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Tina Turner at 80: how a middle aged woman from Tennessee pulled off the greatest comeback in music history

Tina Turner’s story is like the song: river deep, mountain high – a tale of ambition, talent, desire; drugs, violence and despair. In other words, it’s the usual showbiz tattle, right?

Not quite. As she turns 80, happy in her Swiss state of almost retirement, it’s indubitably the case that musical history would be all the poorer without the record-breaking achievements of this legendary lady.

Blessed with a timeless spirit and an effervescent energy, this is a woman who overcame insuperable odds, bursting from the confines of her partnership with first husband Ike Turner to become her own woman, a solo superstar and, unquestionably, the subject of the greatest comeback in music history… ever.

Ladies and gentlemen, Tina Turner.

By 1956, Ike Turner – generally regarded as responsible for the first ever rock ‘n’ roll record, 1951’s Rocket 88 – and his band, the Kings of Rhythm was one of the most popular live attractions to the club scene of St. Louis, the Illinois-Missouri border city where America’s midwest meets the south.

One night a 17 year-old nurse’s assistant from Nutbush, Tennessee named Anna Mae Bullock caught the band performing that put her “in a trance”, though she recovered quickly enough to begin dating a member of Ike’s band, the saxophonist Raymond Hill. Hungry for the opportunity to sing and to eat (they had a baby on the way), the mixed race Bullock (her mother, Zelma Currie, was a farmer of part-Cherokee and Navajo descent) made her recording debut as Little Ann, a background vocalist to Ike’s song Box Top, which became a regional single on Tune Town Records in 1958.

It wasn’t until they changed their name to Ike & Tina Turner that history was made. 1960’s A Fool In Love, a pertinent case of doo-wop pop, was the duo’s debut single but Tina wasn’t even supposed to remain on the finished record. When the intended male vocalist failed to show up for a session, Turner then asked Bullock to record the song as a temporary guide vocal with the intent to erase her contribution before the finished product once a replacement could be found.

As luck would have it. the track caught the ear of Sue Records in New York, who insisted that Bullocks raspy vocals, which they noted, “sounded like screaming dirt,” remain. Turner gave Little Ann a new stage name, Tina, because the name rhymed with the television character Sheena, the Queen of the Jungle, therefore starting their career together as Ike & Tina Turner, which was convenient as by the time of the song’s release the duo’s friendship had become intimate. 

The pair were unlikely lovers. “Ike wasn’t conventionally handsome,” she writes in her 2018 memoir My Love Story. “Actually, he wasn’t handsome at all — and he certainly wasn’t my type. I was used to high school boys who were clean-cut, athletic, and dressed in denim, so Ike’s processed hair, diamond ring, and skinny body looked old to me, even though he was only 25. I couldn’t help thinking, ‘God, he’s ugly.’”

Wedding hells

A Fool in Love reached second place on the R&B chart and crossed over on the Billboard Hot 100 peaking at No.27. Tina Turner’s national TV debut came in October 1960 when she performed the song on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand while nine months pregnant with Ike’s child. A second pop hit, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (1961), reached the top 20 and earned the group a Grammy nomination for Best Rock ’n’ Roll Performance. The couple married on Tina’s 23rd birthday in November 1962, and the Ike & Tina Turner Revue spent the next three years touring constantly on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’, building a reputation as one of the most hottest, most durable, and potentially most explosive of all R&B ensembles, though without the presence of any further hits.

At a time when their recording career had stalled, Phil Spector, producer, auteur and all-round trigger happy control freak, caught an Ike & Tina performance in Los Angeles in 1965 and sought to work with the singer. Spector was well aware of Ike’s equally controlling attitude in the studio, and thus drafted an unusual contract: an album would be recorded, credited to Ike & Tina Turner, but Spector gave Ike a $20,000 advance to keep out of the studio. Sensibly, Ike agreed, though that didn’t stop him getting his ugly mug in the title track’s accompanying promo film.

An astonishing and extraordinary example of Spector’s famed everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Wall of Sound, River Deep – Mountain High, the Jack Nitzsche-orchestrated title track, compared a woman’s love and loyalty to that which a child feels for a doll, and a puppy has for his master. The BeatlesGeorge Harrison declared it “a perfect record from start to finish. You couldn’t improve on it.” Widely regarded as the pinnacle of Sixties power pop, River Deep may even be the greatest recording of the entire decade, and there were certainly no shortage of takes to choose from.

