"My fear is that authentic blues, which is pure American music, will be lost completely in future generations as it has already started to be lost today."
Benny Turner: Going Back Home
Benny Turner was born in Gilmer, Texas and grew up in the blues with his famous brother, Freddie King, who always dreamed of becoming a great guitar player. He and his little brother Benny would listen for a few hours a day to old radio programs like "In the Groove." Benny and Freddie, as they grew up, listened to Blues and Swing Music by such artists as Louis Jordan, Charles Brown and later, T-Bone Walker. These Blues greats became the influence of the music that Freddie King started and Benny Turner continues today. Later, Freddie and Benny's family moved to Chicago where Freddie became serious about becoming a great Blues player. At the time Benny had no intention of becoming a star but simply enjoyed participating in his brother's success. After Hideaway became a hit, Benny re-joined his brother Freddie and went on the road. They played the APOLLO Theater in NYC, Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. and the Regal Theater in Chicago. Benny Turner / Photo by Joseph A. Rosen
They were at the top of the world, playing on the same bill as Dionne Warwick, B.B. King, Solomon Burke and Eric Clapton, and too many others to list. The dream came to an end in December, 1976, when Freddie King unexpectedly passed away when he was only 42. Benny, devastated by his brother's death, literally turned into a recluse for 2 years. Eventually, Blues great Mighty Joe Young got Benny to play with him. Benny played with Mighty Joe for approximately 8 years until Joe was forced to quit working for a while due to medical reasons. Benny decided to make a new start and moved to New Orleans and met Marva Wright. He will cherish their friendship and working relationship for the rest of his life. Freddie King always recognized his baby brother's potential to be a legendary Blues performer on his own. Hard on the heels of his vaunted 2016 album “When She’s Gone” and his 2017 autobiography “Survivor,” living blues legend Benny Turner adds to his family’s legacy with a fifth album that pays homage to his big brother and best friend, Freddie King. His album “My Brother’s Blues” (2017) was more than your typical tribute album, as it comes from the man who stood by King’s side for decades and helped create his catalog of timeless blues and R&B classics as a band mate, brother, and comrade in arms who paid their dues together, circling the globe spreading the gospel of the Freddie King Band. After careers spanning six decades, Benny Turner and Grammy-winning co-producer Cash McCall return to their roots with their album “Going Back Home” (Nola Blue, 2018) in this inspired collection of Chicago treasures. Blues legends Benny Turner and Cash McCall’s friendship began in Chicago over sixty years ago. The pair reunited to revisit their roots and the songs they once played nightly in South and West Side nightspots for their new album.
Special Thanks Betsie Brown (Blind Raccoon) & Sallie A. Bengtson
What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?
Blues music is part of a family tradition for me; something I can remember back from my youngest years. My mother and her brothers used to sing and play the blues together, often as a quartet. It is the musical expression of an oppressed people, which links me to my ancestors and their suffering.
How has the Blues and Afro-American culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
Being born during the time of Jim Crow and growing up feeling the full effects of racism has affected my entire life, the way I feel about my place in the world, and the steps I take to protect myself. Playing the blues around the world for major festivals and venues has been an amazing experience, but it never changes the reality of the world I live in. Hassles when trying to cross the border into Canada. Being pulled over in Chicago for basically, “driving while black” and being asked where I stole my Cadillac. Hearing the door locks click when I walk past people in their cars along the sidewalk. I’m treated differently in restaurants and hotels when I’m with white people. I could go on and on. But really, this kind of oppression and even worse is what gave birth to the blues from the very beginning, so in that way, the blues is as much a part of me as it is the music I play. I don’t play blues for entertainment, like so many people do today. I lived it, and I still live it!
How do you describe Benny Turner sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?
My style and sound is completely self-taught. It is an expression of real feelings coming from my heart and soul. I had no mentors other than my mother and my uncles, which was old-school country blues music. As music progressed, I had to change and do some newer things to update my style yet still stay true to my roots. In a way, I consider myself lucky, because this forced me to develop my own style rather than imitating what I had learned. This was also true of other blues musicians during that time, including my brother Freddie King. They all played incorrectly “according to the book” but they were great players with a distinct sound. I always played bass with a pick, and later I began bending the strings when I played, too. After Freddie passed away, I missed the sounds I knew and loved growing up. I couldn’t find others to reproduce the sounds I remembered, so I began to play them myself. It all comes down to a feeling. I can’t play it unless I feel it.
