At three o'clock in the morning, in a hotel room high above still-glimmering Montreal, Tina Turner is plugging into the universal buzz: nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo, nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo, nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo. The words are Japanese, but shaped by that dark, burnished voice, now pulsing with reined power, they sound like some plaintive native-American lament — an effect perhaps subliminally suggested by the dramatic sweep of Tina's high, part-Cherokee cheekbones. As the words gather speed, her voice rises slightly to a smoothly rippling alto drone, then winds down. The demonstration is done. She raises her head — wigless at the moment and casually wrapped in a white shower towel — and a smile crinkles her otherwise unlined features. The chant, she says, is a Buddhist invocation of "the mystical law of the universe. I'm saying a word, but it sounds like hmmmnnn. Is there anything that is without that? There's a hum in the motor of a car, in the windshield wipers, your refrigerator. An airplane goes rowwmmmnnn. Sometimes I just sit and listen to the sounds of the universe and to that hum that is just there."
This chanting — plugging into the universal buzz — has lent spiritual structure to Tina's life. These days, you might say, she is like an electric lamp, summoning power and illumination at the twist of a switch. Before, she suggests — back in the dark years — she was more like a candle, self-consuming and finally benighted. Not to mention trapped, battered and generally brutalized in one of the most famous marriages in R&B history. But that's all part of the very painful past. And the past is something Tina Turner has little time for anymore.
Two night ago in Ottawa, Tina performed the last shitcan gig of her career. Another McDonald's convention. For seven weeks, McDonald's, the fast-food chain, had been rounding up its highest-grossing regional burger merchants for pat-on-the-back brain-fry junkets to centrally situated hotel ballrooms around North America. The Ottawa bash seemed typical: intensive hooch transfusions for the sales hotshots, a swank feed, some semihysterical corporate rah-rah from a presiding exec and then, with more than a few celebrants on the verge of 'facing out into their fruit sherbet, a show — the show being Tina Turner. One last time.
Many months ago, you see, when she really needed the money — a common situation over the last seven lean years — Tina contracted to play fourteen of these functions. At the time, she hadn't the remotest inkling that her comeback single, "Let's Stay Together," would become a Top Five hit in Britain or that her startlingly strong comeback album, Private Dancer, would top the charts in Australia and Canada and sell more than a million copies in the U.S. Suddenly, Tina Turner found herself the hottest female act on three continents. Yet in Ottawa, there she was, headlining some fast-food fiesta on a stage framed by two sets of glowing golden arches. Eeesh. She had attempted to bow out of the McDonald's deal, but the burgerdomos were adamant, and the shows went on. Ottawa was the fourteenth and last of them, and the tech crew and the six-man band were audibly relieved. After hearing eerie massed chants of "beef-steak! beef-steak!" and watching a fiery-eyed burger exec whip the assembled franchisees into a froth with the go-get-'em ethos of "our leader" — the late McDonald's mastermind Ray Kroc, author of that tantalizingly titled memoir, Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's — guitarist Paul Warren blinked his eyes unbelievingly. "This is like Jonestown," he said.
Tina herself, however, remained uncomplaining. A total pro, she knew the drill and accepted it. Taking the stage, she noted the usual ocean of half-capsized banqueteers bobbling before her in ambiguous anticipation. What would this crowd be expecting? How much might it remember? "Proud Mary"? "Nutbush City Limits"? Maybe even "River Deep — Mountain High"? Surely, these people wouldn't recall "A Fool in Love," the first record by Tina and her former husband, Ike Turner, an epochal R&B hit in this same month of August exactly twenty-four years ago. Perhaps they'd remember hearing about the glitterized solo show she'd taken to Vegas and Tahoe a few years back — the one with the boy-and-girl dancers and the big-deal disco interlude. In which case, maybe they were prepared to embrace the inevitable: for what else can one normally expect in the ballrooms of American commerce but the last pathetic flickerings of faded and irretrievable fame?
