Weighing in at over three hundred pounds and with a height of six foot two, it’s easy to understand how Big Joe Turner got his name. It wasn’t for just his size, though, but also his place in the history of blues music that makes him larger than life. Born in Kansas City, Big Joe began his blues career when he started signing on the street corners. At the age of fourteen, he quit school and began working at nightclubs as a singing bartender.
Everything changed for Big Joe in 1938, though. He was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in a famous showcase called From Spirituals to Swing with his partner and piano man, Pete Johnson. As was the case for many artists that performed at Carnegie Hall, Big Joe and Pete Johnson’s careers took off after their performance. Their song, “Roll ‘Em Pete,” became a quick hit. That song was one of the earliest examples of what many artists call a backbeat, a way of accentuating the offbeat. The backbeat was an essential component of what became R&B music.
Big Joe, in many ways, was a big part of the progression within blues music, from big band, to the jump blues, to R&B, and soon after, rock n’ roll. His leadership in these styles of music not only earned him the name Big Boss Man, but also the Grandfather of Rock n’ Roll. In 1954, his hit song, “Shake Rattle and Roll,” became the song he was most known for.