Through pain and joy, Tina Turner wrote herself into pop history again and again | Alexis Petridis (2023)

There is a great photograph of Tina Turner, taken for Vogue by Jack Robinson in 1969, the year she and her husband, Ike, supported the Rolling Stones on their US tour. It appears to show Tina in full flight; the contact sheets from the shoot suggest Robinson had encouraged her to dance and sing in the studio as she would on stage. Her face is at the photograph’s bottom-right corner, as if he had only just managed to catch her in shot. Her mouth is wide open, her face contorted, eyes raised to the ceiling, hair flying upwards.

It’s a great photograph because it manages to look like Tina sounded in 1969. Listen to the Ike and Tina Turner songs recorded at Madison Square Garden in November of that year (belatedly issued on a 40th-anniversary edition of the celebrated Rolling Stones live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out). The duo pile through one cover version after another at breathless speed: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary, a frantic Land of a Thousand Dances, a take on Come Together during which Tina finds a crackling sexual energy in the song that is absent from the Beatles’ original.

Whatever she is singing, her voice is raw, elemental and astonishingly powerful. Like Robinson’s lens, the microphone sounds as if it can barely contain her. With the greatest of respect to the Rolling Stones, you wonder at the degree of chutzpah required to follow the Turners on stage.

In her account, Tina sounded like that from the start, when she was still Anna Mae Bullock, “a little girl with a big voice” growing up in rural Tennessee. When her mother took her shopping in the nearest town, Knoxville, she would sing unprompted for the staff in shops, who were so startled by what came out of her mouth that they showered her with money.

She claimed to have been born with her voice and an innate urge to perform, although her soundmay have been influenced by the congregation at the church in Knoxville where the Bullocks occasionally worshipped. “They sang at the top of their lungs, they were possessed by God,” she later remembered.

You don’t have to be a child psychologist to work out that her urge to perform might have been linked to the misery of her home life. Her parents’ marriage was unhappy and occasionally violent. Her mother was cold and distant towards her and vanished when Tina was 11; her father followed suit two years later.

Certainly, she sounded like that the first time she entered a recording studio, having been co-opted into Ike’s live show after picking up the microphone and singing BB King’s You Know I Love You during the interval of a St Louis nightclub performance by Ike’s band the Kings of Rhythm. By then, Ike already had a long musical pedigree – his debut single, Rocket “88”, released in 1951 by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, is hailed in some quarters as the first rock’n’roll record (Brenston was actually Ike’s saxophonist, the Delta Cats the Kings of Rhythm); he had worked as a talent scout and producer for Sun Records and had played piano with King – but from the moment Tina Turner, as she was known from 1960 onwards, appeared on the scene, it was obvious who the star was.

Through pain and joy, Tina Turner wrote herself into pop history again and again | Alexis Petridis (1)

Their first single, A Fool in Love, wasn’t a particularly distinguished song: the recording was intended as a demo, with her vocal merely a guide for another singer to copy. But from the opening wordless cry to the series of guttural roars she unleashes at its close – a sound their record label’s co-founder likened to “screaming dirt” – Tina dominated the song so completely that the plan changed. Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm became the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. A Fool in Love became a regional hit before crossing over into the pop charts.

In an early sign of his controlling behaviour, he had forced Bullock to change her name – years before they were married – and trademarked it, much to her dismay; his reasoning was that, if she left him, he could replace her with another “Tina Turner”.

The single’s follow-ups failed to repeat the trick of attracting a pop audience, remaining confined to the R&B chart. In truth, Ike and Tina’s commercial success as recording artists was mercurial throughout their career. There were lengthy dry spells where everything they released flopped; the classic River Deep – Mountain High was such a failure in the US that its producer, Phil Spector, stopped making records altogether for two years. They displayed a baffling ability to follow huge hits – Nutbush City Limits, or the cover of Proud Mary that eclipsed Creedence Clearwater Revival’s original and became the definitive version – with a single of equal quality that somehow stalled in the charts’ lower reaches.

Instead, their success and reputation rested on their live show, honed by relentless touring Black America’s chitlin’ circuit. This was not a live arena for the faint-hearted. The conditions were rough – Tina recalled playing clubs that didn’t provide performers with a toilet, let alone a dressing room, and being forced to urinate into a bottle as a result – the audiences rowdy and occasionally violent; the crowd on the lo-fi 1964 live recording released in 1970 as Ike & Tina Turner’s Festival of Live Performances appear to be in a state of constant, barely contained uproar.

