By the time Cleopatra assembled Essential Recordings, there was hardly a lack of Big Joe Turner anthologies on the market. In one respect, then, this 2001 compilation is largely unnecessary. Arhoolie, Atlantic, and Savoy Jazz had already devoted sets to specific periods of the singer's career. Essential Recordings is much broader in scope, choosing sides from Turner's early days with Vocalion to his Atlantic output during the first half of the 1950s. Unfortunately, however, the selection is almost identical to that of Rhino's Shake, Rattle & Roll (1994), which also added four cuts to the package. Regardless of the redundancy of the material, however, this music is still exceptional. Though there are some great songs missing ("Sweet Sixteen," "Oke-She-Moke-She-Pop," and "Flip, Flop and Fly" to name three), practically everything here was a bona fide hit. No Turner overview would be complete without "Roll 'Em Pete," "Cherry Red," and "Piney Brown Blues," songs that paired Turner's charged, shout-style singing with they keyboard work of seminal boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson. Following a series of short-term engagements with various West Coast labels, Turner had his career revived by Atlantic Records in 1951. Some of his best-known and oft-anthologized material dates from this period, including hits like "Shake Rattle & Roll," "Chains of Love," and "Honey Hush." Though Turner continued to record into the 1980s, Cleopatra's collection ends in 1956, excluding the weaker sides he recorded for Atlantic in the late '50s and those that followed. Drawing exclusively from the singer's prime, Essential Recordings is an excellent introduction that rarely missteps.
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AllMusic Review by Nathan Bush