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Perfect 10: Simply the best covers Tina Turner made her own

In the wake of Tina Turner’s passing in May, it seems timely we reflect upon the unparalleled legacy she has left behind. As a true trailblazer of music, she revolutionised the industry with her indomitable spirit and unwavering determination: a uniquely personal story of triumph whose earthy, electrifying voice and dynamic stage presence mesmerised audiences for decades, and continues to serve as an inspiration for many, transcending boundaries of race, gender, and age.

What’s striking is that, although Tina did occasionally have a hand in authoring the odd cut in her catalogue, for every Nutbush or Sexy Ida there are countless others that originated from someone else’s songbook.

Often as bold and discerning as Frank Sinatra or Nina Simone, Turner was a unique and gifted interpreter who exerted such a powerful vocal charisma that she knew how to make a song effortlessly and explosively energetic —pinpointing just where a performance could reach the frenetic, which is why she will always be the greatest female act I ever witnessed in concert.

While the best of her later work often had a weary, scorched-earth quality (cf the Edith entry at the end), often by sheer force of personality alone she could elevate even the most pedestrian of material into something special. So, without further ado, on what would have been her 84th birthday, we’ve handpicked a Perfect 10 of simply the best covers, the songs Tina Turner didn’t record first but made her own anyway. Is your favourite there?

Proud Mary (1971)

If ever there was a surefire candidate for a Covers Better Than Originals poll it’s this. Written for Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969, John Fogerty said that he conceived the opening bars of Proud Mary in imitation of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony. 

It’s an unusual association for a song about a steamboat, but it works as a classic blues rock hook. Most people would say, however, that the song didn’t truly come into its own until Ike & Tina Turner covered it — nestled among two contemporaneous Beatles retreads — on their twelfth album, Workin’ Together.

The song starts off with a slow, sultry tone in which Tina warns the audience she and the band are gonna start it off “nice and easy” but deign to finish it “nice and rough”. Which is a cue for the song to be transformed into a frenetic funk rock dervish led by Tina and the Ikettes, delivering a whirlwind of gospel-influenced vocals.

“Mary” helped Tina come back after a suicide attempt, and the 45 “planted the seeds of her liberation as both an artist and a woman,” Jason Heller writes at The Atlantic, bringing her major crossover success, rising to No.4 on the Billboard chart, and earning Turner the first of her 12 Grammy Awards, as well as her undoubted signature song on stage for decades to come. 

Acid Queen (1975)

”She was my Acid Queen in the Tommy movie, and she turned that song on its head! All the anger of her years as a victim exploded into fire and bluster and a magnificent and crazy cameo role that will always stay with me. I truly thought she would live forever.” — Pete Townsend, 2023

In a foretelling of her split from Ike, The Who managed what Phil Spector failed to do, and oversee a Tina Turner solo recording without the evil hubby demanding a credit anyway. A highlight of the band’s 1969 rock opera Tommy, six years later Tina starred as the eccentric gypsy and self-proclaimed Acid Queen in the film adaption and left an inedible spell on audiences. 

Whereas The Who’s Pete Townsend-sung original was restrained, on the movie version he and Ken Russell produced for Tina, the Stones’ Ronnie Wood provides some blistering guitar as she explodes the delivery in a riotous sense of urgency, suggesting that a sexual as well as drug initiation is being offered by the title character.

Boasting nascent Kim Carnes on backing vocals, months later TT re-recorded Acid Queen in punchier, more condensed form as the title track of her second solo album, which was spun off as the last single before her final departure from the Ike & Tina Turner Revue in 1976. Worth the price of admission for that raspy, demonic cackle at the end.

Ball Of Confusion (1982)

Following their departure from The Human League, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware set up British Electric Foundation (aka the non-singing two-thirds of Heaven 17) less as a band than as a production company, an umbrella organisation which would oversee any number of different kinds of musical and artistic endeavours.  

It’s fair to say that by the early 1980s, only B.E.F. saw the potential in Tina Turner, who was virtually ignored by her own record label, and deemed a “chicken in a basket” club act for those that didn’t want to let go of the ’70s. 

The opening track and lead single of Music Of Quality And Distinction — a collection of B.E.F.’s fave tracks sung by guest vocalists — hello H17’s Glenn Gregory doing Lou Reed’s Perfect Day and the Associates’ Billy Mackenzie handling Bowie’s Secret Life Of Arabia — is TT tackling the Temptations’ depressingly still relevant Motown classic Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today), an incendiary synth-driven interpretation that was so well-received it led to this next corker.

