Tina Turner, one of the greatest female vocalists of all time, has passed away following a long illness. She was 83.
*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses domestic violence
The recipient of 12 Grammy Awards, Tina Turner sold more than 100 million records worldwide and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice.
The first time was with husband Ike Turner in 1991 and the second time was as a solo artist in 2021. She was the first African-American artist and the first woman to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Turner’s difficult life began on November 26, 1939, in the impoverished rural community of Nutbush, Tennessee, where she was born Anna Mae Bullock. Her father worked as an overseer of sharecroppers for a while and then moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, to work at a defence plant. Tina’s fiery mother, Zelma, went with him while she went to stay with her strict, religious grandparents.
As a young girl, Tina Turner sang in the church choir and her earliest memories were of knock-down, drag-out fights between her parents on the few occasions when she did see them.
Turner later said she spent her childhood feeling unwanted and unloved. She compensated for this by getting heavily involved in basketball, cheerleading and socialising. A true extrovert, she had a warm personality and a sunny nature that attracted friends — including very influential friends throughout the course of her career.
In 1950, her mother fled to St Louis because she couldn’t take any more domestic abuse. When Tina was 16, her grandmother died and she went to live with her mother, graduating from high school in 1958 and going to work as a nurse’s aide.
During that time, Tina and her sophisticated older sister, Alline, frequented seedy nightclubs in East St Louis and became enamoured of Ike Turner, who she saw performing with his band, Kings of Rhythm.
Phenomenally talented, Ike Turner released an album often cited as the world’s first rock ‘n roll record, Rocket 88, in 1951 and was known for passing the microphone around to female audience members during his sets.
Tina ended up singing with the band for the rest of the night and Turner took her on as a featured vocalist, teaching her the finer points of voice projection and control.
Said Tina Turner:
“I would have been lost in my life at that point without him. I mean, I could do two things: work in a hospital or sing in Ike’s band. I didn’t know anything else. And I wanted to sing.”
While hooking up with Turner, who she went on to marry, was undoubtedly brilliant for her career, it wasn’t long before Tina found out that he was a womaniser, a thug and a bully. By all accounts, Turner was a bad father and an appalling husband.
He was also a workaholic and tirelessly dragged his wife around the Chitlin' Circuit, so named because the venues it comprised sold chitlins, a dish of hog entrails, and other “soul food” to cater to their predominantly African-American audiences.
Many of Tina’s earlier songs with Turner – in particular, the 1960 classic 'Fool In Love' – are full of raw angst and emotional pain.
Rock journalist Kurt Loder described 'Fool In Love' as:
It reached number two on the R&B charts and was followed up with other classics such as 'It’s Gonna Work Out Fine' (1961), 'Poor Fool' (1961) and 'Tra La La La La' (1962).
In addition to micro-managing every aspect of Tina’s singing, Turner was also responsible for turning her into the wild woman of his dreams by changing her name and decking her out in wigs, sequins and skimpy mini-dresses.
Prancing around on stage with the Ikettes, a constantly changing line-up of beautiful backup singers, Tina wondered if she was selling out. Having met artists such as The Rolling Stones, she longed to do rock ‘n roll with a harder edge.
In 1966, Tina got some temporary respite from Ike when the legendary music producer Phil Spector saw her on a television show and signed her up to do a single called 'River Deep, Mountain High'. Spector made it abundantly clear that he only wanted Tina and that Ike was to make himself scarce. Turner reluctantly agreed.
One of the most perfect singles ever recorded, the song pitted Tina’s phenomenally powerful vocals against Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound”. During the recording session, Tina got so worked up that she stripped down to her bra.
While it tanked in the United States, only making 88 on the Billboard charts, the single was a hit in the UK and prompted The Rolling Stones to ask Tina and Ike Turner to open for them on their 1966 UK tour.
In the ensuing years, probably thanks to Spector and The Rolling Stones’ faith in her, Tina gained confidence. In 1971, her true personality came out with a brilliant cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic 'Proud Mary'.
Tina says at the beginning of the song:
“Y'know, every now and then, I think you might like to hear something from us nice and easy... But there’s one thing. You see, we never ever do nothing nice and easy. We always do it nice and rough...”
In the early '70s, Ike Turner bought a house in Inglewood, Los Angeles, which he decked out like a bordello from hell with a guitar-shaped coffee table, a mural of a couple making love and a star sign clock on the mantlepiece. He also opened Bolic Sound, a studio near the house and would summon Tina to recording sessions at all hours of the day and night.
