Who's Here: Jim Turner - Musician
by: Debbie Tuma
November 23, 2007
For over 30 years, the development of Jim Turner's singing and songwriting career has taken twists and turns. But throughout his many adventures, there has been one constant in his life - his microphone, which has always been on.
"I've always lived with my amplifiers, mic and guitars in my living room since I was 21, and they've always been turned on, in case I got an idea, which I immediately tape into my recorder," said Turner, whose Sag Harbor living room looks more like a recording studio. "I call it the rock n' roll room."
With his boyish charm and English, Irish and French good looks, one would never guess that he has been playing the Hamptons and Manhattan clubs, bars and private and beach parties since the 1970s. He admits he was heavily influenced by his favorite icons, including Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Lightnin' Hopkins.
Unlike artists who specialize in a certain music genre, Turner runs the gamut, singing and playing everything from folk, rock, blues, country, gospel, bluegrass, jazz, reggae, rap, hip-hop, Calypso, funk, swing, ska and world music. He also writes music and songs of different styles.
"I consider myself a lyricist, but I've had a long-running relationship with poetry," mused Turner, who claims to be distantly related to Geoffrey Chaucer. "I've always made up rhymes and songs right on the spot. I think the rap and hip-hop movement, although controversial, brings back the spoken word to mainstream popular music."
Down to earth and casually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt from the Robin Hood Foundation, an international children's organization he supports and plays for, one would not suspect that Turner came from a privileged background. But his passion for music and writing was encouraged from an early age by a family who revered the arts.
Born in New York Hospital, he grew up in Manhattan, to a family that goes back for generations in that city. His great grandfather, Thomas Dimond, was a real estate developer who built wrought iron structures in NYC at the turn of the century, and who sold the lot on which Penn Station was built. His father was a Wall Street stock and bond broker and a jazz trumpet player, who attended Yale University on a track scholarship. His mother was a Park Avenue socialite, and his sister Joan Jonas is an internationally known performance artist, who was one of the early founders of that genre and who now teaches at MIT. His brother, of Montauk and Knoxville, TN, has a successful construction company.
"My parents exposed us to a tremendous amount of culture, from opera to Broadway, jazz, art museums and films," Turner recalled. "I grew up listening to the music of Louis Armstrong, South Pacific, and My Fair Lady from the age of two."
Also at the age of two, Turner moved to Northport, Long Island with his family, where he attended grade school, and his Dad continued his daily commute to Wall Street. In 9th and 10th grade, he attended the Woodstock Country School in Woodstock, Vermont, which further honed his musical talents.
"I became a guitar player at 14 and learned the harmonica soon after. At this school I met Pete Seeger's son Danny, and also Carlos Montoya's son, Alan. I was in a hotbed of art, poetry and cutting edge consciousness at that school." He continued in a NYC private school, and at age 19, Turner got a chance to go to Africa as a deckhand aboard a Norwegian freighter, sailing from Nova Scotia.
"We went from Sierra Leone, up the river, getting mahogany and teak logs," he said. "I felt a great connection with the African people."
He then studied theater briefly at the University of Arizona, but left at the age of 21 to pursue his artistic career in Manhattan. He moved to the Lower East Side, and studied photography at the New School for Social Research, and theatre at the HB Studio.
"At that time, in the late 1960s, I was thinking of becoming a photographer or actor, and I got some roles in musicals," he said. "I also started to jam with local bands, and I got a job with Curtis Knight, who had Jimmy Hendrix in his band the year before."
Turner was also cast in a theatrical repertoire called Mushroom, and then got an Equity role in a Joseph Papp musical called Blood, at the Public Theatre. He was cast in a musical called Dude, written by Gerome Ragni, who also wrote Hair.
Along the way, Turner even tried his hand at modeling, and signed on with an agency.
After 12 years in Manhattan, acting, modelling and playing with bands in clubs, and as a solo performer, Turner started to miss living in the country.
"I suddenly had this huge lust for nature," he said. "I came out to Sagaponack with a girlfriend, and I spent many hours traipsing through trees and woods. I couldn't get enough of it."
It was during the late 1970s that he decided to move to the Hamptons permanently. He first lived in Sagaponack, followed by Water Mill and finally Sag Harbor, where he has owned a house for 10 years. At first he did construction work to make a living, and he got a job playing with a country band called Geronomo at the Wheel. He then played in a psychedelic punk garage band called, The Phantoms of the Opera, and played solo gigs in bars with his own unique style.
"I finally formed the Jim Turner Band in 1988, doing gigs at the Stephen Talkhouse, the former Hansom House and lots of bars in NYC," he said.
"Things just took off from there."
In 1991, he recorded his first album, Hampton Bound, a collection of rock songs he wrote. His second album, Ocean People, with the Jim Turner Band, was released in 2001."
"I cull my songs from an eclectic mix of musical styles," said Turner. In addition to song-writing and performing, he also started teaching privately and has taught music at the Hampton Day School.
"I enjoy empowering my students, and I try to get them up and running to become great musicians fast," said Turner, who also gives programs in schools and libraries around Long Island.
For 20 years he has also played at weddings, in addition to many other special events, from Wölffer Estates to the Coco Lounge at Maidstone Arms, to the Maidstone Club, Southampton Bath and Tennis Club, to Nick's on the beach in Montauk.
Turner, who is as comfortable in a tuxedo as he is in shorts, will be coming out with another album in the spring.
After 20 years playing throughout the Hamptons, he said, "I feel I'm now at the top of my game in this challenging business. I feel I'm better now than ever, because I've finally hit my zone."