Fame in the world of music comes overnight for some, and never for others, but for Benny Turner, it literally took decades.
Born in 1939 on the outskirts of Gilmer in East Texas, the younger brother of guitar legend Freddie King and cousin to fellow Gilmer native Johnny Mathis, Benny played bass in support of the Texas Cannonball from his teens and through most of Freddie’s short career. But he’s far more than that.
As a youngster, he made music history, becoming the first bass player in gospel before playing behind two more legends — famed Chicago guitarist Mighty Joe Young and Marva Wright, the Soul Queen Of New Orleans – for the better part of 40 years without a single thought of stardom for himself.
“I was always comfortable in the background,” says Turner, a nominee as bass player of the year in this year’s Blues Music Awards. Michael “Mudcat” Ward took that honor, but Benny subsequently captured top prize on bass in Living Blues magazine’s annual critics’ poll.
“I never had the desire to go out and be a front guy. It never entered my mind. I like to go in the studio and like to cut a record, but those front guys have got a lot of responsibility, and I never wanted it.
“You book a gig, and the drummer calls up and says: ‘Hey man, I got a flat tire, and I can’t make it tonight.’ You still gotta make the gig (and find a replacement) because you’ve got bills to pay. I never wanted it.”
For Benny, however, that all changed about eight years ago — after almost 60 years in the business. It was truly a bittersweet decision after having his life and livelihood turned upside down time and time again by illnesses that proved fatal to both the careers and lives of the bandleaders he worked with and loved so dearly.
Brother Freddie was still a young man and at the top of his game when succumbed to an infection brought on by ulcers. Then Mighty Joe suffered a debilitating injury that rendered his hands useless. And, finally, Marva passed after a series of strokes.
“Back in the old days, I was bouncing around quite a bit when I was playing gospel, and Roebuck Staple (Staples Singers patriarch “Pops”) wanted somebody to play with him. I told him: ‘I’ll play with you, Roebuck.’ He said: ‘But you won’t stay with nobody.’
“Boy, was he wrong! I joined a band. I stayed. Wherever I played, I stayed right there. But when Marva passed, I got tired of losing all my friends up front.”
Music has always run deep in Turner’s family. His mother Ella Mae and her four brothers all were skilled guitarists, and she and brother Leon taught Freddie and Benny how to play.
The boys were inseparable. As a child, Benny often accompanied Freddie, five years his senior, into the fields to pick cotton, helping fill 11-foot sacks in the process. And he still bears a scar on his right cheek that he picked up at age four when standing too close when King was swinging an ax to chop wood.
The family was so poor, Benny recounts in his autobiography, Survivor: The Benny Turner Story, that the kids ate fine red clay as a pleasure because they were too poor to purchase candy. “It wasn’t sweet,” he says. “It has a distinct mineral taste. But for us, it was a treat.”
They lived without electricity, indoor plumbing or running water, and Freddie and Benny shared a bed until the family migrated from the Dallas area to Chicago as the winter of 1950 approached.
“It was quite an honor to grow up with Freddie King – and watch him grow into what he eventually grew into,” Benny said in an interview conducted on what would have been his brother’s 84th birthday. “I was there when he started. I didn’t play with him then because I was too young. I played with him before I got of age. But when I got of age, he pulled me in.”
The sense of family has been of prime importance to him since childhood, and that includes both relatives by birth and the relationships he developed with the musicians – and their families — he’s been associated with along the way.
“It’s different today than what it was then,” he says. “The old people have come and gone, and the new people have come in – and they don’t have the same attitude in music or in life. We were out there paying our dues, riding six or seven in a car and having that same six people sleep in the same room. We didn’t have no big fancy buses.
“One guy would go in and pay the (motel) bill and then slip the other guys in ‘cause we weren’t making no money, you know.”
While Freddie rose through the ranks and established himself – along with B.B. and Albert – as one of “The Three Kings Of The Blues,” Benny remained quietly in the background and driving the bottom on bass.