In 1973, Turner – who had started to abuse cocaine at that point – demanded a hit. Tina delivered with the autobiographical 'Nutbush City Limits'. It reached the top five in several countries, including Australia, where Tina fans invented a ubiquitous dance that went on to be performed at legions of school dances, weddings and physical education sessions for children.
Interestingly, Australia is the only country to have embraced the Nutbush as a dance and has had an enduring love affair with Tina throughout her career, particularly since she gained the courage to leave her abusive husband in 1976.
The Turners’ marriage had been deteriorating for years and Tina gained the strength to leave from her strong sense of spirituality. She was heavily into reincarnation, astrology and Tarot cards and became a practising Buddhist during the later years of her marriage. She said Buddhist rituals, particularly chanting, centred her, calmed and reassured her.
When Tina left Ike Turner, she fled across a busy freeway with semi-trailers screaming past her and sought refuge in a Dallas hotel called the Ramada Inn. She only had 36 cents and a Mobil gas card in her pocket, and her white Yves St Laurent suit was covered in blood from an earlier beating. The hotel manager took pity on her and allowed Tina to stay until she could seek help from friends.
When Tina filed for divorce, the only request she made was that she be allowed to keep her stage name. Turner wound up with the homes, the cars (apart from two), the song rights and the other trappings of fame.
Initially, Tina went through a hard time after leaving Ike and found it difficult to find employment. It was Australian music producer and talent manager Roger Davies, best known for his work with Olivia Newton-John, who rescued Tina from cheesy corporate functions and having to perform 'Disco Inferno' incessantly on the nostalgia circuit.
In 1984, Tina launched one of the biggest comebacks in rock music history with her fantastic solo album Private Dancer, which went multi-platinum and won a Grammy for Album of the Year. A solid, ballsy hunk of rock ‘n roll, Private Dancer brought Tina more success than she ever achieved with Ike Turner. It featured the classic title track and 'What’s Love Got To Do With It?'
At 44, Tina became the oldest female solo artist to top the Billboard Hot 100. With her wild, spiky hair, leather minis and fabulous legs, she stood out alongside much younger artists such as Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.
Tina soon found that opportunity knocked in other areas. She did a star turn in George Miller’s movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), contributing the great song 'We Don’t Need Another Hero'. She also became the face of Australia’s rugby league with her anthem'Simply The Best' (1989), which she performed with Aussie rocker Jimmy Barnes.
“She embraced Australia, and Australia embraced her.”
In 1986, Tina found enduring love with German music executive Erwin Bach, who was more than 16 years her junior. In July 2013, after a 27-year romantic relationship, the pair married in Switzerland.
In 2012, when Tina’s kidneys started to fail, Bach gave her one of his kidneys to extend her time on Earth and prove his love to the woman whom he said he had no life without.
By the 2000s, Tina had retired and lived a happy and content life in Switzerland with the man she referred to as her only husband and her one true love. Her death at 83, while not unexpected, deeply saddened fans and artists who had worked with her.
Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said Tina was “inspiring, warm, funny and generous”.
'I’m so saddened by the passing of my wonderful friend Tina Turner. She was truly an enormously talented performer and singer... She helped me so much when I was young and I will never forget her.'
Nine entertainment editor Richard Wilkins said: “When she walked on that stage, she absolutely owned it.”
“She just had that presence; she was just a force of nature and the amazing voice, the pitch, the phrasing, the pizazz — she just delivered in spades.”
Fellow songstress Bette Midler said:
'Our beloved #Tina Turner has died. From #Nutbush to the top, she was an absolutely brilliant performer and inspiration to us all. May flights of angels sing her to her rest, but if I know Tina, she is singing lead.'
As a special tribute, staff at the U.S. Embassy in Canberra danced the Nutbush in her honour.
In her 1986 autobiography I, Tina: My Life Story Turner wrote:
What was it like when I walked out and left Ike? Yeah – I was afraid. But sometimes, you have to let everything go — purge yourself. I did that. I had nothing but my freedom. My message here, and I hope that there is a message for people in this book, is: if you are unhappy with anything – your mother, your father, your husband, your wife, your job, your boss, your car – whatever it is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you’ll find that when you’re free, your true creativity, your true self comes out.
If you would like to speak to someone about domestic violence, please call 1800 Respect on 1800 737 732.
Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.
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