"Stay true to yourself and your art. Don't try to copy others and work on your own style and stick with it. And the most important thing is to have fun! When everyone is relaxed and enjoying the music it's the best feeling, and it shows." (Photo: BennyTurner & Cash McCall / Photo by Mark Caldwell)
How do you describe new album "Going Back Home" songbook and sound? What characterizes this work in comparison to others?
This album is all about Chicago blues. Songs like "Spoonful," "Built for Comfort," "Poison Ivy" and "Bring It On Home" are true Chicago songs, and I tried to keep them as close to the originals as I could. It's a new era for arranging and recording, but the original feel is there.
Are there any memories from "Going Back Home" studio sessions and Cash McCall which you’d like to share with us?
Our time in the studio was really special for both of us, since we come from the same era and use the same kind of approach. For me, it was great to have someone who was 100% on the same page with what I was trying to do. But the biggest memory is how inspirational it was for Cash. He was so excited about what we were doing that he came in one of the days after a double chemotherapy treatment! That takes a lot of strength and determination and showed me just how important this project really was. I'm a big believer in mind over matter, and with the sessions and even now after the release, I try to keep giving him the message that we're just getting started. It gives him something to be happy and excited about, at a time that is otherwise difficult for him.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music industry?
Stay true to yourself and your art. Don't try to copy others and work on your own style and stick with it. And the most important thing is to have fun! When everyone is relaxed and enjoying the music it's the best feeling, and it shows.
Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?
For me, it goes beyond a state of mind. It's a state of being. I lived the blues and that's a feeling that can't be taught.
What was the hardest part of writing your book "Survivor"? How do you want it to affect people?
I wanted people to really understand the life of a blues musician. Somehow, I wanted people to be able to experience in their minds what I actually experienced in real life. The hardest thing was remembering the facts and being able to confirm them, so that I could be as accurate as possible. That was very important to me.
"I would love to go way back in time to the back porch of my rural East Texas (Gilmer) home. Freddie and I would lay there beside my uncles’ number three washtub full of beer, looking under the back door as my mother and her brothers sang and played." (Photo by Dr. Igor Semechin)
How do you describe previous album MY BROTHER’S BLUES sound and songbook? What characterize album’s philosophy?
2016 was the fortieth anniversary of my brother’s death. When a milestone like that happens, it makes you think about a lot of things. Since starting my solo career, I’ve made it my mission to honor my family and our musical heritage. My mother and her brothers (the King side of the family) used to sing and play the guitar. That was our inspiration, and they were our first teachers. If it weren’t for them, there would be no Freddie King or Benny Turner in the blues world. But Freddie isn’t around to honor them, so it’s my job to make it happen. And in honoring my family, of course Freddie is a huge part of my musical life.
It is hard to pay significant musical tribute to someone without simply imitating their work. Since my musical background includes gospel, R&B and the influences of New Orleans sounds in addition to blues, I automatically approach my arrangements in a unique way. I love vocal harmonies, and horns. And a powerful keyboard player is the backbone of my sound. There was only one Freddie King, and I don’t want to or try to imitate him. Although he appreciated my singing and other musical abilities and always wanted to push me to do more, I was never interested in anything but supporting his efforts when he was alive. Making this album was my chance to show my love for my brother and our years together in my own way. I have to believe he is smiling down on me as I am stepping out with my solo career this way.
Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?
Without a doubt, the years I shared in the band with Freddie King were the most interesting for me. He and I really grew up together musically as we experienced new things pretty much at the same time. I have been blessed with so many career highlights over the years, but one of my cherished memories is playing at the Travis County (Texas) Jail with Freddie (you can see a video excerpt as well as other videos on my website. We were both playing guitar, just the two of us without the band, like the old days. When Freddie died unexpectedly just after Christmas is 1976, it was truly my worst career moment and darkest personal day. It took years for me to be able to face the stage again without him.
What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Which memories make you smile?
I have so many wonderful musical memories, starting way back with my first gig at The Apollo Theater, where I played with Dee Clark. This was a real milestone for me in many ways. Not long after that, I had the opportunity to tour with the Soul Stirrers. I had always hoped to be able to play with a top-notch gospel group, and they were the best! I recently visited my old friend Leroy Crume, and we shared many smiles and laughs as we remembered those days. He and I are now the last two living members of the original group! (Photo: Benny Turner at his first gig with Dee Clark, Apollo Theater NYC)
Once when the Freddie King band played at The Starwood Club in West Hollywood, a bunch of musical legends came out to hear our show, and we invited them all up on stage for what we later called “The Superjam”. I can tell you that “Hideaway” never sounded quite the same as that night when we had our band plus Eric Clapton on guitar, Noel Redding on bass and Buddy Miles on drums! Joe Cocker joined everyone on stage to sing a few songs, too. When Paul McCartney wanted to celebrate his birthday, he and his wife Linda flew to Dallas, bought out the Whiskey River club, and had Freddie King play for his birthday. After the show, Paul said to me, “I thought I was the only one who played bass with a pick!”
