Benny Turner “Survivor”

Benny Turner

After more than 60 years performing gospel, R&B, soul and blues everywhere from the Chitlin Circuit to the Apollo Theatre to the far reaches of the globe, Benny Turner shares his captivating life story in his new biography, Survivor: The Benny Turner Story. Available in hardcover and eBook versions beginning July 8, 2017.

An oral history as told to Bill Dahl, Benny talks about his early years in Gilmer, TX, the family’s move to Chicago in 1950 and the ultimate birth of his career in the gospel, R&B and blues genres. Surviving extreme poverty in rural East Texas followed by the shocking transition to urban life in Chicago and the untimely death of his big brother, bandmate and best friend Freddie King, are only a portion of the obstacles Benny has survived.

Early acclaim for the book has been high, both from within the music industry and beyond, earning multiple 5-star reviews from Readers Favorite book reviews.



In 1939, Benny Turner was born, joining big brother Freddie King (born in 1934), their mother Ella Mae King Turner and his father, Ben Turner Sr.  It was a hard life of servitude and poverty in rural East Texas during the days of Jim Crow.  Family entertainment came from the musical abilities of Ella Mae and her brothers, exposing the young boys to down home, back porch blues in its purest form.  By 1950, the family had grown to 6 children, and headed north to Chicago in search of a better life.


Life in the big city was a shocking and sometimes scary transition for the family, but their strength came from the love and loyalty among them, and they adapted.  As Freddie started to explore the electric blues scene, Benny’s explorations were more limited to his impoverished neighborhood scene.  Literally fighting for his place in the neighborhood and at school, Benny quickly developed the physical and mental street smarts he needed to survive.


Surrounded by music, from the doo-wop groups at school to the growing gospel scene and Freddie’s new musical friends, Benny’s new urban life immersed him in the sounds of Chicago.  His interest in the guitar was growing, and an opportunity to join gospel group The Kindly Shepherds gave him his first taste of performing, both locally and on the road.  An opening in Freddie’s band gave him on-the-job training as a bass player, a role which he would adopt as his own for the majority of the rest of his career.


What started as a standing gig at The Squeeze Club soon developed into a bigger, better opportunity for Freddie and his band at Walton’s Corner.  This broadened Benny’s connections and ultimately led to an invitation from r&b singer Dee Clark to join him on the road.  With only a day to prepare, Benny soon found himself in the car with Dee, headed straight for his first major road gig at none other than the legendary Apollo Theater.


A gig in Florida with Dee Clark presented Benny with the opportunity of a lifetime, when he was invited to join the original Soul Stirrers group as their first electric bass player, directly impacting the future of the live gospel sound.  But family ties pulled too strongly to keep Benny away from Freddie for long, and he soon re-joined his family in Chicago, where he would spend the rest of the sixties playing and hanging out with Freddie, embarking on a brief recording career, performing with Dave Mitchell and The Flames, and creating his own band, Operation Soul, with younger brother Bobby Turner.


By late ’69 to early ’70, Freddie needed his little brother again, and Benny officially joined his touring band, meeting up with them at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, TX.  Life on the road with Freddie as his bass player, de facto bandleader, biggest supporter and best friend was one of the best times in Benny’s life.  They were at the top of their game, musically, and the future was bright.


Sadly, in December of 1976, the best of times soon became Benny’s worst nightmare, when Freddie unexpectedly passed away and he lost his big brother, best friend and bandmate.  The next two years were filled with dark days of deep loneliness and solitude as Benny tried to navigate his immeasurable loss.  It was only with the encouragement and insistence of Mighty Joe Young that Benny finally gathered the strength to face the stage again.  He would spend the next eight years on the road with Joe, enjoying an incredible friendship and musical partnership.


Once again, Benny “done lost his good thing now” when Mighty Joe’s health forced him to stop playing and Benny was without a steady gig.  Road weary, life weary and ready for a change of pace, Benny headed south for New Orleans where he could make a living locally without all the stresses of the road.  Ultimately meeting Marva Wright and becoming her bandleader, Benny was instrumental in developing her blues sound and eventual “crowning” as “Blues Queen of New Orleans.”  A busy local schedule as well as countless international tours with Marva provided stability for nearly twenty years.


Proving the saying that bad things happen in threes, Benny once again lost an extraordinary friendship and musical partnership when Marva’s health deteriorated and she passed away in 2010.  Post-Hurricane Katrina life in New Orleans was already an enormous challenge, and this painful development only added to the burden.  The ensuing years were filled with hardship, until a timely meeting with an old friend created a new opportunity for this long-time sideman.  At a time in life when most are resting and enjoying the fruits of their labors, this survivor is still on the streets, this time fronting his own band and doing what he was born to do: sharing the REAL BLUES of his heritage and life struggles every time he steps on the stage.


A veteran musician of more than fifty years, Benny Turner has played everywhere from the Chitlin’ Circuit, to Europe, Japan, Australia, and all points in between. Content to be a sideman in support of the many giants he has worked with, in 2010 it was time for Benny to take his rightful place in the spotlight on center stage, to the delight of blues fans worldwide.

