TGS PLAYER SPOTLIGHT - BILL TURNER


Bill Turner Spotlight


"Charmed and Dangerous" from his CD Single
TGS Spotlight Player from December 30, 2010

EARLY YEARS


I grew up in New York and began my first musical endeavors as a 4 or 5 year old singer! I lived in a 3 family house that had a long staircase with this reverb-echo....and even though nobody ever TOLD me to sing there--I just somehow instinctively began singing, just from listening to the sound of that staircase! I even remember moving up and down the stairs at different steps just to hear how the sound of the reverb CHANGED! This was over 55 years ago--and I don't remember which songs I was even singing! In grammar school, I would regularly sing in front of the class; and was soon asked to sing at the assembly programs! My most popular songs were Johnny Horton's "Sink The Bismark", Stonewall Jackson's "Waterloo", and some old song called "The Erie Canal"...


My Father played 3 chords on guitar, and I had an uncle who played a 4 string tenor guitar, but Dad had a bunch of 78rpm records by Roy Acuff... and I'd never heard them, until the day I found a wind-up Victrola in the garbage that somebody, around the block from me, was throwing away--so I got 3 of my friends--and we DRAGGED this thing all the way around the block back to where I lived, and I asked Dad if we could keep it! Back then, we never even owned a record player, but my Dad was one of these guys who could fix ANYTHING and everything from cars to cameras to clocks and radios, but this Victrola worked fine! It wasn't the model with the horn--it had the two front cabinet doors, that you'd open to hear the music louder; and there were doors on each side of the center doors, to store records in! The Victrola was intact and had that metal container that held the steel needles, which we'd change after a certain amount of records played!


Anyhow, when I heard those first Roy Acuff records on the purple OKEH label, I was hooked! The records he had were, "Wreck On The Highway", "Fireball Mail" and "Pins And Needles In My Heart". He also had "Silver Dew On The Blue Grass Tonight" by Bob Wills; a couple of polka records--and this incredible Hawaiian guitar record called "The Happy Hernie March"...which I can still remember every single note of it, though I haven't heard it in all these years, since!! One thing that grabbed my ears on all of the Roy Acuff records, was this mysterious sounding instrument--which I would find out, years later when I saw Flatt & Scruggs, was a Dobro! I was totally hooked on this instrument, and dreamed of the day I'd own one...


I'd gotten my first guitar when I was 8 years old--it was an archtop Silvertone, and it was so big I couldn't hold it properly--I had to hold it on my lap like a Dobro...the same way Thumbs Carlisle would perfect his own unique technique and style! I know I had it tuned to an open G chord, because the first thing I learned to play on it was "Taps". Anyhow, I couldn't yet play chords, so for the next 5 years or so, I just played it single string style with my thumbs--until one day I just flipped the guitar up and began holding it in the standard manner, since I had grown bigger and could now hold it.


Another strange event happened when I was about 7 years old...we had the evening news on TV one night, and my Father suddenly yelled to us, "Will you LOOK at these CRAZY sons 'a bitches!!!" On the TV was this big riot going on...somewhere--the crowd was going crazy, ripping this theatre apart---and the camera cut to this guy with a black Superman curl on his forehead bouncing up and down singing at the mic and playing this big black guitar--then there was this other guy with white shoes laying on his back playing a big bass fiddle, hoisted up in the air on his feet...and in the background was this "Rock Around The Clock" song....


In my teens I was more interested in Bluegrass and country music than ANYTHING else that was on the radio, though strangely enough-I had liked Jazz, even though I couldn't understand it. When I was 13, one of my Father's friends brought over some records for me to borrow--they were recordings by Webb Pierce, "Walkin' The Dog"; "There Stands The Glass"; "I'll Go On Alone" and my all time favorite "That's Me Without You". There was also some of Elvis' earliest recordings, "Mystery Train" and "I Forgot To Remember To Forget". I couldn't believe this was the same guy that was all over the radio singing rock & roll songs .... Personally, I liked these EARLY songs better!


The first combos I played with were duets, with a couple of banjo players I'd met while in high school--one played tenor and studied under Roy Smeck, and the other played Earl Scruggs' Bluegrass style, and there was a local American Legion Post that had their own 'string band' that would play at hospitals and charity events--this was similar to those "Mummer" type orchestras, except these folks were mostly WWI veterans, and they didn't wear costumes nor marched. They were looking for volunteers and I auditioned and got "hired" for the guitar chair. This turned out to be extremely valuable experience because, between them and my friend who studied under Roy Smeck—I learned all about chord variations, how and when to use diminished chords...as well as learning to play all kinds of standards and 'hot jazz' and Dixieland numbers.


