Born Samuel Black, 2 June 1932, Paterson, New Jersey
Sammy Turner is an Afro-American vocalist who had chart success with his revivals of old standards in 1959-1960. He was a smooth, Tommy Edwards-styled singer, with a four-and-a-half octave range. He worked with top producers (Leiber and Stoller, Phil Spector) and major New York session musicians like King Curtis and Panama Francis.
Born into a musical and religious family, Sammy Turner sang in the church choir in his hometown of Paterson, NJ, from an early age. At the time of his high school graduation in 1950, both his parents had died and Turner decided to join the US Army voluntarily, serving in Korea and Japan. Next he studied psychology and law for a few years. When Sammy rejoined the Army in January 1954, he was enlisted in the Special Services to entertain the troops with his singing.
His musical career started in earnest in 1957, when he joined a group called the Twisters. The other members were Al Prater, Milton Artis, Ed Bradley and someone whose name Sammy couldn’t recall. Turner soon became the leader and lead tenor of the group. They attracted the attention of a talent manager named Herb Lutz, who thought Turner sounded like Tony Williams of the Platters. Lutz felt he could exploit the similarity to commercial advantage, in light of the trend towards reviving old songs such as “It’s All In the Game” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”. The first company Lutz approached was Atlantic and they were interested, but Johnny Bienstock’s Big Top label offered a better percentage.
The first Big Top single was “Sweet Annie Laurie”, a song with roots as far back as the 18th century. Credited to Sammy Turner and the Twisters, it was released in January 1959 and spent one week at # 100 on the Billboard Hot 100. The first seven Big Top releases by Turner were all produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, whose contract with Atco / Atlantic was non-exclusive. Turner split from the Twisters after his debut record and went solo.
For his second single, he recorded “Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)”, a song from the 1949 Walt Disney film “So Dear To My Heart”, in which it was sung by Burl Ives. Four different artists scored a Top 20 hit with the song in 1949, the highest charting version being by Sammy Kaye (# 4). Turner’s 1959 version did even better, peaking at # 3 on the pop charts (# 14 R&B) and supplying Big Top with its first major hit. Sticking with the old standards, this was followed by a revival of Irving Berlin’s “Always” (1926), which peaked at # 19 (# 2 R&B), with a prominent role for saxophonist King Curtis. “Always” also did well in the UK (# 26), following a promotional British tour, during which Turner made an appearance on ABC-TV’s “Boy Meets Girl” show. Next came “Paradise”, a # 1 hit for Guy Lombardo in 1932. It reached # 46 in March 1960 (# 13 R&B), but it would mark the end of Sammy Turner's chart run. His eleventh and last single for Big Top (released in November 1961) was “Raincoat In the River”, which was produced by Phil Spector. Big Top also issued an LP in 1961, “Lavender Blue Moods”.
Turner did not record in 1962 and 1963, though he was still touring. He began to write songs for others (without any significant hits) and started his own publishing company. In 1964 he had an isolated release on Motown (a remake of the Platters’ hit "Only You”), followed by one single on 20th Century Fox in 1965 and two on Verve in 1966.. Later releases featured duets with Gloria Henry (1970) and a two-part single on the Millennium label, “Do You Know What Life Is All About” (1978), which probably was his last record to hit the market. In 1992 Turner gave an interview to Seamus McGarvey (published in Now Dig This 163, October 1996), in which he grossly exaggerates his achievements. He told McGarvey that he’d like to record again, but as far as I know, this wish did not materialize.
More info : http://www.waybackattack.com/turnersammy.html
Discography (singles only) : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/sammyturner.htm
CD : Sammy Turner, Always (Jasmine JASCD 269, UK, 2015). 23 Big Top tracks.
Acknowledgements : Seamus McGarvey, Michael Jack Kirby, Rob Finnis.
Dik, July 2017
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