Born in Gilmer, Texas, Benny and his older brother, blues legend Freddie King, learned to play guitar from their mother, Ella Mae (King) Turner and her brothers Leon and Leonard King.  While Freddie was captivated by the guitar and wanted to be a performer, Benny just enjoyed the music and the opportunities to share it with the older brother he admired and adored.  The boys used to race home from school to catch the last few minutes of a radio show called “In the Groove,” where they heard the music of artists such as Louis Jordan, Charles Brown, Hank Williams, and T-Bone Walker.

After the family moved to Chicago in the early 50’s, what began as parallel exposure and experiences for the brothers ultimately diverged as Freddie went in one direction and Benny pursued other opportunities that came his way. While best known today as a bass player, Benny played guitar during many of his gigs in the early years, both locally in Chicago and on the road.  A last-minute request to sit in with Freddie’s band to cover for Robert Elem at the Squeeze Club gave Benny his first introduction to playing bass, with some “on-the-job training” at its finest!

During the late 50’s Benny played guitar with gospel group The Kindly Shepherds, and is on a handful of their recordings for the Nashboro label (guitar and background vocals) from that time.  He was also playing bass with Freddie King at legendary Chicago clubs such as the Squeeze Club and Walton’s Corner.  While at Walton’s Corner, Benny met R&B singer Dee Clark, and was invited to join him on the road.  Within a few days, his first exposure to touring and life on the road began, at none other than The Apollo Theater in New York, and continued at other renowned theaters including The Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, The Howard Theater in Washington DC and The Regal Theater in Chicago.  Benny played in the band with Phil Upchurch, and cherishes their friendship to this day.  It was an exciting time, during which Dee had his Billboard hit “Raindrops” (1961).

While on the road, Benny met Leroy Crume and Richard Gibbs, of the Soul Stirrers, and was invited to join their tour.  At that time, electric bass was unheard of in gospel music and it was controversial within the band, but the group’s manager, Jesse Farley, recognized his potential contribution and hired Benny.  That pioneering move laid the groundwork and inspiration for the gospel music of today, in which bass guitar plays an integral role.

By the mid-to-late 60’s Benny returned to Chicago, where he continued to play locally in various bands and also made a handful of his own recordings for the Leaner Brothers’ One-Derful and M-Pac! Labels.  Not long after that, Benny re-joined his brother on the road, when the band was living every musician’s dream, playing at major festivals (domestic and international) and on the same bill as artists including Dionne Warwick, BB King, Solomon Burke, Eric Clapton and even opening for Grand Funk Railroad at Madison Square Garden in New York.  While at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1973, members of Freddie’s band were asked to sit in with Memphis Slim, and Benny plays bass on the recording of that act, “Memphis Slim – Very Much Alive and in Montreux.”  Mickey Baker was part of that performance.

In December 1976, the dream became a nightmare.  Benny lost his band mate, best friend and big brother all at once, after Freddie’s untimely passing at age 42.  Completely devastated and physically debilitated by the unspeakable loss, Benny spent the next two years as a recluse, trying to make it from hour to hour, day after day.  Finally, when Chicago bluesman Mighty Joe Young approached him, Benny gathered the courage to face the stage once again.  With barely enough strength or stamina to make it through that first gig, Benny pushed forward, and it was the catalyst to getting him back on his feet and into the mainstream of the blues once again.  One of the highlights of their time together was appearing in the 1981 film “Thief” while playing live at The Wise Fools Pub.  After eight fantastic years on the road together, Mighty Joe had to stop touring due to health issues, and Benny planned his next move.

Heading to New Orleans was the next significant turning point for Benny.  There, he met Marva Wright, “Blues Queen of New Orleans.”  He joined the band and served as Marva’s bandleader and bass player for more than twenty years.  Internationally recognized beyond the borders of New Orleans, Marva Wright and the BMW’s played all over the world in addition to being mainstays of the French Quarter music scene.  In 2010, Marva passed away and Benny lost a cherished friend and bandmate, once again.

In recent years, Benny returned to the studio to produce and record two albums, showcasing his strong and soulful vocals, his signature bass style and his creative songwriting and arrangement skills.  In 2014, “Journey,” an album of all original work was released in homage to his musical history.   Embraced by the soul and blues communities alike, “When She’s Gone” was released in February 2016.  A collection of 6 original reissues from his first album, “Blue and Not So Blue,” (now out of print) and 4 blues standards, “When She’s Gone” is a musical feast dedicated to Ella Mae King Turner, the woman who raised two blues legends, the late Freddie King and little brother Benny.  The opening track, “I Can’t Leave” won an Independent Music Award in the blues song category, and the entire album received strong worldwide airplay and charted on both the Living Blues magazine and Roots Music Report charts.

2016 was a double milestone for Benny, marking his 60th anniversary as a professional musician, and 40 years since his brother’s untimely death. In honor and observance of both events, 2017 is proving to be a banner year of its own. The long-awaited release of his autobiography, “SURVIVOR – The Benny Turner Story” will be published in July, and a new recording, “My Brother’s Blues” is slated for a September 2017 release.


JULY 8, 2017
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