Bill Dahl and Benny Turner
Nola Blue, Inc. Review by Mark Baier
Benny Turner may not be a household name, but his life and story are forever intertwined with the history of American Blues music and its biggest stars. With Survivor, Benny offers his story, and in the process, weaves a rich tapestry of a life filled with hardship, music, love and endurance. With the assistance of renowned music journalist Bill Dahl, Benny recounts all the twists and turns of his life, from his hardscrabble beginnings in rural Gilmer TX, the years spent learning to persevere in 1950s Chicago, the hard times on the road, to his present day musical residence in New Orleans. It’s a story filled with tales of wealth, penury, fame and heartache, all recounted in a conversational style, as if the reader were sitting in the barstool next to Benny, as he narrates the details of an amazing life.
Born in Gilmer, TX in 1939, Benny is four years the junior of his famous brother Freddie King. Both Freddie and Benny learned guitar from their mother, and while Freddie would go on to become one of the Blues’ most revered performers, Benny pursued a career as the go-to bass player for countless blues and gospel bands, including big brother Freddie’s band until Freddie’s untimely death in 1976. His innate musical talents were evident early on, first as a singer and eventually as a natural born bass player, backing Freddie on the West Side of Chicago. And while Freddie went on to blues superstardom, Benny was content to forge ahead as a sideman, playing with a myriad of artists such as Dee Clark, the Soul Stirrers, Mighty Joe Young and Marva Wright. It is the recollections of these years which Survivorso sumptuously and intimately presents.
Survivor offers countless stories from Benny’s diverse life, all told with near photographic detail. Benny remembers every nuance, whether it’s the address of a childhood home or the whiskey soaked after hours parties he was complicit in. Some notable highlights include memories of making out behind the stage with Carla Thomas (while her mother was chaperon), playing dominos with Ray Charles and the constant parties and poker games on the road with best friend and big brother Freddie. Throughout the pages of Survivor there are scores of tales about Freddie King and the life of traveling musicians during those heady years. Benny remembers every Cadillac and who owned them, the acquisition of bass guitars, fistfights, promoter burn, staff changes (A.K.A. leaving the keyboard player at the hotel on purpose), love and death. King Curtis, Curtis Mayfield, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, Luther Allison, Howlin’ Wolf, Stevie Wonder, Phil Upchurch, Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell and many, many others are enshrined in Survivors’ memory bank with Benny offering intimate details about each one; it’s a fascinating account and valuable “oral” history for anyone interested in modern music and its players. In addition to Benny’s personal recollections, Survivor is filled with rare and fascinating photographs.
When all is said and done, Survivor is a book filled with the reminisces of one of blues music’s little known yet integral characters. Benny Turner is a man whose talent and kindness effected all who crossed his path, and the path was long and wide. Not content to rest on his laurels, since 2014 Benny has released two CDs (2014’s Journeyand 2016’s “When She’s Gone). Additionally, My Brother’s Blues, a musical tribute to Freddie, is slated for Fall 2017 release. Now residing in New Orleans and still singing and playing bass, while leading his own band aptly titled Real Blues, Benny Turner shows no signs of slowing down at age 77. Lord willing, this survivor will be creating music and memories for many years to come.