Due to Spector’s intensity and studio perfectionism, he made Turner sing the song over and over for several hours until he felt he had the perfect vocal: “I must have sung that 500,000 times,” she later said of the sessions. “I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing.” The song gave Tina her first British hit, reaching the top three in the summer of ’66, though failed to climb any peaks in the United States, leading to the producer’s temporary retirement. Ironically, The Supremes, now minus Diana Ross, duetted with The Four Tops on a soaring Motown version of the song that became its highest charting rendition in the US, reaching No.14 in 1971. Sadly the Four Tops are unavoidably detained, but tonight, Matthew, Tom Jones is the one top.

While Turner achieved fame for her instantly recognisable voice, with its bluesy, big-city inflections and soaring vibrato, the music was only one element of her influence; equally significant was her gutsy take on the image of the female pop star, with her tight skirts and wildcat shimmy-shaking routines evoking a stormy romanticism. There was danger in her voice as well as vulnerability—not an easy combination to pull off. 

Tina found herself trapped in a nightmare relationship with Ike, who subjected her to his raving, drug-fuelled violence for oh too many years. In 1968, after another volatile confrontation, Tina bought 50 Valiums and swallowed them all in an attempt to end her life before a show in Los Angeles; she eventually recovered. Despite the internal warfare, an opening spot on The Rolling Stones’ American tour in 1969 saw Ike & Tina increasing their popularity with mainstream audiences.

The following year, they recorded an incendiary cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary. It became the duo’s best-selling single in the States, reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971 and selling well over a million copies, winning them a Grammy Award. It became one of Tina’s signature songs, a staple in all of her live shows, including slightly unnecessary duet versions with Beyoncé and Cher.

Nutbush City Limits, the bold and brassy semi-autobiographical funk-out in which Tina commemorates her Baptist ‘church house’ upbringing in the cotton fields of Nutbush, Tennessee, would become the last hit single the duo would produce together, and the only single that Tina ever wrote. Characterised by progressive guitar sounds and a substantial synthesizer solo, Nutbush made 22 on the Billboard chart but travelled as far as fourth place in the UK.

By the mid ‘70s Tina had started branching out, relying on outside production for her first two solo albums, Tina Turns The Country On! (actually it did no such thing, and has been out of print for over 40 years) and Acid Queen. The latter taking its title from Tina’s role in Ken Russell’s film of The Who’s Tommy rock opera, both issued in 1975. 

By this time Ike’s cocaine habit had got out of hand and on July 1, 1976, the couple were en route from Los Angeles to Dallas where the Revue were booked to play a gig. While on the airplane, the two became embroiled in an altercation, which led to a physical fight in their limousine. Even more volatile than normal, Ike had been up for five days straight on a massive coke binge. Tina fled and later that month sued for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. After a year in court, their personal professional parting was made final on March 29, 1978. 

In the divorce, Tina completely parted ways with Ike, retaining only her stage name and assuming responsibility for the debts incurred by the cancelled tour, leaving her penniless. Still, at least Tina Turner was finally her own woman.

A further pair of non-charting Tina LPs followed; Rough (it was) and Love Explosion (it wasn’t) but at the turn of the decade she continued to be a successful live act even without the premise of a hit record. Then, out of nowhere, the first signs of a lifeline. The B.E.F.‘s (British Electronic Foundation, essentially two thirds of Sheffield synth maestros Heaven 17) Music of Quality and Distinction Volume One was an ambitious project that, in the main, teamed bygone singers and songs refashioned in the contemporary electronica of the day.

Tina opened the album with a sprightly, edgy cover of Ball of Confusion, the Temptations’ damning sociopolitical Seventies classic which suddenly seemed more relevant than ever. The undisputed highlight of the set, when issued as a single it became a club hit across Europe in 1982 and even a Top Five smash in Norway. Things were starting to stir, as her new manager Roger Davies remembers…

Certain nights can be decisive in a performer’s career; and if there’s one that was a major turning point in Tina’s it’s Thursday January 27, 1983, the first of three nights where she packed New York’s hippest club, The Ritz. In fact, with the assistance of promoter and venue manager Jerry Brandt, one can say that every Tina Turner appearance in NYC between ’81 and ’83 were crucial in terms of networking. From guest appearances with Rod Stewart and the Stones to finally getting Capitol Records’ attention thanks to David Bowie, it all happened in the big apple, and The Ritz would become the nest of “the Phoenix that would rise from her own ashes”.

