track. When the rhythm section jumps in it’s like they’re executing some flying wedge from a trusted old playbook they all know by heart and their blocking for Turner gives him all the room he needs so that from here on in he’s essentially running downhill, unable to be stopped by either man or nature.
As he and the band get up to speed the lyrics start to flow like water. Each line comes rolling out of Turner’s mouth like a faucet, or as he says in the song’s most indelible line… “Adam bit the apple and the juice came running out/He was the first cat to know what love was all about”.
If you need a translator for the meaning of that you’re on the wrong musical website. Needless to say those two lines are the very essence of life, love and rock ‘n’ roll.
Gonna Whoomp You Baby!
If Turner is on fire with his performance the musicians are pouring gasoline on things with their playing by now. This is undoubtedly the best musical accompaniment we’ve yet heard on a rock ‘n’ roll vocal track, the band is hammering away with unmatched power and precision, sounding as tight as can be yet retaining a sense of barely controlled anarchy in their execution.
The first sax solo by Williams is virtually drawing up the blueprint for how these things should be carried out. His tone is muscular yet retains the sinewy flexibility to keep twisting and turning over thirty-five exhilarating seconds that is pure rock nirvana. If it’s Sam Williams he deserves to be immortalized for this performance alone, and if it’s Joe Houston sitting in then it only adds another feather in what will ultimately become a very full hat over the course of his career.
But while that romping sax might be the most compelling featured performance among the sidemen on Adam Bit The Apple, it’s by no means the only one that draws your attention, not when we have Lyons and Carter waiting in the wings to unleash their own musical hellfire.
After another vocal interlude where Turner doesn’t let up in the least, Carter is next in line for a solo, his guitar sticking to their higher tones which gives it less resonance but arguably a sharper sting. His lines are clean and aggressive yet fully controlled, almost hypnotizing you with their feints and pauses before striking again. Instead of being decapitated by one vicious blow as he’d shown on his own songs at times, here he kills you with a series of deep puncture wounds… it may be less of a shock to the system than an all-out attack but the end result is the same.
If that assault gets you to slowly bleed to death, Lonnie Lyons comes by to mop up the mess, displaying fleet-fingered assurance on the high end of the treble keys before shifting further down the scale to lead back into a horn coda that wraps your carcass up, dumps it in a makeshift coffin and tosses the corpse in the ground before you’re even cold.
This may be the first rock record forced to stand trial for assault and battery and yet no listener in their right mind would testify against it in a court of law, not when it’s this much fun to be battered senseless by such a musical onslaught.
‘Til You Learn Some Sense
We’ve talked before about how much of rock’s advances over the first few years seemed to be delivered from on high… the essential building blocks assembled in short order by largely inexperienced contractors (record labels) and workers (the artists themselves), all of whom were not working with any blueprints and often weren’t even cognizant of the work being done on another wing of the building.
When things fell into place so seamlessly, the right artists meeting with the right companies at the right time in American history and then finding a waiting audience eager for the very thing they were offering, you had to think this was pre-ordained.
In the midst of it all sat Big Joe Turner, a prodigious talent whose early work had foreshadowed much of what rock adapted and streamlined into a shiny new machine, yet who himself was past the age where he seemed likely to be able to capitalize on it. Knowing what was to follow from our vantage point in the present we kept searching for signs that such a transformation was imminent, and yet with each step in the right direction he’d often take two steps back again. By the time the 1950’s dawned you surely had to be thinking he’d missed his chance and would be lucky just to be remembered as an early influence on rock at best.
But fate has a way of stepping in to right wrongs from time to time and this momentary partnership between Turner and Freedom Records’ peerless studio band changed Big Joe’s fortunes beyond a doubt. Adam Bit The Apple was a strong regional hit and set into motion his full creative and commercial resurgence right around the corner.
The odds of utter perfection being achieved when laying down just a handful of songs cut on one date with a band he hadn’t sat in with as a unit before and wouldn’t do so again after this, was pretty far-fetched to say the least. But whereas more often than not that type of random, almost haphazard situation would be a detriment when it came to producing anything worthwhile, here they came away with something transcendent, a song to define them all for eternity.
This was Big Joe Turner’s moment of triumph, a definitive statement that claimed his rightful place in the rock world at last. The ironic thing of course was that he knew this position was his to hold from the moment he bit into that apple years earlier and had been cast out of a more respectable musical Garden Of Eden for his sins.
It turns out Big Joe WAS the first cat to know what it was all about after all.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 10/10