by Trevor Bannister
October 10, 2023
Guest contributor Trevor Bannister enjoys Derek Coller's biography / discography of the Kansas City born blues / jazz vocalist and rock 'n' roll pioneer 'Big' Joe Turner.
“Feel So Fine: Big Joe Turner – The Boss of the Blues”
For those who enjoy the challenges of Victoria Coren Mitchell’s highly popular BBC 2 quiz show ‘Only Connect’ here’s a conundrum that you may like to solve: What connects the leafy Berkshire town of Wokingham to Kansas City, USA in its wide-open days of Prohibition, when the lawless streets were filled with the rocking rhythms of jazz and blues?
Worlds apart in time and place they may be, but firmly connected in the person of Derek Coller, who lives quietly near the centre of Wokingham. His exhaustive bio/discography of ‘Big’ Joe Turner, the legendary alumni of KC’s colourful past has been recently published to critical acclaim on both side of the Atlantic.
“Feel So Fine: Big Joe Turner – The Boss of the Blues”, is a massive study of the ‘original blues brother’, a true legend and the man who first recorded “Shake, Rattle and Roll”’. A man of huge physical stature with a voice that “rolled like thunder”, ‘Big Joe’ was born in the African American quarter of Kansas City on 18th May 1911. He cut his musical teeth in the city before stepping onto the national scene in the late 1930s, followed in post-war years by travels to Europe, Australia and Mexico.
“Joe Turner was like a force of nature,” writes Derek Coller. “Small bands, big bands, trios, pianists, rock groups, choirs, all styles of accompaniment rocked to his rhythm, making everyone feel fine.”
Big Joe kept up this irrepressible lifestyle over five decades, from KC saloons to New York’s Carnegie Hall until his death at the age of 74 on 24th November 1985. Sadly, like so many other great figures of the music business, Big Joe died in poverty. Thankfully his legacy lives on through a wealth of recordings and now in the pages of “Feel So Fine”.
But what was the fascination for Joe Turner that prompted Derek to seek out every scrap of evidence he could find about Turner’s life and times and to listen to every recording he ever made?
“Big Joe’s recordings with pianist Pete Johnson caught my schoolboy imagination way back in the 1940s, along with Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Bessie Smith. They were the treasures of my early record collecting days,” Derek told Jeff Harris in a recent interview for the New York based radio show ‘Big Road Blues’.
“Those were the day of hefty 10” 78rpm records,” Derek continued. “Unlike today when you can download music in an instant, I had to save up my pennies to buy a record. They were in short supply, especially jazz records.” Finding information about who was playing on the treasured discs and where they had recorded was even more difficult. Undaunted, Derek began to compile notes and press cuttings about his favourite musicians, correspond with other enthusiasts around the world and sometimes with the musicians themselves. “I made two trips to America to search for material at first hand,” Derek recalls.
“My notes gradually accumulated over the years,” Derek declared, “and provided the source material for books on pianists Dick Cary, Johnny Guarnieri and Jess Stacy, clarinettist Tony Parenti and jazz in Chicago as well as many articles and contributions to reference works such as ‘The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz’. ‘Feel So Fine: Big Joe Turner – The Boss of the Blues’, is my latest offering.” Adding proudly, “What you might describe as my magnum opus.”
Derek’s writing is rich in detail, but what really stands out is his love of the music and love for his subjects. This is especially true of Big Joe Turner and ‘Feel So Fine’. Derek was fortunate enough to see Big Joe perform with the Humphrey Lyttelton Band on a UK tour in the mid-1960’s. Joe arrived at Heathrow Airport without a work permit. “You’ve got a nerve,” declared an officious immigration officer. “That’s what it takes these days,” Joe replied. He just wanted to sing and have a good time.
‘Feel So Fine’ is a handsomely bound portrait of Big Joe Turner, the greatest of the blues shouters and without doubt a founding figure of rock ‘n’ roll. In addition to the biography it includes a full discography of Turner’s recordings, a bibliography and a list of his compositions. It is lavishly illustrated in both colour and black/white with photographs, personal letters, posters, tickets and record labels et al. It will appeal to lovers of jazz and blues and anyone with an interest in the roots of popular music. As you turn the pages you will be irresistibly drawn to listen to the music.
“Feel So Fine: Big Joe Turner – The Boss of the Blues” is published in both hardback and paperback by Hardinge Simpole (ISBN 978-1-84352-232-5) and available to order online.
With such a monumental achievement under his belt one might expect Derek Coller to take a well- earned rest. But no, he is already hard at work to rescue more of his jazz heroes from obscurity. The full interview with Jeff Harris, host of Big Road Blues (Jazz90.1 Rochester, NY), accompanied by many of Big Joe’s classic recordings can be heard on https://sundayblues.org/?p=28402
Derek Coller has the sharpest mind of anyone that I know and an encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz, which he loves to share. The publication of “Feel So Fine - Big Joe Turner the Boss of The Blues” is a fantastic achievement.
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