SONG: Shake, Rattle, and Roll
ARTIST: Big Joe Turner and His Blues Kings
Listen to it here:
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” is another in our series of blues songs that looked to blur the lines between blues and rock. It has a standard twelve bar blues form, and was written in 1954 by Jesse Stone (a.k.a. Charles F. Calhoun). The version we’re listening to today is the original recording by Big Joe Turner and is ranked number 127 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In early 1954, a producer at Atlantic records suggested to Jesse Stone that he write an up-tempo blues song for Big Joe Turner, who was known as a “blues shouter” at the time. After playing around with different phrases, Stone came up with “shake, rattle and roll.” However, that phrase was not exactly an original; it had been used in a 1910 vaudeville song by “Baby” Franklin Seals, and later, in 1919, by Al Bernard.
Joe Turner recorded “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” in New York City in 1954. Songwriter Jesse Stone, and record label execs Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun provide the shouting chorus. The recording was released in April 1954 and reached number one on the US Billboard R&B chart.
Joseph Vernon “Big Joe” Turner Jr. was born in 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri. According to some, rock and roll would never have happened without him. As we know, that’s been said about several people, so add him to your scorecard of people to thank for rock and roll.
Turner’s father was killed in a train accident when Big Joe was only four years old. Turner started singing in church and on street corners soon after that to help make money for his family. He left school when he was 14 to work in Kansas City nightclubs, first as a cook, and later as a singing bartender. He became known as The Singing Barman, and became a resident performer alongside his partner, boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson. This partnership with Johnson really paid off. They went to New York City together in 1936, and they appeared on a playbill with Benny Goodman. Despite that, they didn’t really have much more luck in New York the first time around, and went back to Kansas City.
Back in Kansas City though, they were seen by a talent scout who got them a gig at Carnegie Hall as part of a series meant to introduce jazz and blues to a wider American audience. This appearance was the start to Big Joe Turner’s successful career. For the rest of the 1930s, he stayed in New York playing in clubs and recording for Decca. In 1941, he went to Los Angeles and performed in Duke Ellington’s revue “Jump for Joy” in Hollywood. He and Johnson stayed in LA and established a bar and club there. He continued to record moderately successful singles for years.
In 1951, he was subbing in with the Count Basie Orchestra and was spotted by some Atlantic Records talent scouts. At Atlantic he was able to record several successful blues standards, and he became known for having his band members shout during the chorus of his songs. When he recorded Shake, Rattle and Roll in 1954, his career got a significant boost. His version had some risque lyrics, which were omitted by Bill Haley & His Comets’ cover version released just a couple months later. Haley’s toned down version was a bigger commercial success.
Turner continued recording and touring in blues, pop, and jazz genres, right until his death from heart failure in 1985. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
- Jesse Stone used his real name for ASCAP songs, while using the pseudonym “Charles Calhoun for BMI-registered songs, such as Shake, Rattle and Roll
- The biopic The Buddy Holly Story refers to Turner along with Little Richard and Fats Domino as major influences on Holly, who is portrayed collecting their vinyl recordings
- Mississippi John Hurt wrote and recorded various versions of a song called “Joe Turner Blues”
So technically this song is 12 bar blues, but it always kind of reminds me of swing dancing, zoot suits and some Brian Setzer nonsense. To me it’s like a synthesis between swing and early rock and roll. I’ve heard this song no less than a billion times, but i’m trying to remember if this is the version that I and the general public know best. This is some good fun though! I’m not in love with the recording itself – the accent claps and snare are super forward. At first I thought it was weird that I couldn’t really hear any bass or guitar, but had to remind myself that the standard rock & roll band combo hadn’t really been established yet. I liked the sax solo! I want to say that it’s a baritone saxophone, but please refer to my sister, the doctor of saxophone for the correct one! Anyway, it’s a more interesting sax solo than some of those one-noters that we hear often from the time. Also, listening to that piano gives me a hand cramp! Triplets throughout the whole song? Ooof. I liked the song, it’s fun, but I didn’t love it.
I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever heard this original version before. I know I’ve heard the Bill Haley one, and that’s probably the version I’m most familiar with. I really like this version! It’s got some noticeable differences from the songs we’ve been listening to recently – first the piano isn’t getting the crap beat out of it, it’s a very non-traditional use of the piano, which I kind of like. Also, guitar, bass, and drums take a huge backseat to handclaps, saxophones, and shout choruses. I love that there’s a bari sax solo and that it isn’t awful in this one, and I really like the recording quality of this one. Also, Big Joe’s voice may not be anything special, but he just sounds relaxed, totally at ease, and in control. He makes this song just such a fun listen. I’ll keep my eyes out for a 78 of this one!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
The Bill Haley and the Comets version:
The less popular Elvis version – buckle up, this one goes at quite an un-bluesy clip:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: