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.