Initially a guitarist himself, Benny was barely into his teens when he and classmates attempted to start a few groups. At age 16, he was welcomed into The Kindly Shepherds, a gospel ensemble born on the West Side of Chicago. “I had a really rough time at first because they had me so intimidated,” he recalls. “I had just started puttin’ chords and things together. I knew ‘em, but I’d never played gospel.”
Turner’s fear proved unwarranted, however. As he grew comfortable, he became more and more involved – to the point where he wound up arranging the songs they eventually recorded for Nashboro, the legendary gospel label in Nashville founded by Ernie Lafayette Young, the owner of Ernie’s Record Mart and a sponsor of a weekly hit parade show that aired on WLAC, one of the most powerful radio stations of its era.
Benny was still in his teens when he joined Freddie’s band as an emergency fill-in after regular bassist Robert “Big Mojo” Elem called in sick for a gig. It proved to be the entry into the blues that Turner had yearned for after his first brush with the superstars of the era accompanying his brother to a rehearsal with Howlin’ Wolf, Hubert Sumlin and Willie Dixon in a session to work out the charts for “Spoonful,” the Dixon tune that became a hit for Cream and ranks No. 219 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time.
It was truly a trial by fire. Benny had never played bass. He found himself taking lessons on the fly on stage, using a thumb pick and playing with a light touch, developing his own unique style in the process. When Freddie took over the house band gig at Walton’s Corner, one of the classiest joints on the West Side, Benny had to play outside the back door and use a long cord because he was underage.
Soon, established players – including Elem and Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, later a fixture in Muddy Waters’ band – were showing up at his door, looking for pointers, as was a young Aron Burton, a stalwart on the Chicago scene for decades.
When Elem rejoined Freddie’s band for a spell, Turner worked a few gigs with guitarist Eddie King (no relation). It was during that time that he met Dee Clark, then a major national R&B act on Chicago’s powerful VeeJay label. Best known for the million-selling single, “Raindrops” — a 1961 chart-topper – and “Hey Little Girl” — he immediately invited Benny into his lineup, which included guitarist Phil Upchurch, whose lengthy career included work with Curtis Mayfield, Otis Rush and Jimmy Reed in addition to jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman and Stan Getz.
At the time, Bennie still wanted to tour with Freddie, who was breaking nationally with the release of the instrumental “Hide Away,” one of his biggest hits and a tune that’s been played steadily as a break song for bands ever since. Figuring that Mojo would get the gig, Turner jumped on Clark’s offer.
“I made the right decision,” Turner recalls. “I went from chitlins to steak. And Freddie being a new act, his booking agency sent him out without anyone. He had to play with house bands on the road.”
His first gig with Clark came at the Apollo Theatre in New York — backed by a full orchestra — with Carla Thomas on the same bill. It went over so well that the band stayed on for a week and returned on multiple occasions, appearing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in the process. When Upchurch left to go on his own when his own instrumental, “You Can’t Sit Down,” became an instant success, Benny replaced him on guitar and became Dee’s musical director.
Turner remained with Clark for several years, and Benny made his first recording as a singer – “Come Back Home” backed by “When I’m Gone” — for Chicago’s One-derful! label in 1962. But he received an offer he couldn’t refuse and returned to gospel during one of their tours.
The band was gigging in Miami, when he encountered two old friends from the Windy City. LeRoy Crume and Richard Gibbs. They were members of the Soul Stirrers, a gospel group founded in 1926 and active for about 80 years. It was a group that, at separate times, including both Johnnie Taylor and Lou Rawls in their lineup.
Crume and Gibbs wanted to turn the gospel world on its ear by adding Benny on bass. Against the objections of Sam Cooke, the lead vocalist in the current incarnation who didn’t want to alter their familiar sound, Benny accepted.
“I arrived in Miami with Dee and left with them,” he says. It was a salaried gig with annual Christmas bonuses, and the addition of Turner’s new, fat bottom revolutionized gospel forever.
Bennie remained with them for two years but still yearned to be with Freddie. After a two years of constant touring, he traded gospel and fancy venues for the chitlin circuit and the blues for the final time and reassumed his spot at Freddie’s side.