Imagine, then, the instant of lip-flibbering surprise when Tina's band — which is a real rock & roll band, not some has been backup crew — whipped out the wild, synth-riddled riff to "Let's Pretend We're Married," a song by Prince, and Tina shimmied out onstage in tight black-leather pants and a punk bouffant so bushed out you almost expected to see breadfruit come tumbling down in mounds around her stomping, stiletto-heeled feet. Kick-stepping up to the microphone at center stage, she snapped the sucker off its stand, and with a smile on her face the size of a sweet new moon and a voice that could fuse polyester at fifty paces, she began to sing. To soar, actually. The effect was electrifying — this was no Vegas act. "What you've heard about me is true," Tina chanted. "I change the rules to do what I wanna do." She didn't write the words — she rarely has — but, as always, she made them her own.
And from that moment on, the whole potentially hohum gig took an entirely different tack. Because Tina in transit across a stage knows only one velocity — flat-out — and as she kicked, shimmied and soared through most of her album and into a withering rendition of ZZ Top's neoboogie hit "Legs," the burger folk first rose to their feet, then up onto their tables, and finally into the very air, leaping and hooting and flapping their napkins overhead as this fabulous woman with the wraparound legs and the flatware-rattling voice proceeded to grind out an exhilarating hour-plus of artfully adult, but undiluted, rock & roll.
And Ottawa was it: the light at the end of the comeback tunnel. Tina Turner had outlasted her past. Now she could look strictly to the future: Her next single, "Better Be Good to Me," would be released as soon as her current hit, the reggae-spiked "What's Love Got to Do with It," could be pried out of the top spot on the U.S. singles chart, and several other tracks off the LP seemed likely candidates to follow. Six sold-out shows in Los Angeles were coming up, and after that she was off to Australia to confer with director George Miller, who's been waiting for two years to feature her in the third of his celebrated Mad Max movies (she'll play a kinkily costumed creature called Entity and may do a tune over the titles). Then it would be back to New York in September for the MTV Music Video Awards and the release of her pal David Bowie's new album — on which she harmonizes a haunting reggae track called "Tonight" — and then...well, who knows? If all of this could happen to a woman who didn't even have a U.S. record deal a year ago — who in fact not all that many years ago was feeling so slapped down by life that she almost bought out of it with a bottle of sleeping pills — well, then maybe there is a universal harmony. Whatever that buzz is, it's Tina Turner's theme song.
In her suite at Montreal's Le Quatre Saisons, Tina admits that she thinks a crucial cosmic turnaround in her life occurred when she began to let go of the past, allowing dribs and drabs of it to float to the surface of occasional interviews. But to go back all the way — back to the bad old days with Ike — was hard. "God, you know, when I left Ike," she says, "I left all of those memories behind."
All the way back is a tiny town called Nutbush, Tennessee, which is located some fifty miles west of Memphis. There, Tina (born Anna Mae Bullock on November 26th, 1939) and her older sister, Eileen, grew up picking cotton and strawberries alongside their Baptist sharecropper father, Floyd Bullock, who managed farmland for a white plantation boss, and their half-Cherokee mother, Zelma. The Bullocks weren't as bad off as some of the people in Nutbush. "We always had nice furniture, and our house was always nice," Tina recalls. "We had our own separate bedroom and a dining room, and we had pigs and animals. I knew the people who didn't, so I knew the difference, and we weren't poor."
As a child, Tina attended a two-room grammar school — not one of her favorite places — and in the summer there were community picnics with big jugs of lemonade, fresh fruit pies, hot barbecue and sometimes live music provided by such itinerant musicians as Bootsey Whitelaw, who played jump-up good-time tunes on his trombone accompanied by another man slugging a drum. And whenever "Mr. Bootsey" played, little Anna Mae, who had inherited her mother's powerful voice, was always encouraged to get up and sing and dance along with him. She sang in the Baptist church, too, of course, and heard secular music on the family radio, both country and blues: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, the enormously popular B.B. King.
Tina's parents separated while she was still a teenager; her mother moved to St. Louis and her father eventually wound up in Chicago. When Tina was sixteen, she and Eileen joined their mother in St. Louis, where school continued to be a bore, but more interesting things soon started happening.
Eileen began frequenting an all-night R&B establishment in East St. Louis called the Club Manhattan, and one night, when Tina was about seventeen, she got to tag along. The Club Manhattan was a wondrous place, full of flashy black men in sharp suits and fine-looking women in their best dresses and jewels. Anna Mae Bullock didn't know much about the actual making of music at that point, so the first real band she ever saw was the one standing onstage at the Club Manhattan that first night: Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm.
Born Izear Luster Turner on November 5th, 1931, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Ike was a preacher's son who started out backing up such bluesmen as Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk in local clubs and formed the original Kings of Rhythm while he was still in high school. In 1951, with Kings saxophonist Jackie Brenston fronting the band on vocals, they cut a tune called "Rocket 88" at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in Memphis — a track that's often cited as the first rock & roll record. In 1956, Ike and the Kings moved to East St. Louis, where he acquired a three-story brick house and moved the band in along with his common-law wife and two young sons.
Ever conscious of cash flow, Ike soon worked out a lucrative gigging routine for his group. From seven to nine they would play the Club Imperial in St. Louis, churning out Top Forty and rockabilly for an audience of white teenagers. Then they'd slide over to the Club D'Lisa — basically a black club, but with a smattering of Ike's white followers — from nine to one, finally ending up at the Club Manhattan, pumping out hard-edged blues and R&B — Little Willie John, B.B King, Ray Charles — from one am. till dawn.
At the Club Manhattan, Ike was in his element — which is to say, among his many girlfriends. The situation sometimes became dicey: if too many of Ike's ladies showed up at the club at once, he wouldn't even come down off the stage between sets but instead hunker up there, noodling at the organ and pondering how best to extricate himself. "Oh, God," says Tina with a whoop. "I remember some nights when he would have maybe six girlfriends in the house, and he would stay up there and call his wife to come to the club that night — it was the only way they could save him."
Compared to the more generously fleshed beauties of that period, little Anna Mae Bullock was something of a scrawny kid, and so Ike didn't take much notice when she first approached him about getting up to sing with the Kings. Night after night she'd sit there waiting for the call, but it never came. Finally, one night, when Ike was up onstage playing the organ, Tina grabbed the mike and started to belt out a P. B. King tune.
"Everyone came running in to see who the girl was that was singing," Tina remembers. "Then Ike came down. He was real shy. He said, 'I didn't know you could really sing.' " Slowly, Ike began working Anna Mae into stage show.
"I became like a star," she says. "I felt real special. Ike went out and bought me stage clothes — a fur, gloves up to here, costume jewelry and bareback pumps, the glittery ones; long earrings and fancy formfitting dresses. And I was wearing a padded bra. I thought I was so sharp. And riding in this Cadillac Ike had then — a pink Fleetwood with the fish fins. I swear, I felt like I was rich! And it felt good."
Soon, Anna Mae became a legitimate part of the group, returning with them to Ike's big brick house after gigs, where the band's attendant women would cook up steaks or chops and the musicians would continue to jam. "I guess they were parties," Tina says, "and I guess the girls went to bed with the guys, but I didn't really know."
At first, she looked upon Ike as a big brother, her mentor, and Ike reciprocated. She did, however, become romantically attached to one of the Kings' saxophonists, Raymond Hill, and just after her graduation from high school in 1958, she became pregnant with his son, whom she subsequently named Raymond Craig. Tina took little time out for maternity, though: she was making ten, sometimes fifteen dollars a night at gigs, and could afford a babysitter.
After two years, Tina's relationship with Ike took a sudden, intimate turn. "Ike broke up with his common-law wife," Tina says, "and he said he was planning to go to California to do some recording. He asked me if I wanted to go. I said I didn't know what California looked like. He said it was a lot of pink houses and palm trees, and I tried to visualize it. All of a sudden, it became a little paradise.
"A couple nights later, we were working together, driving along, and it was the first time he touched me. I didn't want to touch. I liked him as a brother; I didn't want a relationship. But it just sort of grew on me." When Ike asked her again if she wanted to go to California with him, she said yes. "I would have gone anyplace with Ike, because I was very secure with him."
