Okay, we can agree that he was a son of a bitch — an abuser of women and drugs, and a violent, mean-spirited cheapskate with an outsized ego. But Ike Turner could really, really rock ‘n’ roll. And while the latter doesn’t excuse the former, I still can’t bring myself to steer you clear of Essential Rock ‘N’ Roll Blues Masters.
Turner was the mastermind behind the first genuine rock ‘n’ roll tune (“Rocket 88″), though historically it’s been slighted in favor of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” While Haley was a charlatan, Turner was — and remained — the genuine article. Despite his massive ego, Ike realized that his best chance for success came in writing, producing and arranging material for others. Steeped in the history of all manner of blues and R&B, adept on any instrument handed to him, and qualified to whip a band into shape, Turner was sought by many companies (including Sam Phillips’s Sun label) that recorded black popular music during the late ’40s and early ’50s. These productions were low-rent affairs, thrown together fast and cheap. That the results were of uniformly high quality says a lot about both Turner’s talent and his artistic integrity.
Essential Rock ‘N’ Roll Blues Masters is a full course of early black rock ‘n’ roll, the tunes ranging from the shuffle of “Why Did You Leave Me” to the bedrock blues of “Dead Letter Blues” onto the hokum of “Way Down in the Congo” through to rock ‘n’ rumba of “Cubano Jump.” They’re not always perfect, but every track has something that makes it worthwhile. And there are true gems here. “No Coming Back” has all the fervor of a great James Brown track. “I’m Tired of Begging” features absolutely furious guitar playing by Turner. The aforementioned “Dead Letter Blues” is as powerful an electric blues tune as you’re likely to hear anywhere. “The Big Question,” with its driving horn section, walks the line between jump and the more urban big band swing of Joe Turner or Jimmy Rushing. Finally, there’s something that presages the Coasters, if the Coasters’ lyrics hadn’t been meant for kids: “I ain’t drunk. I’m just drinkin’.”