Bowie, the great Dame, had signed a new multi-million dollar record deal with EMI America at the Carlyle Hotel on the very day of Tina’s first show. At a listening party for his upcoming album Let’s Dance, the record company executives asked if their new boy had any plans that night because they fancied taking him out on the town to celebrate: “No, I won’t be able to make it. I’m going to see my favourite singer tonight,” Bowie told them. The label bosses were stunned to hear the singer in question was Tina Turner, especially because they had just dropped her. The Thin White Duke had been friendly with Tina since Toni Basil, the choreographer they shared, arranged for them to meet when her Wild Lady of Rock tour thundered into Geneva in April 1979.

By 1983 the EMI-Capitol conglomerate had considered Tina too dated and tainted by Ike’s difficult repetition, and, crucially too old to make a comeback. As far as they were concerned, she was a mere club act on the ‘chicken in a basket’ cabaret circuit. Comparatively, the careers of Aretha Franklin and Cher, three and seven years her junior, were in the doldrums, although Diana Ross, five years younger than Turner, had maintained her stardom by never being away, thus she’d been playing to arena sized audiences and carried them with her wherever she went. 

However, all of a sudden Roger Davies received a call for 60 names to be added to the guest list for the opening show at the Ritz, and that night Bowie and the bigwigs piled in a succession of taxis to catch the singer performing 20 minutes downtown. As he took his seat next to Susan Sarandon, John McEnroe and the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Turner began the set with a fiery rendition of Cat People, David’s recent single with Giorgio Moroder. Something was about to happen. The energy in the room was like a thousand sunrises, and Capitol, anxious to keep their new boy happy, re-signed her, as Tina recalls in this interview from 2004:

Heaven 17 hurriedly provided Tina with another soul-meets-synths production in the shape of the Al Green classic Let’s Stay Together; now revitalised as a gleaming, chromium nugget moulded by ultra-modernist studioheads. It was this ‘electro-soul’ approach which Annie Lennox would take to another level with Eurythmics, and one that, sadly, Turner didn’t pursue. See if you can spot Lennox cheering her on at the end of the Tube clip below anyhow.

Let’s Stay Together was the worldwide hit Turner needed, peaking at number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming her first solo entry into the US charts. In the UK it went even better, rising to sixth place, and heralded in three and a half minutes the dramatic, bravura transformation of this almost forgotten gem. Tina was back, back, back!

The success of the single forced Capitol to rethink its contract with Turner, offering the singer a three album deal, and demanding the first LP be cut immediately. Recorded in just two months in London, the all-conquering Private Dancer album landed in May 1984, reaching No.2 in Britain and No.3 in the States. The album yielded a string of radio-slaying singles and proved that Team Turner were masters at both understanding the pop moment and selecting tunes that embody it. Worldwide sales of 20 million followed.

The reggae-tinged single What’s Love Got To Do With It scaled even greater heights, giving the great lady her first and only No.1 single in her homeland. Pretty remarkable for a track already rejected as too twee by Donna Summer and, er, Cliff Richard.

Even Tina admitted “it wasn’t my type of song” at first, but conceded how pertinent the lyrics were to her own personal history: “I don’t have a beautiful voice like a Diana Ross or a Barbra Streisand,” she said. “But the song had a lot to do with what had been inside for many years.” Rising to heights she had never achieved during the course of her career as the front woman of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, she had become a global superstar in her own right, truly a sole survivor.

© 1985, Globe Photos Inc

Not only had Tina become the oldest woman ever to achieve a chart-topping single, but her resurrection exploded on such a supernova-like scale remains that it remains the greatest comeback in music history. On Grammy night the following February, that comeback appeared more like a coronation, or perhaps a re-coronation, of one of music’s most noble figures.

Witness the scene. Resplendent in her in a shiny showbiz dress and ten foot hair. Tina’s tunes were awarded four Academy awards that evening (to Prince’s three), including Song and Record of the year, and just look at her face, barely able to process that she was being crowned Queen of the Night. 

Watch that thunderous standing ovation and the genuine unbridled joy on the faces of her peers – Dionne Warwick, John Travolta, Sheila E et al – Tina’s success was a triumph for women, for black people, for the oppressed, for anyone of a certain age. “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for such a long time,” Turner said in accepting her first award of the night, before paraphrasing from the godfather of soul, James Brown. “I feel really good.”