Let’s Stay Together (1983)

”I said to her, ‘We need to fix your legacy as one of the great soul singers of all time, but in a contemporary context.’ She didn’t have a record contract at the time but was making a good living touring doing Proud Mary and the older material. And her manager Roger Davies wanted to steer in a new direction, so the partnership was fortuitous. We used our electronic pop production skills to put her in a different frame. And it worked. It is the almost perfect combination of modernity and traditional soul values. That’s what we were aiming for.” — Martyn Ware, 2023

On the back of their “subsidary” act Heaven 17’s biggest ever success with Temptation, B.E.F helped ring in the bumper crop year of 1983 on an inventive and playful note.  As purveyors of fine instrumental electrobeat, the Sheffield combo produced a version of Al Green’s sultry Let’s Stay Together for Tina, a brilliant reinterpretation that became a surprise hit on both sides of the Atlantic and ignited the fuse of her explosive comeback of all comebacks.

After years of performing and honing her live act, this effervescent performer earned renewed interest from EMI Capitol which led to the label ordering an album from her. Private Dancer remains one of the greatest comeback albums in history, even if its smoothed out sounds aren’t the best indication of Turner’s legendarily raw talents. The set would be rounded out by covers of David Bowie’s 1984, Ann Peebles’ I Can’t Stand The Rain and The Beatles’ Help, the latter pair both singles, like this next rocker.

Better Be Good To Me (1984)

“Someone from my publishing company submitted Better Be Good To Me. What I have heard is that once she heard it, she began strutting around the room, singing along with the song, and saying, ‘This is the song for me. This is exactly what I am feeling and what I want to say’.” — Holly Knight speaking to Goldmine, 2023

This compelling modern rock anthem was written by the former glam stomp outfit Chinnichap (that’s Nicky Chinn and Blondie producer Mike Chapman to you and me) with Holly Knight, and released by Knight’s band Spider. Such was the soaraway success of Tina’s renaissance that three years later this driving anthem became the fourth of a whopping seven singles taken from Private Dancer, peaking at No. 5 on the US Hot 100 and the first of nine Knight co-writes TT recorded throughout her career.

On a personal note, even though the world was, to paraphrase the song lyrics, entangled in her web, I remember that summer of ’84 a friend of friend was introduced to us by Lesley Ainscough as “Molly, she can nick you any 7” singles from Woolworths on request”, so my sister and I just went with the flow and asked if she could snaffle us “the Tina Turner one”. When she presented us with Better Be Good To Me I was so disappointed it wasn’t the chart-slaying uber-hit What’s Love Got To Do With It I let my sister keep it. Kids, eh? 

Tonight (1985)

“Actually, this is a song that David Bowie and Iggy Pop wrote a while ago…”

A cover of a cover, except the person Tina’s duetting with co-wrote and produced the original. Confused? That’s David Bowie in the mid eighties then. The second in The Dame’s Iggy Pop pension fund 45s after China Girl, Bowie enlisted his ole chum Tina on vocals for his reggaefied rework of a junkie lament he helmed for the Ig’s 1977 album Lust For Life. 

Curiously, when this lilting cocktail-lounge duet was issued as a single at the tail end of 1984 it was only credited to Bowie, with Tina’s vocals so way down in the mix they’re practically basement. Still, DB redeemed himself a few months later when invited to guest on Tina’s HBO special, a live video culled from two performances at the Birmingham NEC. As well as a medley of his own Let’s Dance fused with the Chris Montez chestnut of the same name, the two dallianced with a duet of Tonight that, despite the Dame looking like a cruise ship waiter, was not only a highlight of the VHS when it was released later that year (the very first video cassette the Pafford household ever bought, fact fans)

The keyboards and MOR polish are pure Reagan-era, while the storytelling was shorn of its malevolent “turn blue” prelude because David thought it inappropriate for Tina. But what was most shocking of all is that when I moved to The Netherlands, if Bowie ever came up in social conversation the response from my new Dutch friends would invariably always be “Everything will be alright, tonight!” 

Because not only was much of the Birmingham concert audio used in a 1988 double album called Tina Live In Europe, but it spawned five 45s, including Tonight, which inexplicably became not only a No. 1 hit in Holland but one of both Bowie and Turner’s most recognisable recordings there. Good surprise, huh? 

Addicted To Love (1987)

The one where a sharply dressed Yorkshireman croons blue-eyed soul over brash rock synths accompanied by a bevy of miniskirted models, the iconic/sexist/silly Addicted To Love video gave Robert Palmer the biggest hit of his career. Not bad for a Chic pastiche intended as a duet with Chaka Khan.

The song was performed by Tina at London’s Camden Palace just months later, taped for another live telly special. Released as the Tina Turner: Break Every Rule video in 1987, this was where the singer introduced the like it or loathe it crab dance (the funny walk where she looked like an unmentionable had been lodged somewhere in between). Another 45 hived off the Live In Europe album, Addicted To Love became a mainstay in Turner’s live repertoire and was later included on the European editions of her 1991 hits compilation Simply The Best.

The Best (1989)

The follow-up to 1987’s Break Every Rule, Foreign Affair resulted in another late-career boom for TT, going to No. 1 in the summer of ’89 (her only studio album to top the UK charts) and earning the veteran three Grammys – for best album and best female rock and best pop vocal performance.