Starting in 1967 when school was out, I would work summer jobs and use the money to buy better instruments--in 1967 I bought a brand new Martin D-28 guitar, and in the summer of 1969--a used Gibson ES-335 electric guitar and an Ampeg Gemini II amplifier. I started college in summer 1968, immediately after graduating high school...and one of my classmates was Larry DiMarzio--who, years later would start his own company making the DiMarzio custom guitar pickups! Back then he played a cherry sunburst Gibson Barney Kessel with a gold plated Bigsby--we were both members of the "Guitar Club" at Staten Island Community College, though we haven't seen each other since 1971. Last year I looked him up on MySpace and wrote him--but he doesn't remember me at all, it was so long ago...While in college I joined my first pop/rock band--I still didn't follow rock all that much, but suddenly rock began leaning heavily toward country...and the style of guitar I was playing, suddenly fit into this type of band, the music had changed so much from the British Invasion copy-bands! This band would play on cruise ships sailing out of NY harbor for the Italian Lines during Christmas recess, and though still in my late teens, till I was 21, I'd gotten to visit many islands in the West Indies. I turned 21 on one of these cruises—and immediately became a serious Christian upon returning home! It was like somebody just threw a switch--I just CHANGED overnight when I turned 21...I still can't explain how or why!


Forming "BLUE SMOKE"


This band broke up at the end of 1971 right after the last cruise, and I was determined to form a new band and go right back working in the clubs and cruise ships. In February 1972 one of my bass-playing friends was finishing up his hitch in the Army after being drafted and sent to Germany; so immediately Eric Knutsen and I set out to form this new group--that would ultimately be the absolute FIRST of the new "retro-rock" roots music/Americana/rockabilly bands in the USA! I chose the name "Blue Smoke", naming the band after an instrumental by my favorite guitar player-Merle Travis....and the first 3 songs we learned as a group were "Rock Around The Clock"; "Mystery Train" and "Folsom Prison Blues"! Personally, I hated all that psychedelic drug-music of the late 60s and I never even cared for the 'distorted' guitar style, though I would play the style to get the right sound on the newer songs of that era we'd play in the clubs.


Blue Smoke certainly was a different sounding band on the local club scene--there was NOBODY ANYWHERE playing the kind of songs we did... We grew in popularity and played in more clubs, and even picked up continuing the cruise ships, till 1973 when the Italian Lines finally ended their sailings from New York harbor.


BILL HALEY


I had always liked Bill Haley's sound. I loved his clear, high singing-you could understand every word he sang...and the guitar players on his records were like nothing I'd ever heard before--it was almost like that guitar and sax Jazz I heard as a kid, but in super-overdrive...much more complex and fiery than Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Ventures or Duane Eddy--all of whom were the most widely played artists on the radio at that time!


Bill Haley was missing in action for a lot of years in the USA ... unbeknownst to me, he was living in Mexico as a tax fugitive, due to bad business advice given to him by an ill-advising accountant in the early 60s! In any event, starting in late 1969 he once again began appearing in the USA, thanks to the hard work and efforts of Richard Nader, producer of the world famous "Richard Nader's Rock And Roll Revival" concerts, which would tour the whole country. Bill Haley was once again appearing on TV and in New York clubs and getting terrific reviews everywhere.


In September 1971, he appeared in a supper club which was walking distance from my home in Brooklyn--the Club 802 (This club was where the movie "Saturday Night Fever" was filmed! The Club 802 had changed its name to "2001 Odyssey" during the mid 70s when Disco music took over the radio airwaves--and it renovated itself into the world famous 'state of the art' disco...as seen in that movie!)


I had about all of 15 cents in my pocket that night, but I was determined to go in and see him, so I had my Brooklyn College TV Department Student ID card, and put on a jacket and tie; a 35mm camera and a notebook...and showed up at the club posing as a reporter. I asked the doorman permission to interview Bill Haley for Brooklyn College TV.


Bill Haley was onstage and just about to end his show, so after he played "Rock Around The Clock" and left the stage, I was soon led to the dressing room where he and long-time sax player Rudy Pompilli were very friendly to me, as I went through a bunch of question that I myself had wondered about for a long time!


Spring of 1973 was the next time Bill Haley would appear in the NY area, and now I was due to graduate from Brooklyn College—the military draft had finally ended and I wanted to work in music! In the past several years that I'd seen Bill Haley, none of his guitar players sounded even remotely like on his hit records, but were more into that psychedelic 'Jimi Hendrix' style of playing which just didn't fit with what the rest of the band was playing--and furthermore, there was a different guitar player each time I'd seen him, either on TV or there at the Club 802, so I decided to ask him for the job-since I heard the band itself was based out of the Philadelphia PA area...and I was already playing many of the guitar leads exactly the same as on his Decca hit recordings!


He was scheduled to appear at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, and this time I made an appointment with the Richard Nader office in NYC, and showed up as a 'Brooklyn College Student Association Rep' and requested 300 concert flyers to distribute and hang up on campus! His stunningly beautiful secretary Margaret Mansour gladly gave me a stack of flyers and thanked me...and then I asked her for a favor; that I wanted to be on the 'backstage list' to visit Bill Haley and Rudy Pompilli, and she replied that she'd see what she could do..and took my name.