Before heading west, though, Ike wanted to complete another project he had cooking. This was a song. "A Fool in Love," that he'd written for one of the Kings' vocalists, Art Lassiter, to cut as a demo to shop around to record companies. When Ike had one of his not infrequent falling-outs with Lassiter, he asked his new sweetie to sing on the demo. The result — one of the most exhilaratingly primitive R&B records ever made — quickly caught the ear of Juggy Murray, head of Sue Records in New York, who signed the act under a new name the songwriter had just come up with: Ike and Tina Turner. "Tina" was not consulted about this name change (inspired by an old film-serial jungle queen) and didn't like it.
"A Fool in Love" became a Number Two R&B hit in 1960 and even went Top Thirty pop. As it began to break, though, Tina came down with jaundice — "I was totally yellow" — and was hospitalized. It was an inopportune moment to become ill, especially with such a lingering affliction. After six weeks, Ike — with an eye on the charts — decided she had recovered. "He came and said, 'The record is hitting, I've got some dates booked, and you've gotta sneak outta here." I said, 'All right.' " Out she snuck.
The Ike and Tina Turner Revue — complete with three session girls Ike had hired to sing backup for Tina on "A Fool in Love," now billed as the Ikettes — hit the road in support of the record. Right away, Tina says, Ike established a pattern he'd rarely break again: driving from date to date, playing fill-in gigs wherever possible along the way, renting a studio as soon as they hit a new town and staying up night after night trying to concoct the next hit. The original Ikettes soon dropped out and were replaced by a series of postgig recruits from local talent along the way.
At this point, Tina became pregnant by Ike. Around the same time — about 1962, according to Tina — Ike decided to get back together with his common-law wife. The arrangement didn't last long, however, and when Ike returned to Tina, he asked her to marry him. "We went to Mexico," she says with a shudder. "Tijuana. It was horrible. When he asked me to marry him, I didn't want to, because I knew then what my life would be like. But I was afraid to say no. So we went to Tijuana and a man signed the paper, and he slid this paper across the table. And I just remember it was dirty and ugly, and I said to myself, "This is my wedding."
"You see," says Tina, "I was still in love, but I was beginning to realize I was unhappy. I didn't want the relationship anymore — it started that early. We were two totally different people. When Ike got that record deal, I had already decided then that I didn't want to get involved. That was the first time he beat me up. And I thought, 'Okay, I'll do whatever it is.' Christ, I was afraid of Ike. I would do whatever he said. See, Ike was really very funny — he would joke and play — and I do remember good times and having some fun. But he was always so mixed up with confusion and anger that you could very easily forget the good times."
The hits, at least, kept happening. Ike and Tina followed "A Fool in Love" with the darkly funky "I Idolize You," the Mickey and Sylvia-styled "It's Gonna Work Out Fine," the familiar-sounding "Poor Fool," the primal "Tra La La La La" and, in the summer of 1962, a modified jump-band number called "You Should'a Treated Me Right."
But the situation with Ike was only getting worse. Still, Tina felt obligated to stay. "I felt very loyal to Ike, and I didn't want to hurt him. I knew if I left there'd be no one to sing, so I was caught up in guilt. I mean, sometimes, after he beat me up, I'd end up feeling sorry for him. I'd be sitting there all bruised and torn and feeling sorry for him. I was just...brainwashed? Maybe I was brainwashed."
Ike and Tina had settled in a Los Angeles suburb, but the act continued to work eleven months out of the year. When she wasn't onstage, Tina remained the perfect Little Woman. "Ike was like a king," she says. "When he woke up, I'd have to do his hair, do his nails, his feet. You know what I mean? I was a little slave girl."
In 1965, they were appearing at Cyrano's a club on the Sunset Strip, when Phil Spector walked in. Spector was impressed. He approached Ike ("No one ever approached me," Tina notes) with a proposition to feature the Turners in a concert film he was involved with, The Big T.N.T. Show. That was just the opener, though. He was really interested in making a record with Tina — just Tina. Some sort of deal was cut — Tina's not sure exactly what it was. By that point, she was just going along with the program; after gigs, she would slip away and go home to provide the couple's four children (two of Ike's, one of Tina's, and Ronnie, the son they had together) a modicum of company.
In any case, Spector secured from Ike the right to use Tina, and he invited her to his house to hear the song he wanted her to sing, a composition he'd cowritten with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich called "River Deep — Mountain High." Tina loved it. "For the first time in my life, it wasn't R&B. I finally had a chance to sing."
