Saturday, October 14, 2017
Survivor: The Benny Turner Story
Bill Dahl and Benny Turner
Nola Blue, Inc.
2017: 238 + xiv pages
This is a little gem of a book where Benny Turner, with Bill Dahl's assistance, tells his fascinating story from growing up in Texas along with half-brother Freddie King, moving to Chicago where he worked with his half-brother, along with various gospel, rhythm and blues and Chicago blues legends, spending time with Mighty Joe Young after Freddie passed until Young had medical issues, then spending years leading Marva Wright's Band, and after her passing taking up the spotlight as a leader and recording and performing under his own name.
The story begins as Turner goes into his family background, noting Freddie's real father who abandoned him and how he became King while Benny is named after his father. They grew up in Jim Crow Texas although it wasn't until several years passed that he experienced the humiliation blacks could be subjected to. While his father did not play, his mother did as did several uncles including Uncle Leon. Benny states his mother and Uncle Leon played songs from Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, which I take allegorically (as to songs similar to those of Johnson and Leadbelly) and not literally. What is more important than this is the closeness of his family, including his relationship with his half-brother and he helped Freddie in the cotton fields, although he was accidentally injured once and still has a four inch scar from it, and the accidental death of Uncle Leon. His mother also lay down the discipline as he was growing up.
The family moved to Chicago in 1950 with his father getting a job with a steel company assisting with molten steel and tipping buckets into molds. It was a whole new world of experiences including electric lights, indoor plumbing and Freddie wanting to see a refrigerator make ice and also getting enrolled in school and the like, with Benny initially enrolled in a predominantly white school where he faced racist bullying and after fighting out of a situation was enrolled in a black school, but even here he had to fight himself out of a similar situation except here it was neighborhood kids, but he also recalled experiences of police harassment simply walking back home form a movie theater.
Besides recalling some of the interesting characters in the neighborhood and other situations, he starting singing doo-wop with classmates and after awhile they even went to Chess Records hoping to record and met Rice 'Sonny Boy Williamson' Miller who they watched record with Turner recalling the interaction between the Miller and Leonard Chess. Benny would next cross paths with Miller while playing with his brother. Turner recounts his experiences auditioning for gospel groups and other vocal groups, and day jobs after his father was disabled after being hit by a car. He started playing guitar in a gospel group, the Kindly Shepherds with whom Turner traveled and made his first recordings. He recounts experiences traveling with them including harassment from police down south.
While his career was starting, brother Freddie's career was taking off. Turner notes the influences of Jimmy Rogers and Robert Lockwood on King's guitar style as well as King's admiration of Earl Hooker while also noting folks like Jimmy Lee Robinson that were in King's bands. He recalls Freddie taking him to see Howlin' Wolf who put King under his wing, and recalls Freddie recording "Spoonful" with the Wolf, a recollection that will bring back the controversy of decades ago on Freddie's claim of having recorded that backing Wolf. He also recalls Freddie playing with Robert 'Mojo' Elem and T.J. McNulty who Luther Allison would front after Freddie started going on the road (Luther told me this years ago and Turner includes a picture of a very young Luther with McNulty here).
The detail I have provided is incomplete but indicates the contents of this wonderful memoir that details his own musical career that included touring with Dee Clark which he spends some detail on and later he would play bass with The Soul Stirrers (the first electric bassist with a gospel group) as well playing with various Chicago blues and soul legends including Freddie in a band that included Little Johnnie Jones and Abb Locke. Later he would return to Freddie's band after his time playing with the Soul Stirrers though also spent time with Jimmy Reed and others before rejoining Freddie who he remained with until his passing detailing concerts, recording sessions and the like. And he was with Freddie until the end, remembering some conversations between the brothers, the last performance and the aftermath of his death.
After his brother's death, Mighty Joe Young got him into his band with whom he would play with until surgery intended to fix a pinched neck in his neck, instead left unable to play with that arm. Around this time, he moved to New Orleans although remaining close with Young until Young passed away in 1999. In New Orleans he started playing at the Old Absinthe Bar which unfortunately now is a daiquiri shop. Interweaving his experiences living in New Orleans was his hooking up with Marva Wright, who was a church-going woman starting as a blues singer although beginning her career singing blues. At the time Marva had a band of jazz players which she didn't like (in fact hated it), when she hooked up with Turner which was fine as he really preferred working with just one person like he had with Freddie and Joe Young. It was the beginning of a lengthy time as he became her band leader. There are recollections of her powerful singing, especially with the bishop, organist Sammy Berfect who passed in 1999, of a plane ride in Europe where all the band members were scared for their lives and being reunited with Tyrone Davis in New Orleans who he had not seen in years, and then seeing James Cotton in Brazil who he had last seen when Cotton had been in Muddy Waters' band. Hurricane Katrina of course interrupted Turner's life as it did Marva. Marva relocated to Baltimore, and Benny flew in to play a benefit for Marva at the now closed Bangkok Blues in Falls Church, Virginia a Washington DC suburb, that Benny includes a photo of himself from on page 197 (it was likely my photo although uncredited but I recognize the location), noting it was his 1st post-Katrina performance. Marva eventually came back to New Orleans and Benny rejoined her until she suffered a stroke in 2009 and passed in 2010.
After Marva's passing, Turner took the spotlight at last and the last chapter details some of the events such as going up to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with her niece Wanda when Freddie King was inducted, as well as paying a musical tribute to Marva Wright at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and later at the Rock'n'Bowl in New Orleans. Then he ran into an old friend, Sallie Bengtson, with whom he has partnered to release a number of recordings as a leader and this memoir, and recounts his tours over the past several years such as running into old friends, former Muddy Waters band-member Bob Margolin and Mark Wenner of the Nighthawks.
As Turner states near the book's end, he still has plenty to say and play and one certainly hopes that he does for many years to come. He shares here some observations on the state of the music today. He may be a blues survivor, but he remains today a terrific musician who continues to enrich us today with his performances, recordings and this book. The lively text is also copiously illustrated with photos from Turner's entire life. This is highly recommended to all fans of blues music.
I received my review copy from a publicist. This review appeared in the September-October 2017 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 374).