Chances are you’ve never heard of Zeb Turner; neither had I. But we’ve all heard this guy.
A hard-working Virginian veteran of western swing and Hollywood cowboy bands, a guitarist featured on many of the rhythmic Red Foley numbers that married R&B licks and country boogie in the ’40s, Zeb is the man who played the electric guitar leads on the sides Hank Williams recorded in 1947-49.
We’re talking about the likes of “Rootie Tootie”, “Honky Tonk Blues”, “Mind Your Own Business”, and, most notably, “Move It On Over”. For lovers of American electric guitar propulsion, of the licks and turns that would grab rockabilly adventurers and Chuck Berry alike, these are unforgettable, underheralded foundation contributions.
It turns out that Turner (born William Grimshaw) made some enjoyable, interesting, finally startling records of his own in those years, and they’re rescued from obscurity on this new collection. Among the offerings are his version of the obscure Williams title “Never Been So Lonesome”, but the Hank connection is not the story.
The first record Turner put out, the self-penned “Tennessee Boogie”, reached #11 on the country charts — understandably. Turner’s vocals are smooth and smart and blues-influenced, much in the Foley manner, if not particularly distinctive, but the record takes off with his hot guitar, fiddles, a honky-tonk-style steel break, and a thumping bass. Much the same can be said for the other standout numbers on this 24-cut set — “Chew Tobacco Rag”, “Rag Man Boogie”, “Back Back Back To Baltimore”, “I Got Loaded”, and “Oh She’s Gone Gone Gone”.
As the titles suggest, Turner ventured in these increasingly rockin’ sides onto the porch of the house of roll. He moved north to New Jersey in ’53, even as Bill Haley and Louis Jordan were playing Atlantic City gigs side by side, very arguably birthing rock ‘n’ roll.
Whether he shared club dates with either or both, history has not yet uncovered, but a full year before Haley’s first rock recordings, Zeb released “Jersey Rock”, the last, astonishing cut here. It marries country boogie, a Berry-like guitar lead, and honking R&B sax breaks and takes off, and simply explodes — all in the name of “rockin’ the joint…never lookin’ at the clock.” This cut alone sets a bit of the historical record straight, and could melt the needle.