Why do you think that the Freddie King Blues continues to generate such a devoted following?
Freddie had his own style. Energy. Stage presence. It all came together into a strong force that has stood the test of time. People today can try to study his style and imitate it or say they were influenced by it, but he was an original. I think that there will always be something magical about an original artist like Freddie.
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Freddie King music with the new blues generation todays?
When Freddie started working with Leon Russell and crossed over into a blues rock style, he was one of the pioneers, and the music was really popular. Today’s generation of blues musicians is far enough removed from the oppression of slavery, Jim Crow, cotton picking and segregation that they can’t feel the music the way the older guys could. The blues rock style of today’s generation seems to be a continuation of the seventies during Freddie’s time when it all started happening.
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?
In 1996, I had the opportunity to meet one of my musical heroes, keyboard player Charles Brown. Charles was in New Orleans, and Eugene Carrier (keyboard player for BB King) arranged for us to meet. Freddie and I used to race home from school to hear Charles Brown and Louis Jordan on the radio; we were huge fans. Not only was I able to meet Charles Brown, but we made plans for him to do studio work for my first CD, “Blue and Not So Blue.” I am very proud to have recently released my recording of his hit song, “Black Night” featuring Charles on piano. This is a proud and sentimental accomplishment that I treasure.
Howlin’ Wolf gave me some great advice that I still think about today. He said, “You can’t please everybody, but play your ass off for the people you do please!”
"Blues music is part of a family tradition for me; something I can remember back from my youngest years. My mother and her brothers used to sing and play the blues together, often as a quartet. It is the musical expression of an oppressed people, which links me to my ancestors and their suffering." (Benny Turner onstage in Dresden, Germany / Photo by Dr. Igor Semechin)
Are there any memories from recording time and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
There were five of us in a doo-wop group from school called The Chanters. One day after school we had been out singing and wandered over to Chess Records to peek in the windows and dream of being stars. Sonny Boy Williamson was on his way in and said, “Hey boys! What are y’all doing? Do you wanna come in and see how they make records? Come on in!” and invited us to come in and watch his recording session. We were in awe. That was such a cool experience!
My friend Paul Serrano contacted me to record in his studio with the actor, Stepin Fetchit. He performed “How Much is that Hound Dog in the Window?” and did his traditional “Uncle Tom” talk. That was a unique opportunity that I enjoyed very much. Also, I wrote a song for a recording session with Freddie at Leon Russell’s Skyhill Studio in Hollywood, but I don’t believe the session was ever released. The late JJ Cale was the engineer.
What has made you laugh and what part of your book touched (emotionally) you most?
You know, even though it’s my life story, I never get tired of reading it. The first chapter that talks all about country life in Gilmer, TX when I was just a little guy is such a powerful reminder of how hard we had it. I won’t ever forget it, even though sometimes I do forget. I don’t know if that makes sense. It’s a part of me, but not always at the front of my mind. I love to reminisce and laugh at all the different stories in the book, and of course I also re-live the painful times, too. When you get to my age and have lost so many dear friends and family members, the memories are all you have left. It is really special to have them all gathered in one place, in my book.
What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?
I really miss my family singing and playing the blues; this includes listening to my mother and her brothers, as well as playing the blues with my brother Freddie. Lately I have been thinking about the early days a lot, and I’m working on re-creating that King family sound. I’ve been practicing the guitar (the way my mother taught me) and I’m working on a homemade comb kazoo, too. I am currently working on a new CD, and will pay tribute to my Uncle Leon King with one of the songs, and pay tribute to my mother with another song. They were the source of Freddie’s earliest blues influence, as well as mine, and I want to honor them accordingly.
My hope is that more and more people embrace the blues and support it. My fear is that authentic blues, which is pure American music, will be lost completely in future generations as it has already started to be lost today.
Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays? What means to be Bluesman?
