Q&A with legendary bluesman Benny Turner - Freddie King's brother established an unique style and groove

"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: Blues Groove Never Gone

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.

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. Nowadays, Benny's 4th release, “When She's Gone” (2016), is a musical feast featuring six original and four blues standards with special guests Marva Wright, Bob Margolin, and Charles Brown, each song showcases Benny's smooth, soulful voice and his signature bass style. “When She's Gone” is in loving memory of Ella Mae, the mother who raised two blues legends - Benny and big brother Freddie King.

Interview by Michael Limnios      Special Thanks to 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 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.

"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)

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!”

 

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!”          (Benny Turner onstage in Dresden, Germany / Photo by Dr. Igor Semechin)

"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."

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 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?                                      (Photo: Benny Turner & Freddie King on stage)

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.

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 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!

"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!  

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!

Benny Turner - Official website


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