By Mabel Suen
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By Daniel Hill
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By Allison Babka
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"I forgot what I was playing in St. Louis," he says. "I forgot how to play it. I was in London some time ago, and this woman who owned a magazine there, she said, 'Ike, why don't you do some of the earlier stuff that you used to do?' I said, 'Man, who wants to go backward?' -- you know, 'cause I couldn't stand listening to stuff I did back then.
"Then I went on the road with Joe Louis Walker, and he said to me, 'Do me a favor. Play some of the stuff you used to play, that 'Rocket 88' and 'Prancin'.' He said, 'Why don't you do three of those songs and two of the others?' I said, 'OK.' So I went home to California [Turner now lives near San Diego], and I bought the records and I sat down to listen to them. And, man, I could not play my own stuff. It took me a while to learn it again, and when I did, I really, really liked it."
Around the same time, Turner was introduced to Robert Johnson, who owns a record label called Bottled Majic (as well as subsidiaries IKON, Rooster Blues and Okra-Tone). "I was telling him, 'Man, this is the stuff I should have never stopped playing.' And I was telling him, 'Today, it's so hard for R&B music. The only time you hear good R&B music is on oldies-but-goodies stations.' And I told him that I was going to dedicate the rest of my life to getting black music back on the radio. He thought it was fabulous that I had this desire to do that, so we made a deal to put out a record. And now I'm just concentrating on doing what I used to do."
Izear Luster Turner Jr., born on Nov. 5, 1931, in Clarksdale, Miss., had a tumultuous childhood. After a severe beating by whites, his father died slowly and painfully as a result of his injuries. Between the ages of 6 and 12, Turner was sexually molested by two older women. He grew up hustling for money -- he bought a delivery truck at age 9 and at 10 was making and selling moonshine whiskey.
Even before that, music had put a hand on him. His mother bought him a piano when he was 7, and he learned to play, thanks in part to blues pianist Pinetop Perkins, who taught him some licks. In high school, he formed an R&B group, the Kings of Rhythm, and sat in with the likes of Robert Nighthawk and B.B. King. Turner played piano on King's first No. 1 hit, "Three O'Clock Blues."
In the early '50s, Turner became a talent scout for both the Bihari brothers and Sam Phillips of Sun Records, with whom he would record the seminal hit "Rocket 88." "Back in the day, with all of us in the car, it was like six or seven of us going to play a gig," Turner says. "And we used to make bets -- we'd bet each other a dime or a quarter. I would bet you that I would see more Fords on the road, and you would bet me you would see more Chevrolets. I talked to Sam Phillips on a Monday, and we were going to go up to Memphis on a Wednesday. On the way up, we said, 'Man, what are we going to record?' But on that trip, I said, instead of betting who sees more Fords or Chevys, 'I bet you don't see 12 Oldsmobiles from here to Memphis.' Oldsmobile was new then. So this is how the 88 thing come up. We started writing the song in the car. By the time we got to Memphis, we was almost finished writing it, and we finished writing it in the studio. It took me 10 or 15 minutes to put the music together."
Jackie Brenston took the vocal on the song and was listed as the bandleader on the record. The song rose to No. 1 on the charts and was the top jukebox number at the same time. In the end, Turner was paid all of $20 for the song.
Turner continued writing dozens of songs, producing and playing on sessions for others, including Little Milton Campbell's first recordings in 1953, which were also made at Sun Studios. In 1954, Turner came to visit his sister in St. Louis. He went clubbing across the river, to Nick's Country Club and to Ned Love's. Soon after, he returned with his band, played a gig at Love's and was asked to play again the next night. Eventually Love asked the band to move up, and they did. "That was the beginning of St. Louis, man," Turner says. "When we started playing, St. Louis was basically a jazz town. There was Jimmy Smith and some big bands that I've forgotten the names of. Chuck Berry was the only band that was playing any kind of music that was not really jazz or blues, but was rock & roll kinda stuff. So then, man, I started playing all over St. Louis. I met George Edick, who had the Club Imperial, and we started working there on every Tuesday night. Next thing I knew, we were working 13 jobs a week in St. Louis. And then we were broadcasting music live on KATZ. Finally I bought a house in East St. Louis, and St. Louis just got to be my town. We just had fun, fun, fun."