Vocalist Julie Turner reflects on her six-decade long career.

Photography Labudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries

In 1991, vocalist Julie Turner thought she may never sing again.

At the time, Turner was just over three decades into her professional career and was grappling with breathing issues, finding herself easily winded. Scheduled for surgery on her trachea, her doctors told her to be prepared for the worst.

In anticipation of the surgery potentially affecting her singing voice, Turner entered the studio to record her one and only album, Save That Time. Performing alongside her late husband Tommy Ruskin—whom she fondly refers to as her “favorite drummer”—and other longtime collaborators and dear friends, Turner showcased her clear-as-a-bell tone and distinct, conversation-like phrasing in the 12-track recording.

Fortunately, the surgery was a success. Now approaching her 85th birthday next month, Julie Turner has never stopped singing.

“Good lungs and never smoking helped me be able to sing, even with half an airway,” Turner says.

I met with Turner in her Overland Park home as she reminisced about her six-decade career over coffee, sharing a collection of newspaper clippings and glamor shots.

As a little girl in New Jersey, her parents took her to a nightclub to see Evelyn Knight, a popular singer in the ’40s and ’50s. Mesmerized, Turner declared to her father, “That’s what I want to do!”

Turner’s family relocated to Kansas City, and once she finished high school, she was motivated to start her professional career. Her mentor, Marilyn Maye, helped Turner land a gig with a popular KC big band led by pianist Warren Durrett. By the early ’60s, she began working in nightclubs and soon found work beyond KC in Omaha, Nebraska, and Okoboji, Iowa, often gigging alongside drummer Ruskin. The pair found themselves carpooling to out-of-town gigs, spending more and more time together.

“We fell in love,” Turner says. 

The couple exchanged vows in 1963. 

Turner found an abundance of opportunities playing private gigs, including a steady stint at the Carriage Club every Friday and Saturday. 

“I was working a lot, but eventually I decided I wanted to do my own thing,” Turner says.

After two decades in the private gig circuit, Turner launched her own group and, alongside her husband, formed a band that secured a weekly gig downtown at The Majestic steakhouse, where they played for 21 years. Ruskin passed away in 2015 after a long battle with cancer.

“I miss him so much as my husband, but I miss him just as much musically,” Turner says. “Being on the bandstand together—I’m getting chills just thinking about it.”

Turner and Ruskin also hosted jam sessions in the basement of their Overland Park home. A matriarch of the scene, Turner’s home became a place where a teenaged Pat Metheny—an internationally renowned contemporary jazz guitarist—and many other fledging musicians honed their skills.

Today, the family affair continues. When Turner performs, she often appears alongside her son, guitarist Brian Ruskin, occasionally joining him at his performances at Chaz on the Plaza.

“That’s been another one of the big thrills of my life—getting to work with my son,” Turner says. “He’s a wonderful guitarist, vocalist and composer.”

Turner has hopes of singing and recording more in the future. “I hope to work with some of my old friends,” Turner says.  

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