I believe in the existence of real blues so much that I’ve named my band “Real Blues!” It is one of the highest honors for me to play the kind of music that was inspired by the broken backs of an oppressed people. As I have played the blues over the years through my own personal ups and downs, it has helped me understand why the blues was born. I can relate to those painful emotions, and I’m very serious about my musical delivery of those powerful feelings. Unfortunately, dedicating my career to the blues has sometimes meant being overlooked for gigs in favor of bands playing more popular musical styles, but I remain true to my heritage and my family’s tradition. I am so proud that Freddie King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, in the “Early Influence” category! At long last, he has taken his place beside many giants whose careers were shaped by his influence. Likewise, in 2013 Albert King was inducted and Harry Belafonte spoke about the importance of blues music. That awards show gave me a better outlook and hope that future musicians will keep the blues alive. (Photo: Benny Turner & Freddie King on stage)
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
I would love to see the completion of a comprehensive Blues Hall of Fame, which recognizes not only the “big names” in the history of blues, but also the sidemen (myself included!) who supported and helped define the style as it was shared onstage, night after night and year after year during the early days.
What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?
Time. I’ve been a sideman since the 50’s but when it comes to my solo career, I’m one of the new kids on the block. Having the support of a label and a manager has done so much to spread awareness of my music and recognition of my history, and we have pushed hard to release three CDs in three years. It isn’t easy to be struggling for recognition alongside others without nearly the amount of experience I have, and some of them are making big money. As I start to get awards like the induction into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame and honors like being on the cover of Living Blues magazine, it reassures me that the blues community still cares about the last of the old school blues and inspires me to keep performing and recording. I’ve still got so much to say musically, and I’m just getting started!
"My style and sound is completely self-taught. It is an expression of real feelings coming from my heart and soul. I had no mentors other than my mother and my uncles, which was old-school country blues music."
What is the legacy of Freddie King to music todays? What are the secrets of Freddie King’s blues?
Freddie King continues to influence new generations of guitar players, both directly and through those who have imitated his style. Technically, he used a metal finger pick to achieve his sound, but the secret of his success is much deeper than that. Every time he got onstage, Freddie played directly from his soul. He never rehearsed a show in advance, but instead he played what he was feeling, and so it was dynamic and never felt “canned.” That approach lives on in me today with my shows. When you listen to Benny Turner and Real Blues, it is never the same show twice!
What are the lines that connect the Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and Swing music?
The shuffle (rhythm) as first introduced by Louis Jordan bridges all of the musical styles together; from blues to rock to R&B and soul, as well as jazz and swing. He was a forerunner of rock and roll and a giant musical influence for many, including my brother Freddie and me!
What is the impact of Blues music and culture on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?
I think that all music can be used to promote positive change. The very beginnings of blues were inspired by oppression, and the weight of that burden can be felt in the traditional blues style. That is the power of music. That same power can be used to create feelings of hope, inspiration to make changes and other things like that. I wrote a song called “What’s Wrong with the World Today” for that very reason. I feel so helpless every time I turn on the news to learn about another shooting. More people dying. It inspired me to try to create a message against gun violence. “Lay your pistols down! Love not kill!” It’s a powerful song and I hope it helps make a difference.
"Being born during the time of Jim Crow and growing up feeling the full effects of racism has affected my entire life, the way I feel about my place in the world, and the steps I take to protect myself. Playing the blues around the world for major festivals and venues has been an amazing experience, but it never changes the reality of the world I live in."
What is the biggest revolution which can be realized today? What do you think the major changes will be in near or far future of the world?
Somehow, we need to all come together as people. Just like my song says, “Hate is a cancer that love can heal.” But if we can’t all come together in our country, it is hard to ever imagine coming together all over the world. Music helps to do that, but there has to be more ways. We’re all human beings. We need to focus on how we’re alike instead of how we’re different. It’s like my keyboard player, Keiko Komaki. You know, I grew up in Chicago with those guys like Johnny Jones and Otis Spann, but now I have this Japanese lady who can tear up the keys, and it’s the coolest thing! She loves the blues and she always gives everything she’s got to give me the feeling I want. She can have that understanding of where I come from and she respects that. And she’s been knowing me since she first came to the US, and I’m protective of her because of it. Like that. We all look out for each other, no matter what. If we can do it on the stage, we can do it everywhere!
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day?
I would love to go way back in time to the back porch of my rural East Texas (Gilmer) home. Freddie and I would lay there beside my uncles’ number three washtub full of beer, looking under the back door as my mother and her brothers sang and played. We weren’t supposed to be listening, since those early blues lyrics could be nasty and not for our young ears, but we were drawn to the music and the feelings that went with it. We didn’t know it at the time, but the seeds were being planted that would grow into our musical careers!
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