Big Joe Turner stomped his cane
excerpt “Drummer’s History” Russel Buddy Helm copyright 2013 all rights reserved
1977. Big Joe Turner stomped his cane on the floor, ” Heeya it iz , Budda!”
I matched his tempo and counted off the song. I had no idea where he was going with this one, but the band kicked in and Joe started singing in that barrel house blues hollar that was the mother of all Rock n Roll.
“You don’t miss yo watta til ya well run dry!” He slid into a verse like it was an old friend and started making up a story as we shuffled through the blues changes. The band keeping up with me and Joe as best they could. Now a shuffle is the trickiest drum pattern for a drumset player because it can just die on you if you don’t keep it popping along with subtle little syncopations that don’t get in the way, or worst of all, it can turn into a march if you’re not careful. The tripolet underpinning is not played, it is implied, with just a touch of the first and last note of the tripolet, leaving the middle note open. The hole leaves room for the vocal, which Joe was filling in quite nicely just like he had done for the last fifty years. He was the master of the blues shout and this shuffle was his metier.
When we finished the track, Joe was sweating and smiling that big toothless grin I loved. “Budda! Go in the Kontrol room an git me ma Oly’ I don’t trust any a these other fellas…” I slid out of from behind the drum baffles facing Joe and hopped into the control room, grabbed his green flourescent plastic net bag with a six pack of Olympia beer and brought it back out to the guy who had invented rock n roll. He smiled up at me as they played back the track through the big Altec Lansing speakers in the Chess recording studio in Watts. He nodded his head while he listened. Then he gave me the greatest compliment I have ever heard, “Budda, you got dat beat the kids like to dance to!”
We were getting twenty five dollars per track for the day’s session, and I would have paid him just to be there; let alone be playing with him. The other guys wanted to get on to the next twenty five dollar track but I wanted to hear what the king of the blues had to say about what we were doing. Was it okay? Did we meet his standards of excellence? I was learning so much from him with every word and nuance I didn’t want the session to end. He was incarnate of a great ancient history of blues story tellers that went back to Africa where they are called Griotte; traveling drummer/story tellers who would arrive in the villages unannounced with a talking drum, telling stories that would be parables, admonishing the adults to not be selfish, and scaring the children into obeying their parents. The Griotte is a living tradition of the drum that channels information and inspiration into the community through song and rhythm. Joe’s gravelly voice was a direct descendant of how the African Griotte would tell stories; in a voice that would scare the self centered and amuse the wise ones. Big Joe was the living history of the drum. Plus he was channeling something indefinable; a fluid energy that was the essence of life force; survival energy where the blues is not about feeling sorry but getting over, and getting on with life. Celebration with magical wisdom that cannot be put into words but can be felt in our hearts. Joe would make up songs, I would go along with him, keeping the groove smooth and funky so that his muses would be happy and bless us with song.
“We already got that one down!” The engineer intoned over the talkback. Joe nodded unfazed. It was all good. The spiritual aspect of the performance is often missed by the technicians watching the dials, but to me it was like being in church and Big Joe was shouting the gospel of the blues for the whole world to pay attention to. We bonded that day in a way that only became understandable to me years later when I had to invent a modern drumming therapy in order to save my own life. Big Joe was downloading into me ‘Baraka’, the blessing of healing wisdom that is hidden in the blues as well as every other school of healing wisdom. Baraka is the only way a student can get the true essence of higher teaching; it must come from the master in their presence. It isn’t acquired in books or indirect learning. It is a physical transference from teacher to student. It came over on the slave ships, but it is also in the Irish Jig, and the belly dance, the Malaysian fighting dance, the Samba, the Quaqanco of Cuba, the American Indian Ghost Dance and every other culture’s mystical, musical drum rhythm that is used to enhance life. Dr. Wilhelm Reich called it Orgone, in his nineteen fifties research for the antidote for radiation poisoning but it is older than any science because it is the life force itself coming into us through the artists humble enough to allow the spirit, the miracle, the unexplainable into our mundane everyday lives. It is rhythm and soul, baby. Without it, there is no life at all.