The record featured Tina’s now signature blend of country, blues, soft rock, perky ballads (I Don’t Wanna Lose You) and polished pop (Not Enough Romance) while maintaining a rootsy authenticity buoyed by her lusty singing (the sexy opener Steamy Windows). Moreover, there’s a solid case to be made: Foreign Affair (or, at a push, possibly 1996’s Wildest Dreams) is Turner’s last great album. And if that’s the case, she sure did exit in the eighties with a hell of a bang. 

On top of it all is her exuberant, triumphant cover of The Best, a poodle permed Bonnie Tyler flop from the year before, though a No. 10 smasheroo in Norway, for some reason. It’s no secret that the track is probably Turner’s most famous 45 as a solo artist, though its watershed success was by no means assured at first. I remember buying the latest issue of Smash Hits magazine and pawing through it in (father, forgive me) McDonalds Milton Keynes, just weeks after the branch was firebombed following an incendiary remark from the great Pretender, vegan militant Chrissie Hynde.

“The Best is from Tina’s new album Foreign Affair, which is her finest,” the advertising blurb from EMI read. “I’ll be the judge of that,” I thought to myself, mentally auditioning for the role of Patsy Stone three years too soon. And yet when the song, with those unforgettable sax riffs and pounding rhythms, entered the Top Ten and one Sunday evening at work I witnessed my colleague Glenda’s daughter hear it on Radio 1’s chart countdown and promptly exclaim, “I love this song!”. That she couldn’t have been older than 16 made me realise this was indeed a tune that, unlike many of Tina’s singles after What’s Love Got To Do With It, possessed a truly universal appeal that has only increased over time.

Foreign Affair album signing at HMV 363 Oxford Street, London 1989

Me being me, I couldn’t help but boast that I’d actually travelled to London six days earlier to queue up at HMV Oxford Circus to meet Tina in person. She was at the now long-gone store to sign copies of the Foreign Affair album, and I have to say, despite being much much tinier than I expected (by this point, the sky-high wigs of the mid ‘80s had given way to more demure creations), she looked fantastic.

There were two slight niggles though. First, I got chatting to a lad behind me in the line-up, and offered him a couple of quid to take a pic of my meeting Tina and post it on to me. Thirty-four years on, I’m still waiting Dave from Crewkerne Court in Battersea, you rotter.

Secondly, when I was presented to her Tina-ness, I told her my name and she misheard me, and signed the CD “To Sam”! Still, being inches from the widest, brightest smile I’ve ever witnessed more than made up for that, and I left beaming, which is more than those near the end of the queue were. Time had run out and TT couldn’t stay any longer as the avowed fan of Fawlty Towers had a charidee show called Hysteria 2 to do at Sadler’s Wells with none other than French & Saunders and funny tall person himself John Cleese. Don’t mention the queue.

Disco Inferno (1993)

A classic slice of Philly disco recorded at the same Sigma Sound Studios that spawned Bowie’s Young Americans and Dusty Springfield’s A Brand New Me, The Trammps’ Disco Inferno was made famous by its inclusion in Saturday Night Fever. It was also a song Tina often performed in concert during the late 1970s, but which she’d never previously released on record until the soundtrack to her life story, the film What’s Love Got To Do With It. 

Sam Wood from Philadelphia Inquirer found that the “joyous, over-the-top treatment” of the disco classic “reeks of campy white polyester suits and oily sweat under a dance-floor glitter ball,” while a reviewer from People noted its “dance dramaturgy” and the “characteristic flair and energy that have made Tina the envy of every singer this side of Aretha.”

Music Week’s Alan Jones and Smash Hits’ Toby Anstis both gave the song four out of five, with Jones declaring, “From the woman whose interpretations are often a million miles away from the original, this is a disappointingly standard interpretation. Having said that, it is a highly commercial song and Tina’s one-of-a-kind voice has many admirers, so another big hit is in prospect.”

Anstis added that “Tina pulls off this cover really well. It’s nice hearing a rauchy female rock voice like that. I think I prefer this version to the original. I’d boogie to that any time at a party. I’d go and see the film soon too. Yeah, she’s great.” 

Edith And The Kingpin (2007)

The lady sings the jazz, finally. Showcasing Turner’s distinctive rasp at its most mellow, Edith And The Kingpin was written by premier folkie Joni Mitchell for her 1975 opus The Hissing Of Summer Lawns.

The story of of a gangster’s new moll arriving in his home town, this smokey, sublime Herbie Hancock helmed redo was a surprising one-off in a quiet period, recorded in 2007 for the various artists tribute album River (The Joni Letters). Most notably, eight years after Tina covered his Purple Rain cut Baby I’m A Star, this Edith contains an uncredited guitar part from Joni fanatic Prince, and would turn out to be Tina’s only bona-fide jazz track, and one of her last recordings overall. 

In the next TT P10, we’ll get to the songs Tina recorded first. Yes, there are a few. Until then, mwah, mwah, mwah…

Steve Pafford


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