Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner

“Physical strength in a woman, that’s what I am. If you’re unhappy with anything, get rid of it. When you’re free, your true creativity and true self comes out.”  – Tina Turner, in I Tina, 1986
Here are three things about the notorious and incredibly creepy Ike Turner, and three reasons why he is still important even after living a long life of self-destructive disgrace through drug abuse and domestic violence. One, he recorded an incredibly raucous song, “Rocket 88,” in 1951, long before there was something even remotely identifiable as rock 'n' roll.  His indefinable and prehistoric vibe preceded not only Bill Haley and The Comets but also Chuck Berry and Little Richard, the recognized black co-creators of rock music.  He also long predated Elvis Presley, the white genius who borrowed all their vibes and led us directly into the waiting arms of The Beatles. Ike heard the future coming. And he flagged it down to jump on board.

Two, he was of course a tormented talent on a huge scale himself: musician, bandleader, arranger, songwriter, talent scout and record producer of considerable skill, especially as the commanding leader of The Kings of Rhythm, until meeting a certain young tornado from Tennessee and forming his famed co-named revue. Most notable among his early accomplishments was working with the equally notorious Phil Spector in 1965 to create the masterfully booming “River Deep, Mountain High.”

But we could surmise that it is indeed number three that makes us still utter his name at all today: he invented Tina Turner. While watching his band play one night, the diminutive Anna Mae Bullock approached the stage during an intermission and audaciously asked to sing with them. Then in 1960, Ike used Anna Mae, whom he had re-christened Tina (weirdly named after Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, a character he admired), and her throaty voice for his tune “A Fool in Love,” which launched their careers together.

At Ike’s funeral oration in 2007, the great but totally loopy Spector started his eulogy by declaring that Ike had turned Tina into a jewel. So far so good, and quite true. But then the psychopathic Spector (currently imprisoned for murder) began to explain that any five other singers could have done what she did under his tutelage and especially under the Spector sway. This may have been the first moment when the world at large knew the full depth of Spector’s mental illness, since by then everyone on the planet knew what Tina not only was creatively capable of but had already accomplished on her own after escaping from Ike’s paranoid and coke-addled clutches.

Turner’s narrative is an extended exploration of the magical transformation of shy Anna Mae Bullock into the force of nature we know as Tina Turner today. Turning into Turner: it is actually the tale of someone who was already just waiting to emerge, not a Svengali-like creature at all but a fully formed, if vulnerable, young lady who was going to burst out of the shell imposed upon her, one way or the other. And burst out she did.

Her mighty voice and fantastically athletic form may have been stilled by her current health condition, but her legacy is only now beginning to come fully into focus. And she summed that legacy up best herself: she stayed on course, even while under the control of someone we now know to have been a monster, and she managed to triumph as a result of a personal belief in her gifts that could never be extinguished. Even if mortality takes her away, as it appears it must, her spirit has only been quieted down some, not really extinguished at all. And the artifacts she left behind still convey that spirit loudly and clearly.

In the case of Turner, we have a case study in triumph over adversity and sheer creative will power, and of course, her achievements were lofty indeed by any standards, both artistic and commercial. Singer, songwriter, dancer, actress, icon: she rose to international prominence as the featured singer in The Revue and then went on to eclipse that fame with an new astronomically visible solo career.

Often referred to as the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll, she has sold over 200 million records, making her one of the best-selling recording artists of all time, and it is as a rock star and pop music goddess, rather than solely as a soul, funk or R&B artist, that I begin my appreciation of her truly transcendent popular appeal. I maintain, and always have, that pop music is a serious cultural artifact, one reflecting our global cultures in a way often overlooked merely due to the sheer scale and volume of the success levels in question among the upper echelons of performers.

A figure like Turner is often taken less seriously as an artist merely because she has, according to The Guinness Book of Records, sold more concert tickets that any other solo performer in history. We need to take her more seriously as an artist and to unearth what uncanny skills enabled her to connect with so many fellow mortals at such a deep heart-to-heart level.

She is, in fact, a beating human heart in high heels.

Tina Turner, Tina Turner photographed by Richard Avedon for Vogue in  1971.

The Origin Myth

Tina Turner was born November 26, 1939 to a small family in Nutbush, Tennessee and grew up throughout the Southeastern United States. Like many other future soul music queens such as Aretha Franklin and Sharon Jones, she first experienced the joys of singing in the heated reverence of local Baptist church choirs. She quickly left the sacred pews, however, and chose the club stage instead, replacing her gospel funk with a bold secular swagger that few have equaled for sheer sensuality and spunk.

Originally introduced via Ike’s Kings in a recording as the ironically named “Little Ann” on a Ike-penned pop song called “Box Top,” it was a chance opportunity that brought her to the stage after claiming that the bandleader’s music “put her into a trance” at Club Manhattan in East St. Louis. During an intermission she approached the drummer and asked him for the microphone, after which Ike asked her to join them and the 17-year-old Anna Mae was featured as a guest vocalist.

After she had been quickly transformed into Tina Turner by her impresario and soon-to-be Lothario, a local DJ named Dave Dixon sent a demo tape to Juggy Murray at Sue Records, who was so impressed with her high-pitched screechy sound that he bought the song and paid a fairly large sum (at the time) for rights to it. He has gone on record as describing her vocals in what I think is the most accurate and spooky manner: her voice sounded like “screaming dirt . . . it was a funky sound.”