You had to have a killer act in order to survive, which Ike and Tina did. They played their uptempo songs fast and stretched out the ballads into wrenching epics; Tina and her backing singers, the Ikettes, danced with an astonishing balance between accuracy and abandon; her voice became increasingly potent and commanding; and she developed a charged stage presence apparently at odds with her true character (she later dismissed it as “cheap and sexual”).

Offstage, their life together was appalling, so hopelessly mismatched that, in later years, Tina was at a loss to explain how they became a couple in the first place (she already had a son with the band’s saxophonist, Raymond Hill). The abuse Ike inflicted on her was such that she became accustomed to performing with injuries, relying, as she put it, on “makeup, a big smile and some flashy dance moves to distract the audience from my wounds”. On stage, they rarely failed to turn it out.

The same was true of their records. In her autobiography, My Love Story, Tina is dismissive of her partner’s talent, suggesting he was “stuck in one style of music, one type of singing delivery, the same songs over and over”. It’s the solitary occasion where her criticism of him feels unwarranted. Their music never lost a certain guttural power, but it also changed and shifted with the times, slipping into a powerful funk-rock hybrid as the 60s turned into the 70s; the fat, compressed guitars and synthesiser of 1973’s Nutbush City Limits or the humid, horny funk of the following year’s Sexy Ida – which featured T Rex’s Marc Bolan on guitar – certainly didn’t sound like a retread of the music they made in the 60s.

For all the elemental force of her voice, Tina could be a fabulously inventive singer: their incredible cover of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love turns the song inside-out, replacing the original’s swagger with a supplicant, pleading quality; the version of the Who’s Acid Queen that she performed in the film version of Tommy is similarly transformative, turning a rock song into supremely ballsy soul. She was also a more gifted songwriter than her reliance on others’ material implied: she wrote Nutbush City Limits, a fantastic song by anyone’s standards, and its equally superb follow-up, Sweet Rhode Island Red.

It meant that, had Tina’s musical career ended when she finally fled from her husband in 1976 – after yet another beating that left her covered in blood – her place in pop history would be assured. For a while, it looked like that might happen: her solo albums flopped and she made ends meet appearing on TV gameshows. It took the unexpected intervention of UK producers the British Electric Foundation (Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who would go on to form Heaven 17) to get her career back on track.

Her fellow guest artists on the album Music of Quality and Distinction unwittingly reveal how low her star had fallen – she appeared alongside Gary Glitter, one of the Nolan Sisters and the TV presenter Paula Yates, singing These Boots Are Made for Walking – but the version of the Temptations’ Ball of Confusion the BEF produced was magnificent. Setting her voice against synthesisers, horns by the Britfunk band Beggar and Co and abstract post-punk guitar courtesy of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ John McGeoch, it was also very hip.

Through pain and joy, Tina Turner wrote herself into pop history again and again | Alexis Petridis (2)

It led to a new record deal and to 1984’s Private Dancer, an album produced in part by Ware that, if it wasn’t as cutting edge as Ball of Confusion, nevertheless found a perfect space for Turner in the 80s pop landscape. Glossily produced, sonically set somewhere between rock, soul and pop, it dealt in songs that played gently on her personal history, invariably sung from the viewpoint of a survivor: the battered but hopeful strip-club performer of Mark Knopfler’s title track; the bitter expression of hard-won experience that was What’s Love Got to Do With It, a song intended, incredibly, for Buck’s Fizz, that Turner made her own.

In fact, she made everything on Private Dancer her own, inhabiting the lyrics of each song completely: her thrilling reading of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together is suggestive of a woman who realised she had been presented with an unexpected opportunity and was intent on grabbing it with both hands.

Private Dancer made her a bigger star than she had ever been, aided by the fact that Tina’s power as a live performer was undiminished by the passing years; watch her electrifying 1985 Live Aid appearance with Mick Jagger for proof. Her ascent into the rarefied strata of rock royalty was fully deserved. If her sound soon veered towards the middle of the road, her records never stopped selling in vast quantities, nor underlining what a fantastic singer she was. Power ballad The Best had been a flop for Bonnie Tyler: it took Tina’s vocal to transform it into a ubiquitous hit. We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome) had a lyric that made no sense divorced from the plot of the Mad Max film it soundtracked, but Tina somehow sold it.

No matter how slickly professional her albums became, there were always scattered highlights (the Trevor-Horn-produced Whatever You Want, from 1996’s Wildest Dreams, is a case in point) and always the sense that her voice came from a very different environment to the one she now inhabited. She probably wouldn’t have thanked you for pointing it out – in My Love Story, she was very keen to underline that she was a lady of refinement, divorced from her onstage persona and fond of the finer things in life – but a little of the chitlin’ circuit’s earthiness and grit, a hint of “screaming dirt”, clung to Tina Turner until the very end of her career.

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