There are artists we call “legendary”, and then there was Tina Turner, who seemed to belong on another level entirely. Her life story was so extraordinary that it spawned an Oscar-nominated biopic starring Angela Bassett, 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With it?, named pointedly and poignantly after one of her signature hits, and a jukebox musical that consistently fills theatres on Broadway and in London’s West End.
Turner, who has died at the age of 83 following a long illness, was also called a “survivor” for more than half her life, but she never let this define her. In a 1981 magazine interview, she spoke publicly for the first time about the brutal abuse she suffered during her 16-year marriage to collaborator Ike Turner. Just three years later, she pulled off one of the most stirring and unlikely comebacks in music history. The “Queen of Rock’n’Roll” – another tag that stuck, quite rightly – became a stadium-slaying superstar in her mid-forties, an age when many female artists find themselves unfairly sidelined.
Turner was born Anna Mae Bullock on November 26, 1939 in Brownsville, Tennessee, then raised by her sharecropper parents in nearby Nutbush. She later offered an evocative portrait of life in this “quiet little old community” in Ike and Tina Turner’s classic 1973 funk banger ‘Nutbush City Limits’; it was, she told us, a “one-horse town” where “you got to watch what you’re puttin’ down”. In 1957, having moved to St. Louis, Missouri, 18-year-old Bullock saw Ike Turner playing at a local nightclub, then joined his band after audaciously grabbing the microphone during an intermission. “I mean, I could do two things: work in a hospital or sing in Ike’s band,” she recalled in her 1986 autobiography I, Tina. “I didn’t know anything else. Or anyone else. And I wanted to sing.”
Renamed “Tina Turner” by Ike, she became the physically dynamic and vocally captivating focal point of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, an influential R&B band who never scored as many pop crossover hits as Ike wanted. ‘River Deep – Mountain High’, a seminal 1966 single produced by Phil Spector in his trademark ‘Wall of Sound’ style, peaked at Number Two in the UK but famously flopped in the US. Though it was credited to the duo, it featured no musical input from Ike; Tina said she found it liberating to sing a different kind of song away from her husband’s domineering grasp.
The duo enjoyed greater success in the ’70s, but Ike became increasingly abusive as he descended into cocaine addiction. On July 1, 1976, Tina finally snapped and walked out after they had checked into a Dallas hotel. As she would recall many times over the years, she had just 36 cents in her pocket and had to dash across a busy freeway to find salvation in a nearby Ramada Inn.
When the couple divorced two years later, Ike secured a better deal financially, but Tina made sure she kept her stage name. This would prove to be crucial. In the early ’80s, she told her new manager Roger Davies she wanted to become the first Black rock star to play stadiums “like The Rolling Stones“, then fulfilled her ambition by the middle of the decade. Her belated breakthrough came with 1984’s ‘Private Dancer’ album, a glossy pop-rock masterpiece featuring hits that never left her setlist: the melancholy title track, strident ‘Better Be Good To Me’, anguished ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ and defiant ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’. When the latter topped the Billboard Hot 100, 44-year-old Turner became the oldest woman, at the time, to score a Number One pop hit in the US.
‘Private Dancer’ would remain her best-selling album, but Turner kept releasing platinum LPs and selling out huge venues, especially in Europe, for the next 15 years. Along the way, she demonstrated her range by belting out a rock anthem like 1989’s ‘The Best’ with the same conviction that she gave 1996’s ‘GoldenEye’, a stunning Bond song written by U2‘s Bono and The Edge. By this point, she had complete control over her sound and wasn’t afraid to rebuild their original demo, which she regarded as subpar. “I’d never sung a song like that before, so it really gave me creativity in terms of making something out of something that was really rough,” Turner later recalled.
Though she announced she was retiring from live work after shows supporting 1999’s ‘Twenty Four Seven’, her 10th and final studio album, she returned for a 50th anniversary tour in 2008. At 69, she was still able to deliver the thrilling high-octane choreo to ‘Proud Mary’ that has long been a staple at drag shows.
Despite the unending fascination with her triumph over trauma, which must have been incredibly triggering for Turner when she was expected to revisit it in countless interviews, she somehow managed to maintain a dignified privacy, especially in her latter years. The definitive 2021 documentary film Tina, which essentially featured her final word, offered glimpses of the idyllic life in Switzerland that she shared with husband Erwin Bach, whom she met in the mid-eighties when he was working for her German record label. By the end, love had everything to do with it, and Turner had found the peace she deserved.