When King decided to move back to Dallas, they parted briefly during which time Benny provided rhythm for harmonica giant Little Walter at his regular gig at Pepper’s Lounge on the South Side. He and younger brother Bobby also formed a soul band for a while, but soon was with Freddie again, moving steadily onward and upward with him as King’s fame grew. Thanks to a big helping hand from Leon Russell, Freddie achieved superstar status, and Benny remained with him, working as many as 300 gigs a year, until King’s passing at age 42 in 1976.
The loss of his brother, playing partner and best friend took a colossal toll, and Benny went into an immediate two-year tailspin. He finally found his center again thanks to the efforts of Young.
A stylish guitarist and showman in his own right as well as a beautiful human being, Mighty Joe remained in Turner’s corner during his struggles. “I don’t think that anyone else knew how much of a bad time I was havin’,” Benny says. “He was the only one who was coming by to check on me after learning about it from my younger brother.
“Joe came and pulled me out of my rut. I was just laying around, not playing, not anything. I was losing so much weight, they had to put me in the hospital for a week, maybe two.”
Eventually, Mighty Joe convinced Turner to join his band for a gig, dragging him out of the house to play at Biddy Mulligan’s, a large showroom on Chicago’s far North Side. “I was so tired after the first set that I couldn’t leave the stage,” Benny remembers. “I just sat in a chair.
“But Joe kept on callin’ me: ‘C’mon, B. C’mon.’ And little by little, bit by bit — like Junior Wells used to say – I came back, man.”
Their partnership lasted eight years — until the mid-‘80s, when Young encountered health issues of his own. A pinched nerve in the neck led to surgery, complications from which resulted in numbness in his fingers, rendering them useless and him unable to play. A decade later, he underwent surgery to correct the problem, but caused complications that eventually took his life.
Like Freddie, Young will always have a fond place in Benny’s heart.
“Mighty Joe had two things going for him,” Turner recalls. “He had a personality — plus what he did on the stage. Wherever we went, people enjoyed it. Mighty Joe was good. He knew the same thing that Freddie King did: You’ve got to have fun on the stage.
”We didn’t worry about mistakes. We didn’t even rehearse. Make a mistake and make it work for ya. That might not be so easy, but you’ve gotta laugh at it and say: ‘I messed up!’”
One thing Mighty Joe did, however, was cure Benny of touring. “He and I were on the road constantly – constantly! When he got sick, I said: ‘Joe, I think I’m gonna have to find a gig somewhere.’ And he said: ‘I know, Jack. I hate to see you go ‘cause we’re like family.’”
Before pulling up roots, though, Turner recorded three CDs with longtime friend Otis Clay. A cover of the Soul Stirrers’ “When The Gates Swing Open” featured Benny on guitar and bass and adding tenor and bass vocal harmonies. Released as part of an album under the same title, it became Otis’ best-selling album ever and one of the most popular gospel records of all time.
“I think he picked the song because I’d played with the Soul Stirrers and Johnnie Taylor had been the one who recorded the original,” Bennie says.
After that, Turner settled in New Orleans, where he still resides today.
“Things have changed since Hurricane Katrina, but I ended up here because you could play around town and make a decent livin’ without traveling,” Benny says. “Joe and I had passed through there before — I think we played a gig with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, and I thought it was pretty cool.”
For the first five years, Turner worked as a sideman at the Old Absinthe Bar on Bourbon Street in the heart of the French Quarter, a tavern that’s been serving drinks to partygoers for more than a century. He recorded his first album as a leader, Blue And Not So Blue, which had limited distribution, in 1997 at age 58.
“Like I said, I enjoy making records, but I didn’t want to go out and get my own band or anything like that to promote it.”
He was on the verge of leaving town once again when he met Marva Wright. A single mother just starting a singing career to support her kids, she asked him to back her for a 9 a.m. gig at the downtown Hilton. It was the beginning of a 20-year musical partnership with Benny as her musical director.
“When Marva started coming out, she only knew four songs, but she could sing them all night long,” he remembers. “People would pack the joint and stay all night long. She was powerful. She started to go on the road a little bit, but not much.”
