Known as the Boss of the Blues, Turner first worked as a singing bartender in Kansas City, then a wide-open town run by "Boss" Tom Pendergast. His partnership with boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson led to his inclusion in John Hammond's "Spirituals to Swing concerts that were instrumental in introducing jazz and blues to a wider American audience.
Turner and Johnson had a major hit with "Roll 'Em, Pete", which Turner recorded many times under many names over the years. They appeared with boogie players Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis at the Cafe Society, a club in New York City for several years during the war. Besides "Roll 'Em, Pete", his best known recordings from this period are probably those of "Cherry Red", "I Want a Little Girl", and "The Night Time is the Right Time".
Turner continued to record blues with small combos on several record labels, particularly National Records and also appeared with the Count Basie Orchestra. In his career, Turner led the transition from big bands to jump blues to rock and roll.
In the early 1950s, he was invited by his admirers, the Ertegun brothers, to join their new recording company, Atlantic Records. He recorded a number of hits for them, including the blues standards, "Chains of Love" and "Sweet Sixteen" before hitting it big with "Shake, Rattle and Roll", which not only transformed his career, turning him into a teenage favorite, but also transformed popular music.
Although the version of the song by Bill Haley and his Comets, with the suggestive lyrics incompletely cleaned up, was a bigger hit, many listeners sought out Turner's version and were introduced thereby to the whole world of rhythm and blues. Elvis Presley showed he needed no such introduction. His version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" followed Turner, not Haley.
After a number of hits in this vein, Turner left popular music behind and returned to his roots as a singer with small jazz combos, recording numerous classic albums in that style in the 1960s and 1970s.
It is a mark of his dominance as a singer that he won the Esquire Magazine award for male vocalist in 1945, the Melody Maker award for best new vocalist in 1956 and the British Jazz Journal award as top male singer in 1965. His career stretched from the barrooms of Kansas City in the 1930s at the age of 12 when he performed with a penciled mustache and his father's hat to the European jazz festivals in the 1980s.