Spector and Tina recorded the song at Gold Star Studios. "He worked my butt off. Everything went fine except that opening line: 'When I was a little girl....' I did that 500,000 times. I don't know if I ever got that right. Nobody was there but Phil and me and the engineer. I was very comfortable with Phil. I remember taking off my shirt — it was drenched — and standing there in my bra singing. That's how hard I was singing. Phil was very patient. He would say, 'We're very close, that's very close. We'll try it again.' But I don't remember him saying. 'Got it!' "
Although credited as an Ike and Tina Turner performance on the record label, "River Deep" contained no input from Ike or anyone else in the Turner organization besides Tina. Released in 1966, the song was a sensation in England, where it went to Number Three. In America; though, it inexplicably bombed — a failure that so embittered Spector that he didn't produce another record for three years. Tina was hurt, too. "I felt I'd done something that I could be proud of," she says. "But that record had no home. It was too pop for black radio, and the white stations said, "They're not a pop act; we can't touch it.' "
The Turners' career, however, was well served by "River Deep." The Rolling Stones loved it and invited Ike and Tina to open for them in Europe; they recruited the duo again as an opening act on the Stones' 1969 U.S. tour. Ike quickly realized he was hooked onto a happening scene and allowed Tina to persuade him to work up covers for her of the Beatles' "Come Together," the Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary."
In hippie circles, Ike and Tina Turner became everyone's favorite gutbucket soul revue. Ike bought and decorated an elaborate house in Inglewood — orange carpet, green kitchen, mirror over the bed — and built a studio about five minutes away (with its own sort of playpen-apartment), to which he would summon Tina at all hours for recording work. She still didn't say much, but she was more miserable than ever. At one point, despairing about what her life had become, she procured a bottle of sleeping pills from a doctor and took them all before a show one night, hoping to pass out and die onstage.
"But I didn't make it to the stage," she says. "Ike walked in, and I was so scared, 'cause I knew that if he had to cancel before the show, he'd have to pay the musicians. And I did not make it to the stage, and I mean I was insanely afraid, I mean, he would beat me so, I cannot tell you, the choking and beating. And I was in the hospital, and I heard later from the doctors that they could not get a pulse. And apparently Ike came in and started talking to me. He said, 'You motherfucker, you better not die; I'll kill you' — and my pulse started!"
The Turners' long-sought success with white audiences — the real big time — only increased Ike's volatility. "The first time I remember seeing Ike do cocaine was in San Francisco," Tina says. "I think he was kind of doing it quietly for a while, and then he said, 'Oh, fuck, forget Tina. I'm just gonna let her know.' Then he started getting more bold.
"Ike never even drank in St. Louis, just smoked and gambled. But when he came to L.A., he started the cocaine and the sherry, and then he moved to harder liquor, more and more, and he just slowly started getting crazy. He served cocaine like wine, and all of a sudden there were guns under the control board. It was like living in hell's domain."
According to Tina, Ike also moved one of his many mistresses into their home, leaving the two women to while away the hours while he and his cohorts pursued their own mysterious amusements out in his windowless studio. "She used to be with the Ikettes, this woman, and then she became pregnant and started handling wardrobe. And how I lived with that was...I lost my feelings for Ike as my husband. So it didn't really matter about the women, you know? The part that mattered was when I had to be intimate, because I didn't want to be intimate."
By 1975, the hits had dried up for Ike and Tina Turner, and so had a lot of the live work with which Ike had sustained his lifestyle over the years. And Tina, after nearly sixteen years of marriage, had finally reached the end of her rope. In the midst of what was to be their final tour, en route to the L.A. airport for a flight to Dallas, their whole tormented life together finally fell apart.
"He handed me this chocolate candy, and it was melting, you know? And I was wearing a white suit, and I went, 'Uh'. That's all and he hit me. And this time, I was pissed. I said, 'I'm fightin' back.' "
When they arrived at the Dallas airport, the fight continued. "When I got in the car, he gave me a backhand, just like that. And I remember pointing my finger in his face and saying, 'I told you. You got the money, you got everything. I'm gonna try to stay — but I'm not gonna take your licks anymore.' And then the big fight started — and I started hitting back. I didn't cry once. I cursed back and I yelled, and he goes, 'You son of a bitch, you never talked to me like this before.' And I said, 'That's right, but I am now!'