It was Murray who convince Ike to make Tina the star of the show and to commence the formal Revue, and in 1960 Ike penned their first hit together, “Fool in Love,” which Kurt Loder described as “the blackest record ever to creep into the white charts since Ray Charles’s 'What’d I Say' that previous summer.” Their second pop hit, “It's Gonna Work Out Fine,” resulted in a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rock & Roll Recording. They pretty much started out their careers at the top of the game. This was followed by a series of hits on a variety of small labels, and by one of the most grueling live-concert touring schedules in music history.

Ike invented a group of back-up singers for Tina, called The Ikettes, while he remained as the mastermind, playing somberly in the background. The group acquired a solid reputation that one writer in the history of rock described as “one of the hottest, most durable and potentially most explosive of all R&B ensembles, with a show that rivaled the James Brown show in terms of spectacle. Between 1963 and 1966, the band toured constantly throughout the country in the absence of a hit single, a major accomplishment on its own, fueled by sheer word of mouth power.
Tina’s profile rapidly elevated as a result of public appearances on American Bandstand and Shindig!, and the whole Revue spotlit her on Hollywood a Go-Go and The Andy Williams Show, as well as the The Big T.N.T. Show in 1965, bringing her to the attention of not only a large white audience but also a huge mainstream public awareness. She was ready for her closeup.

Probably the best introduction to their sizzling stage show, the live recording of their amazing 1965 concerts.

In 1965, a fateful encounter with Phil Spector altered the course of their history together, and of Tina’s personal history as an independent superstar. Spector had caught a performance and wanted to work with Tina, so he offered Ike a $20,000 advance if he would stay out of the studio, which Ike agreed to do. With Spector in tow, Tina co-produced “River Deep Mountain High” on his special label Philles, the only song it ever recorded. Spector always afterward considered this combination, his huge echoing symphonic boom with Tina’s supersonic energy, to be his best work, but (though it was technically perfect in a virtuoso sense) its lack of chart success plunged him into a depression from which he may never have recovered.

This song, however, was enough to garner the Ike and Tina duo a spot on a Rolling Stones UK tour, which Ike then later extended into one of their own all over Europe and Australia. In 1968, they signed with Blue Thumb Records for two albums, one of which, Outta Season, contained Tina’s blistering rendition of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” a song with such overtly sexualized undertones that they were actually overtones and left her embarrassed for the rest of her career. To finally cement their worldwide acclaim, they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1970, at which point they marked a turning stage in their careers by switching from R&B or soul music to certified rock 'n' roll and rock music proper.

With a new stylistic persona, and a much higher profile for Tina, they turned another corner professionally when they recorded an up-tempo version of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Proud Mary,” which forever altered the Tuner landscape and made it obvious who was really leading the charge forward musically. It sold over a million copies and won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo. In 1971, their live album of a concert at Carnegie Hall was their first certified gold record, United Artists signed them to a deal and they released ten albums in a three-year period; they released “Nutbush City Limits,” penned by Tina this time, as a first major hit single. Tina released her first solo album, Tina Turns the Country On!, in 1974, winning another Grammy nomination, this time as a solo artist.

That same year, Tina travelled to London to appear in the blockbuster film version of The Who’s Tommy: she was obviously branching out both creatively and professionally, and clearly moving way beyond Ike.

By the mid-1970’s, a combination of forces were driving the pair towards a decline of the duo format which had served them so well for about ten years: Tina was coming into her own confident persona, and Ike had descended into a disastrous dependence on Bolivian nasal remedies, not to mention his cascading violence towards the blossoming Tina. Shows started to be missed, contracts went unsigned.

Tina Turner performing in Copenhagen in 1972. (Photo: Jorgen Angel/Redferns)

In 1976, Tina filed for divorce and fled his company, stating that her embrace of Buddhism had helped her survive the ravages of their suffocating relationship. To her chagrin she discovered that by walking out on Ike during the middle of the tour she was liable to tour promoters for the cancelled shows. Their divorce was settled in 1978 and she was completely liberated from the overbearing impresario, who had nonetheless contributed to making her a household name, a name that she retained as part of the settlement.

Tina made a triumphant return to the stage in 1977, funded by United Artists management and a new manager, Roger Davies, who advised her to drop the revue-format band and remodel herself as a grittier rock-and-roll performer. She flung herself into a whirlwind of appearances to solidify her newfound identity, opening three shows for The Rolling Stones, and signed a new singles deal with Capitol Records.
“My legacy is that I stayed on course, from the beginning to the end, because I believed in something inside of me.” – Tina Turner 
The success of her solo version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” forced Capitol Records to rethink their relationship with her and they offered her a three-album deal. Recorded in two months in London, her album Private Dancer was released in June 1984. She won four Grammys in 1985, including one as a solo artist for “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” A world tour commenced in support of her new album and image. Naturally enough, Hollywood also beckoned. The new and improved Tina Turner had arrived. And it was only the latest chapter in her tumultuous rebirth.

Luckily for her (or perhaps it was just her own good karma arriving late) during the momentous global tour supporting her Private Dancer comeback smash hit, she also finally met the true love of her life, German record executive Erwin Bach, who is now the second husband she always deserved.
And the rest, as they say, is herstory. Ms. Turner, whose health has been seriously challenged since 2013 with intestinal cancer and kidney ailments, turns 80 this November, hopefully just in time for her to see the Broadway premiere of the musical stage show, TINA: The Tina Turner Musical, based on her incredible life and career.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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