Announcing the winner of Record of the Year, Diana Ross greets the older lady with a warm, sisterly embrace (no, I don’t know why they excised that bit from the clip either but there is a fuzzier version here). Triumphant but shellshocked, Tina humbly says, “Well… you can tell that we’re new at this!”

Even the most cynical misanthrope cannot deny the uncontainable jubilation of this moment. Here was an artist who, since leaving Ike, was “washed up”, “over the hill” and rejected by nearly every major record label, including the one that ultimately signed her. Now she stands victorious, holding the music industry’s greatest honour in her hand. 

Tina continued to smash records and help remove the glass ceiling of what women in pop music could achieve. 

Her record-breaking relaunch happened concurrently with the unstoppable rise of Madonna, but it was Tina who became the first female performer to sell out football stadiums across the globe; and her Break Every Rule tour of 1987-1988 is still the biggest series of concerts, by attendance, for a female artist ever, bringing in almost 4 and a half million people.

In January ’88, she entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the solo artist with the largest paying audience in history with a crowd of over 182,000 people at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In Britain, she packed out Wembley more nights than any other female performer ever. No Tina single ever hit the top spot in the UK — What’s Love and 1985’s Mad Max theme We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome) equalled River-Deep’s No.3 peak, followed by fifth place for the 1989 anthem The Best, arguably her solo signature song — though the Brits did love her enough to send two of her albums to the top, and a further seven into the Top 10.

On a personal note, Tina Turner remains the only artist to have recorded with my two favourite recording acts, David Bowie and the Pet Shop Boys, and sing a Bond theme. (the brilliantly bonkers GoldenEye, written for her by U2’s Bono and The Edge). For context, Lulu, who penned what turned out to be Tina’s last Top 10 hit in the US (1993’s I Don’t Wanna Fight) only ever managed two of the three, as did Madonna (cough cough).

Essentially, Tina’s career was resuscitated because of David Bowie and Heaven 17’s patronage, and even though she proved she had the strength, power and that great indomitable spirit to make it on her own, the effervescent girl from Nutbush never failed to credit her friend for helping revive her fortunes.

Since her last studio album, 1999’s Twenty Four Seven, and a very final tour a decade ago, this remarkable lady battled a kidney transplant, a stroke and cancer, so these days she’s understandably content to put her feet up in her grand chateau in the hills above Zurich, occasionally putting in a cameo appearance on the opening nights of the big-budget musical of her life story currently touring the world.

Is a feelgood jukebox musical the absolute best medium to tell a story about domestic abuse? Put crudely, that is the problem at the heart of Tina – The Tina Turner Musical. The erstwhile Anna Mae Bullock’s eventful life and beloved back catalogue are perfect subjects for adaptation. But now and then Phyllida Lloyd’s production struggles to make a sensitive synthesis of the two. 

Adrienne Warren is magnificent though. She doesn’t so much imitate Turner as channel her: her technically dazzling but achingly world-weary gale of a voice feels like it should be coming out of a woman decades, if not centuries, older. And while Warren doesn’t really look anything like Turner, she perfectly captures that leggy, rangy, in-charge physicality, shaking her tail feather with aplomb and pins down the singer’s gestures with amazing precision. From a musical standpoint, she virtually carries the show, singing nigh-on every song and even giving the baying crowd an encore at the end. And yes, she sings Tonight too.

Tina Turner has become a symbol of so many things — sex appeal, resilience, empowerment — that she can’t always relate to. “I identify only with my life,” she said. While everyone was making her into a symbol, “I was busy doing it. Doing the work.”

The strength of her voice, and the power of her story, have seemed to build an almost invincible persona, but it’s just a persona. “I don’t necessarily want to be a ‘strong’ person. I had a terrible life. I just kept going. You just keep going, and you hope that something will come.” Fame came — and how —but now she’s content to play the role of Mrs Erwin Bach in Switzerland and the south of France, turning her back on the limelight she fought so hard to regain.

Photo by Charlie Gates for The New York Times, 2019

No matter. Tina Turner’s legacy as one of the great singers of all time is unassailable.

From tears to triumph and top draw performer, Tina’s story is one of the most heartening comeback stories ever, overcoming adversity, breaking down age and race barriers to become the female performer to sell more tickets than any other on the planet, one of the biggest selling artists in music history, and truly an inspiration to women and men everywhere. 

We love ya Tina.

Steve Pafford (he’s got legs)

An earlier version of this article was published in 2018

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