The Beat Goes On: R.I.P. Uncle John Turner

Johnny Winter drummer and the power of three

My job sucks today, as it does on any day when the world tilts to one side and then straightens, one soul lighter. At least that’s the way it felt to hear about Uncle John Turner’s death on this sky-is-crying Thursday morning.

There’s so much to be said about Turner’s legacy to Texas music and the blues that if I were queen of Austin, we’d already have a statue of him next to the statue of Clifford Antone next to the statue of Biscuit next to the statue of Doug Sahm next to the statue of Stevie. While you most likely know those last four names, chances are that Uncle John Turner’s name draws a blank.

There’s a bit of irony to the announcement I heard on KUT while driving home, thinking about Uncle John. Jay Trachtenberg was saying that today is Mick Jagger’s birthday as well as the day that Emotional Rescue went No. 1 in the U.S. 27 years ago. It reminded me that the Stones made their initial foray on the rock scene as a blues band, as did the Animals, the Yardbirds, and numerous other British Invasion bands circa 1964. It would take the stateside bands another few years to reclaim the blues, and that was done in large part by two Texans: Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter. And what Johnny Winter knew about the blues, he learned from Uncle John Turner.

Turner, like Winter, grew up in East Texas. His hometown of Port Arthur and the neighboring state of Louisiana came by the blues naturally and Turner absorbed it all. It must have been quite the day when Turner sat down with Winter and a stack of vinyl, elucidating the differences between field hollers and Chicago blues, Delta rhythms and Texas shuffles. Winter got it all and the Johnny Winter Trio, with Tommy Shannon on bass, went on to make blues history. Somehow, Turner’s role went largely unacknowledged.

After leaving Winter, he relocated to Austin and played in Krackjack with Shannon and Stevie Ray Vaughan, while plying his blues trade sitting in, backing up, and recording with artists such as Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Turner kept a low profile the last 20 or so years but stayed busy playing with Alan Haynes, Appa Perry’s Blues Power, and Erin Jaimes. In November 2006, Uncle John Turner reunited with Johnny Winter and Tommy Shannon at La Zona Rosa, their first live performance together in more than 20 years.

Almost exactly two months ago today, I was in Chicago eulogizing my former husband Rollo Banks. In the comfortably numb state of shock that got me through that weekend, I walked down South Michigan Avenue from my hotel to the Art Institute of Chicago, wandering its glacial marble halls for hours. Then I stumbled across a contemporary painting by a Chicago artist named Ivan Albright.

The painting itself was striking: tall, slender, and mostly black. A door with a funeral wreath on it and a disembodied hand reaching for the knob. The name of the painting struck me like the clawhammer of the gods on my head: "That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do." The title echoed like a Chinese gong until I went searching in the museum gift shop, found a print, and bought it. It hangs in my living room, a reminder that life is merciful and merciless.

I should have written about Turner before his death. I should have harangued my editor about why this man so few know about is so worthy and maybe those cute twentysomethings playing Emo’s next week can wait for their 15 minutes while we give ink to someone who earned it years ago.

I got close a few months back, interviewing Turner about trios. I even interviewed Tommy Shannon and did a separate piece on him. I kept Turner in the main story and, dammit, now I wish I’d spotlighted him too.

Uncle John Turner’s gift to Texas was his music and his life in it. We are all the richer for that but poorer without him.

The benefit show scheduled for Wednesday at Antone's will go on with Johnny Winter, 7pm.

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Uncle John Turner, Antone's, Johnny Winter

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