Spotlight: Ike Turner
By Margaret Moser, Fri., March 16, 2001
After decades of being underrated in music history and vilified in books and film as a woman-beating, drug-crazed, gun-toting control freak, 69-year-old Ike Turner still has a lot of pride. Bandleader, musician, arranger, choreographer, songwriter, producer -- not a decade in his half-century of performing has passed without something to show.
Take the Fifties for example, a good decade for Turner. In 1951, he and singer Jackie Brenston drove from Mississippi to Memphis to record for Sam Phillips' Sun Records. On the way, it occurred to them that they could record something other than jukebox favorites, so "Rocket 88" was born then and there -- in the car. Though Brenston and Turner recorded it together, that side of the 45 was credited to Jackie Brenston & the Delta Cats. It was the first time, but not the last, that Turner found himself uncredited.
Nevertheless, "Rocket 88" was an instant classic, a boogie-woogie piano-pumper that helped lay the groundwork for the imminent explosion of rock & roll. At 20, Turner had been in bands since his early teens and could write a showstopper like nobody's business, but he also knew when to pull out a sure-fire, crowd-pleasing cover.
Born Izear Luster Turner Jr. in Clarksdale, Miss., "Ike" learned about pleasing crowds early. He got his first taste of an audience as an eight-year-old at radio station WROX, located in the Alcazar Hotel in downtown Clarksdale. That's where he found himself in charge of watching the turntables.
"I got a job driving the elevator in the Alcazar and the radio station was on the second floor," says Turner by phone from his home in San Diego. "It was very exciting to me, a radio station. I'd run up to the second floor and look through the window at the guy spinning records. He saw me and told me to come in and showed me how to 'hold a record.'
"I'd sit there and hold it until the one playing stopped, then I'd turn a knob and the one I was holding would play. Next thing I know, he was going across the street for coffee and leaving me in there alone. I was only eight. That was the beginning of my thing with music."
Hanging around the station led to Turner carrying amplifiers for Robert Nighthawk, a bluesman who played live on WROX. The youth was mesmerized by Nighthawk's playing, but nothing could equal the experience of hearing Pinetop Perkins on piano for the first time.
"When you're a kid, seeing a piano in church, you don't notice it," says Turner. "I didn't. Then one day I was on my way home out of school, and we passed by [childhood friend] Ernest Lane's daddy's house. I heard this music! Pinetop Perkins was banging the heck out of a piano! Me and Lane started looking through the window at him, and next thing you know, we're inside the house at the end of the piano looking at him.
"I ran home and told my mama, 'Mama, I want a piano!' She told me, 'Pass the third grade and bring me a good report card -- I'll get you one.' When I came home from school with that report card, there was that durn piano. Pinetop taught both me and Ernest to play. I still buy Pinetop those real loud suits he likes."
Besides Nighthawk and his beloved friend Pinetop Perkins, Turner quickly fell in with other local musicians whose names would one day inspire awe: Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Little Walter ...
"We played juke joints," he stresses. "We'd start playing at 8pm and wouldn't get off till 8am. No intermission, no breaks. If you had to go to the restroom, well, that's how I learned to play drums and guitar! When one had to go, someone had to take his place."
"Rocket 88" propelled Ike Turner & the Kings of Rhythm to stardom on the juke-joint and roadhouse circuit, but by the mid-Fifties, he wanted something different. He dreamed of a showband featuring female backup singers like Ray Charles', only with Ikettes instead of Raylettes. He found the look and sound in a teenager named Anna Mae Bullock from Nutbush, Tenn.
Renaming her, Turner restyled the young woman's look and integrated her into his band. In 1959, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue was born. Their pairing was never a formal marriage, but as Ike says in his 1999 autobiography, Taking Back My Name, "We didn't recognize marriages." What he says is true by the rural Southern standards of the times -- a good thing, because he formed a number of similar alliances with women.
Throughout the Sixties, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue toured relentlessly, playing stages from Charlie's Playhouse on Austin's Eastside to Harlem's Apollo Theatre before crossing over to the mainstream.
"We used to play Austin about every three months in the black neighborhood, Charlie's Playhouse," says Turner with impressive recall. "I remember seeing Al 'TNT' Braggs singing with Bobby Blue Bland -- everybody played there."
The appeal of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue was over the top. If Motown brought black soul to white America, Ike & Tina Turner brought them sex, via opening dates for the Rolling Stones and the burgeoning rock festival scene. Their act was sensual, sultry, and stylish. Tina and the Ikettes oozed hot buttered soul, wearing the slinkiest of minidresses and doing the snakiest of hip shakes.
They could cut loose with the grittiest, most low-down Ike Turner originals like "I'm Blue (The Gong-Gong Song)" or rev it up with covers such as the exuberant "I Wanna Take You Higher." In 1971, their cover of "Proud Mary" made the song a hit two years after Creedence Clearwater Revival's original. Tina's autobiographical "Nutbush City Limits" was also a hit in 1973, and over the years has been No. 1 three times overseas.
Behind it all was Ike, composing hits like "A Fool in Love," leading the revue onstage with a full horn section, choreographing Tina and the Ikettes, playing guitar, and still managing to sing backup. When the handsome couple posed in profile for the cover of Working Together, they were the Seventies embodiment of the Sixties promise: Black Is Beautiful.
The sound was beautiful too, but the reality was ugly. The Revue fell apart when Tina left in 1976 amid charges of abuse. Ike does not deny abusive behavior in his autobiography, but offers his point of view. Neither of them made notable recordings initially, but by the early Eighties, Tina's star rose again with Private Dancer while Ike sank into a dark hole of drugs and dead-end projects.
By the end of the Eighties, Tina's comeback was wildly successful, and in her autobiography I, Tina, Ike was painted in the worst possible terms. His credibility was damaged further when he went to prison for cocaine in 1989, after years of drug abuse that almost destroyed his career.
Turner was in prison when he and Tina were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. Unable to attend the first significant recognition of his long career, he sent his daughter in his place. Ike had been out of prison just over a year (and clean) when he was once again portrayed as the villain, this time onscreen in the 1993 film version of Tina's book, What's Love Got to Do With It?
If Ike Turner had to steel himself for another round of bad press, something else happened in 1993 that brought a hefty royalty check: Rappers Salt-N-Pepa sampled "I'm Blue" on their massively successful single "Shoop." The silky rhythms Ike Turner composed 30 years before bought him a gold Mercedes in the Nineties, but more importantly, it brought him long-overdue respect and acknowledgment.
In 1999, Great Britain's Virgin Books published Taking Back My Name. Turner dedicated it to Tina, but it seemed to be cathartic for him as well. Bawdy, bluesy, and bold, Ike tells wild tales and makes a good case for himself as one of the godfathers of rock & roll.
Ike Turner will be 70 in November. He has mused philosophically that the average age of death for a black man is 65, but Ike Turner has always been about beating the odds ("I'm 69 but I look 50!"). He's pleased to be playing again, full of plans and recordings in the future. His current eight-piece lineup is called, appropriately, Ike Turner & the Kings of Rhythm. This version features more Ike and fewer girls, and leaves the hip-shakin' to the audience.
"People have a lot of misconceptions about me because of what they read or see, but I love me today," he says. "I am no longer interested in the past stuff -- the world don't owe me anything. I've done okay and God's been really good to me. It's better now than it's ever been."