When Katrina struck in 2005, Benny was on the West Coast and his home, which sits on high ground west of the river, suffered only minor damage. But the Crescent City was broken. Like most of his compatriots who stayed after the storm, Benny’s life savings evaporated as he struggled.
The bars gradually reopened, but the landscape had changed, and many of them no longer booked blues. Gigs were hard to come by, and the mortgage was still due. Fortunately for Turner and many of his fellow musicians, some of the pressure was taken off through the work of MusiCares, a charity run by the Grammy organization.
Benny’s life changed again in 2009 when Marva was on stage at the Coco Club on Bourbon and was felled by the first in a series of strokes that left him without a steady gig and, eventually, the loss of another close friend.
“Marva’s funeral was the last one I’ll ever attend except for my own,” he says. “I said then that I’ll never go to another one, and I meant it.”
She passed in 2010, and that’s when Benny finally decided to step out of the shadows after her death in early 2010. “I’ll tell you what worked for me,” Benny says: “Marva’s drummer, ‘Jellybean’ Alexander, and Keiko Komaki, the keyboard player, we decided to stay together and hold that gig. Once and for all, I knew that I could be a front guy.
“We all stayed together, and they supported me. And they still do. I hate to play a gig without ‘em. The support they gave me gave me the confidence to step out there — ‘cause it’s not easy if you’re gonna do it right. You really want to do it the right way and entertain people. It’s not easy.
“I had a few rough spots, but you get better as you go. Now that I threw my hat in the door, I’m gonna stay with it, man!”
Turner delivered a big tip of that hat with his first real release as a bandleader in 2011. Entitled A Tribute To My Brother Freddie King, it featured a mix of “the songs he liked and the songs I liked,” Benny says. “Some of them we played together. Some of them we didn’t because they simply didn’t work for us on stage. But I knew the ones he liked and we didn’t play. I added my own twist to them because you only got one Freddie King. There’s no way I’m going to sing ‘em like him. I’m gonna do it my way.
“I pulled in (organist) Deacon Jones – (a founding member of the legendary R&B group, Baby Huey & The Babysitters) — from Curtis Mayfield, (drummer) Charlie Robinson and (keyboard player) David Maxwell for it, and that was a powerful band.”
Turner’s next release, 2014’s Journey, delivered the blues from a different approach. “I wrote every song in there,” he says, “and I tried to talk about a lot of the things I experienced growing up. One of my favorites is ‘Worn Out Woman.’ That’s actually about my mother. I used to watch her scrub the floors and make the bread, hanging the clothes on the line, washing the clothes with lye soap. The punch line is: A woman’s work is never done.”
Two other tunes in that set – “My Mother’s Blues” and “My Uncle’s Blues” – pay homage to the early guitar lessons Freddie and Benny received. “I still play in my mother’s style,” he says. “And my Uncle Leon, he taught her, and I play his style, too.
“To me, that’s my best CD so far. I love it. I love it!”
Two more well-received albums have followed. When She’s Gone and My Brother’s Blues have served as what Turner believes are the final chapters in his tributes to his brother.
“Benny’s Blues,” he says without hesitation. “I’m gonna do the songs that influenced me or my mother, songs that I love. Louis Jordan. Charles Brown. And country, for sure. I’m gonna bring it from back there all the way up. They may not all be from blues people, but it’ll be blues when it comes outta my mouth. And I may write one or two to go in there.”
As you’re reading this, Turner is rapidly approaching his 79th birthday, but he has no plan to slow down. “I want everyone to know that I’m just gettin’ started,” he says. “And I appreciate all the attention I’m getting.”
That includes the honors that his autobiography, penned with the aid of noted music writer and Blues Blast contributor Bill Dahl, have received. It’s currently a finalist for two separate independent book publishing awards.
Space limitations here only tell part of Benny’s story. Pick up a copy if you’d like to learn more about him, Freddie and many other folks in the music industry too numerous to mention.
Visit Benny’s website at: www.bennyturner.com