When the big night came, I once again dressed up with a suit and tie and resumed my 'Brooklyn College Media Reporter' role...and was easily allowed access to the private backstage area, where I knocked on Bill's dressing room door, and was once again given a friendly reception as Haley himself answered the door! I reintroduced myself from the Club 802 meeting, which Bill remembered...and I made my pitch, requesting an audition as a guitar player. Bill listened intently, and then said, "OK, go over to Rudy over there and speak to him--he takes care of that for me, OK buddy?" I thanked him and went over and greeted Rudy who also remembered me. I had a promo kit with me, so Rudy took it and said we'd stay in touch. I asked him if he'd like to hear me play—and he explained that they'd just had their previous guitarist, Nick Masters return to the band--so he didn't want to audition anybody in front of any of the rest of the band....


Three months later, Blue Smoke was playing a West Indies summer cruise on the s/s Raffaello and one of the passengers was this older woman from Chester PA who would come to hear the band play every night. We'd gotten talking and I'd mentioned that I had a friend from Chester-the sax player from Bill Haley, Rudy Pompilli...and she swore that she knew him, though I wasn't sure if it was just the alcohol talking! A few weeks after the cruise, I received a postcard from Australia, from Rudy telling me about this lady friend who'd heard me on a cruise, and how she was raving about how good the band was...and that there may be a chance for me to audition for the Comets soon!


A year later the chance finally came--the Comets' guitarist had decided to stay in the UK and try to make a new career, and the spot on the band was once again open. I was invited to play a weekend gig with Rudy in Chester PA, so I did the gig and played pretty much all the music he needed to hear (plus sing) and I became a new Comet beginning July 1974. I had gotten to travel to Europe and South America, and had been on a plane for the first time in my life--I HATED flying! Sadly, this gig with Bill Haley came to a tragic end when Rudy died from lung cancer in February 1976...and Haley went into semi-retirement, after a 5 week European tour at the end of 1976.


BLUE SMOKE CARRIES ON


I had never "left" Blue Smoke. After the Haley tenure, we only intensified our efforts at getting to the next level, taking a 10 week booking of nightclub engagements in eastern Canada in the Maritime Provinces; then afterward in the New England states. One of our most memorable events occured, when in August 1977, an 18 year old Madonna got up to sing 3 songs with us in NYC at Jilly Rizzo's club on West 52nd Street! Even at that young age, Madonna had a powerful, trained Broadway style of singing. There was no doubt that she was future "star material", though it would still be another 6 years until her first big hit, "Borderline"!


She was very nice to us and we enjoyed meeting her and her older brother Victor. I never did get to meet her again...


Since 1972 Blue Smoke and I, have performed just over 10,000 paid engagements; and this coming February will be our 39th anniversary as a continuously working professional band. Our first soundtrack gig came in 1996 when MTV dicovered us playing at the big Wildwood Convention Center in Wildwood NJ and hired me as 'casting assistant' for their upcoming commercial spots used to promote and announce their new "M-2 Satellite Network". They also hired us to record the music used in soundtrack of the four 30 second commercial spots that were seen all over the world.


In 2004, we were contacted by film maker Bob Daniher to compose and record soundtrack music for his indie spy film "The Crusaders", a punk rock take off on the mid 60s British TV series "The Avengers". There were two pilot chapters filmed using our music, composed and arranged by our keyboardist Jeff Gaynor and myself.


Regarding the main theme: "Charmed And Dangerous", we won two industry awards for the soundtrack music on the first chapter where that was used--it won us a 2004 Bronze Telly Award and a 2005 Platinum Aurora Award...both for "Best Use Of Music".


From 1999 till 2008 Blue Smoke was a featured attraction in Atlantic City at Bally's Wild, Wild West Casino....which came to an end when the economy crashed in November 2008 and all the casinos terminated all of the regular bands, replacing them with DJs and cheaper local bar bands.


On guitars & gear: I have always preferred Gibson electric guitars, along with Fender amps. Martin has always been my favorite acoustic guitar. Eric Knutsen's choice in basses has been the Epiphone 5 string bass--he especially likes the slim tapered neck. He also owns a Les Paul low-impedance bass. In the past he has owned a Gibson EB-3L; a Fender Precision Fretless and an original mid 60s Hofner Viol bass. His present choice in amps is a Mark Eden bass head; though he has owned and played through a variety of Peavy bass amps, as well as a 60s Fender Bassman, and an Ampeg B-15. Our pedal steel guitarist, Joe Camusci plays through a Peavey amp and uses a Kline pedal steel guitar.


Bill Turner


Our discography includes:


"Mississippi Maserati Breakdown" (Bill Turner & Blue Smoke) on Mansion Records (CD and cassette)


"Lost In Carolina" (Tim Kross w/Bill Turner & Blue Smoke) on Kross Hair Records (CD)


"Welcome Home Big J-USS New Jersey" (Jim Murphy w/Bill Turner & Blue Smoke) CD single-Battleship New Jersey Foundation


"Country Music" (Uncle Steve Crockett & His Log Cabin Boys Bill Turner on Dobro & rhythm guitar) vinyl lp


"Back Home To Galax" (Beth Coleman Band w/ Bill Turner on Dobro) CD



Visit Bill Turner's website at www.myspace.com/billturnerandbluesmokeband


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