"Because I knew I was gone. I was flying. I knew that that was it. By the time we got to the hotel, I'm not lying, my face was swollen out past my ear. Blood was everyplace. We walked upstairs, and Ike knew. So he went and laid across the bed. And I was still saying, 'Can I get you something?' And I started massaging him, as usual, massaging his head. And he started snoring. And I learned over and I said...goodbye."
Ike was not all that easy to shake, according to Tina. There were a few bullets fired into one of the houses she moved to, and a car was burned. For a while, knowing Ike's own predilections, she took to carrying a gun herself. When she walked out on Ike, she had thirty-six cents and single handbag to her name, and in the subsequent divorce action she asked for nothing more — no money, no property, no payoff on all the years she'd put into their career. It was the price of disengagement, she says — the price of finally buying her freedom.
For a year after the split, Tina did nothing. Through some women friends who put her up, she became interested in Buddhism and chanting. Eventually, she went back to work at the only job she knew. Unfortunately, since it had been she who had walked out on Ike in the midst of a tour, damages for all the resultant blown gigs were laid by the promoters at her door. A friend in the record business agreed to help, and realizing she needed immediate infusions of cash to begin paying off the hundreds of thousands of dollars of debts she'd suddenly fallen heir to, he steered her into cabaret — Vegas, Tahoe. Tina is not ashamed of those days: she had to work, and she was a pro.
Four years ago, Tina decided she needed management, so she approached Lee Kramer, who was then working with Olivia Newton-John. Kramer later dropped out of the picture, but when he first went to catch Tina's act, at the spiffy Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, he brought along his Australian assistant, Roger Davies, and Davies was knocked out. Not by Tina's dancers and disco tunes, and not by her tuxedo-clad band, but by Tina herself — onstage, the woman was still dynamite.
Davies eventually wound up taking Tina on, persuaded her to chuck her supper-club show and aimed her back toward hard rock & roll. Then, two years ago, the members of B.E.F. — the independent production arm of the English synth-pop band Heaven 17 — asked Tina to sing lead on their version of an old Temptations tune, "Ball of Confusion." The track, which appeared on B.E.F.'s Music of Quality and Distinction album, proved beyond any doubt that Tina could still raise a roof with the very best of them.
A buzz began. Tina regrouped with Heaven 17's Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory last year to cut a hypnotic version of the Al Green classic, "Let's Stay Together," and it became a Top Five hit in Britain (and later a dance-floor smash in the States, too). Tina played the Ritz in New York City, and Keith Richards and David Bowie both came to cheer. Capitol Records, the American branch of her British label, became excited enough to put up $150,000 for an album — but only gave her two weeks to do it. Tina and Davies flew to London, and Davies began soliciting songs. Rupert Hine, producer of the Fixx and a songwriter himself, came up with "I Might Have Been Queen," a tune tailored specifically for Tina. Mark Knopfler turned over Private Dancer," a number originally slated for Dire Straits' Love Over Gold album. Terry Britten, an Australian friend of Davies', donated "What's Love Got to Do with It." Ware and Walsh produced a version of Bowie's "1984." Jeff Beck — a rabid fan — chipped in two guest guitar solos, and in two weeks, the record was done. And Tina Turner was back to stay.
Today, Tina looks better than ever, sings better than ever, and says she's now happier than ever, too. She has a new boyfriend — a younger man she'd rather not name — and is now attempting to find the "balance of equality between men and women." She sees herself performing till she's fifty, perhaps, and says she'd then like to become a teacher, a propagator of her beloved Buddhist beliefs. Apparently, it's preordained.
"I'm gonna focus on this," she says. "I think that's gonna be my message, that's why I'm here. And I think that's why I'm gonna be as powerful as I am. Because in order to get people to listen to you, you've got to be some kind of landmark, some kind of foundation. You don't listen to people that don't mean anything to you. You have to have something there to make people believe you. And so I think that's what's going on now. I'm getting their attention now, and then when I'm ready, they'll listen. And they'll hear."