Remembering Ike Turner, Rock Pioneer and R&B Giant (1931-2007)

By |

Ike Turner an essential and largely undervalued figure in the history of both rhythm & blues and rock & roll, died in his home in San Marcos, California, earlier today. He was seventy-six years old. The cause of his death is unknown at this time.

To the public, Turner was best known as half of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, a hard-hitting R&B band that tore off a string of hits in the Sixties and early Seventies — most notably a torrid version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary" that cracked the Top Ten and became a pop-culture staple on the basis of Tina's smoldering spoken introduction to the song ("We never, ever do nothin' nice and easy"). Influential far beyond its hits, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

But Ike Turner had been a musical innovator for years before he met Anna Mae Bullock, the singer who would eventually become his wife and, as Tina Turner, propel him to international fame. Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931 and raised on a steady diet of the blues, Turner eventually became an important songwriter, producer, guitarist, pianist, band leader and talent scout. "Rocket 88," a blistering R&B hit in 1951 that is often cited as the first rock & roll song, may have been credited to Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats. But Brenston, who sang the song, was simply the saxophonist in Turner's band, the Kings of Rhythm, who performed the song under Turner's leadership. Turner played piano on the track, and may well have written it, though that, too, was credited to Brenston at the time. It would not be the last time Ike Turner was overlooked.

But without becoming a star in his own right, Turner thrived in the free-wheeling days of the independent record industry in the South in the 1950s. A propulsive pianist who first learned his style from the bluesman Pinetop Perkins, whom he met as a child, Turner eventually became an outstanding guitarist. His rhythmic sense was at once rough and impeccable, while his tremolo-laden solos rippled with excitement. His skills as a musician — he played on tracks by the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush and Buddy Guy — were matched by his abilities as a talent scout (a role he played for Sam Phillips, among others) and band leader.

Turner met Anna Mae Bullock in St. Louis, where he had moved in 1956, and, renamed Tina, she soon joined his band. (The couple would not marry until 1962.) The Ike and Tina Turner Revue gained a strong reputation on the R&B circuit on the strength of Tina's electrifying on-stage presence and the daunting bands and arrangements Ike put together. English musicians obsessed with American R&B eventually helped call attention to the group — Ike and Tina opened for the Rolling Stones on that band's legendary 1969 tour — and they became extremely successful.

Things slowed down for the group in the Seventies, however, and Ike and Tina split up in 1976. After Tina published her autobiography, I, Tina, in 1986 (co-written with then-Rolling Stone staffer Kurt Loder, and generated by a feature Loder had written for the magazine), the story of Ike's scarifying physical and emotional abuse of her became widely known, much to the detriment of Ike's reputation. The enormous success of What's Love Got To Do With It, the 1993 film based on the book, only solidified the image of Ike as a brutal demon. To say the couple never reconciled would be a vast understatement. Tina Turner issued the following statement today: "Tina is aware that Ike passed away earlier today. She has not had any contact with him in thirty-five years. No further comment will be made." At various points, Ike was arrested for drugs and weapons possession, and he was jailed in the early Nineties.

Still, Ike Turner had begun to perform and record again in the past decade, and earlier this year he was awarded a Grammy in the category of "Best Traditional Blues Album" for his 2006 release, Risin' With The Blues. He played piano on the Gorillaz' track, "Every Planet We Reach Is Dead," and he had planned to release a collaboration with the Black Keys, produced by Danger Mouse, next year. "To me, Ike Turner was a man of many myths and legends," Danger Mouse said today. "I was fortunate enough to discover his many gifts to rock & roll and modern music, but also his great redemption as a man. I learned so much from Ike, and I'm very, very sad he's gone."

Ike Turner never displayed the requisite regret required for rehabilitation in the public's eyes, and so he never fully reclaimed the spotlight. A kind of cultural precursor to O.J. Simpson, he often seemed more mystified by his former wife's indictment of him than either sorrowful or in denial. Musically, however, his importance cannot be denied — and his discovery of Tina Turner is only one of the reasons why. Finally, that reputation may well have been what he cared about the most.

•< a target="_blank" href="http://www.rollingstone.com/photos/gallery/17617408/ike_turner_five_decades_of_rock_a/photo/1/large">Photo Gallery: Ike Turner
The World's Greatest Heartbreaker (RS 93, October 14, 1971)

x