Tina Turner: 15 Essential Songs
There was absolutely no one like Tina Turner. The rock and soul icon, who died on May 24 at age 83, lived at least three lifetimes. There was the vocal phenomenon who was always too powerful a force to be contained as one half of a duo with her abusive ex-husband in the Sixties; the solo powerhouse who took her rightful place in the pantheon of rock in the Seventies; and the pop and R&B hitmaker whose career soared to even greater heights in the Eighties. And that’s just scratching the surface of an artist whose life and music stand as unmatched symbols of resilience and damn good singing. Long live the queen of rock & roll. Here are 15 songs to remember her by.
“A Fool in Love” (1960)
Ike and Tina Turner had been burning up the St. Louis club scene for a while when they made their national debut with this killer single in the summer of 1960. Ike and the Kings of Rhythm lay down a hot groove as Turner sings with spellbinding intensity about giving herself over to a dominating lover. The lyrics depict a woman in pain, but as a singer she’s in total command, punctuating her performance with roof-raising shrieks, blending blues and gospel, fighting through the hurt she’s enduring with a power that would soon make her one of the most distinctive voices in rock & roll. It’s quite an introduction, and the world took notice: “A Fool in Love” was Ike and Tina Turner’s breakout hit. —J.D.
“It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (1961)
Tina’s real-life marriage to Ike was an abusive nightmare, but on this early R&B gem, she paints one of the most enticing portraits of monogamy imaginable. Even so, it’s hard not to hear the undercurrent of doubt — or even a gentle threat — in the way she belts, “If your love is half as true/As the love I offer you/I think it’s gonna work out fine.” —B.H.
“River Deep, Mountain High” (1966)
Phil Spector heard the Ike and Tina Turner Revue at a Hollywood club at a time when their recording career had stalled, following a handful of R&B hits in the early 1960s. Spector had a song called “River Deep, Mountain High” that he was sure was going to be huge, and he wanted Tina to sing it, though he forbade Ike from even coming to the sessions. “I must have sung that 500,000 times,” Tina later said. “I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing.” In the end, “River Deep” barely cracked the Top 100 — but it’s still one of her most remarkable performances.
“Funkier Than a Mosquita’s Tweeter” (1970)
Written by Tina’s older sister, Alline Bullock, “Mosquita” is best known as a Nina Simone song; her version, which spells it “Mosquito,” was so successful that later pressings of the Ike & Tina version adopted Nina’s spelling. But don’t let one iconic cover overshadow the original. “Mosquita” was released on Ike & Tina’s 1970 album Workin’ Together, positioned alongside their cover of “Proud Mary” and a pair of Beatles songs (“Get Back,” “Let It Be”). Turner demolishes the rumbling funk rhythm with her voice, and when she sings “You’re nothin’ but a dirty, dirty old man” on a song with the husband who was making her life hell at the time, you can’t help but find it fitting. —A.M.
“Nutbush City Limits” (1973)
By the early Seventies, Tina Turner was struggling in her creative and romantic partnership with Ike Turner. “I wanted to do something to help get us out of our career slump, so I decided to try songwriter,” she recounted years later. “I started with the topic I knew best: my own life.” The result was “Nutbush City Limits,” a grease R&B-meets-country-rock stomp, “a perfect marriage of rural and urban, country girl and city slicker, Tina and Ike,” as Francesca Royster writes in Black Country Music. The song, which marked a creative triumph for Turner, was also a signal, in more ways than one, that the days of Ike & Tina were numbered: In addition to being the first song she ever wrote, it also gave a taste of the Tennessee roots she’d fully explore just a year later, on her first solo album. —J.A.B.
“Proud Mary” (1971)
“We never, ever do anything nice and easy,” Turner intones, unforgettably, at the beginning of her indelible revamp of this Creedence Clearwater Revival hit, which starts out at half-time before exploding into a frenzied R&B showstopper. Her rendition was so unforgettable that the song’s composer, John Fogerty, feared that the world would forget he had ever had anything to do with it. —B.H.
“Acid Queen” (1975)
In the years leading up to Tina leaving Ike for good, she was beginning to stake her claim as a solo artist. In 1974, she dropped her debut album, Tina Turns the Country On! Then she headed to London to film the big-screen adaptation of the Who’s ambitious rock opera Tommy. She played the Acid Queen, and received critical acclaim for her wild, energetic performance. Performing her character’s big song, Turner was feral and thrilling, going above and beyond to match the tense (and a bit horrifying) nature of her encounter with the young pinball wizard at the story’s center. The same year Tommy came out, Turner released another solo album, this time inspired by her role in the movie. —B.S.
“Let’s Stay Together” (1983)
Tina Turner was on a major downward career spiral when British New Wave band Heaven 17 invited her to sing on their 1982 hit “Ball of Confusion.” It was her first foray into the world of synth pop, and it became a hit in Europe. This captured the attention of Capitol Records. They signed Turner and put her back in the studio with Heaven 17’s Martin Ware to cut a New Wave take on Al Green’s classic “Let’s Stay Together.” The song charted all across the planet, setting the stage perfectly for Private Dancer. It’s fair to say that “Let’s Stay Together” was the song that rebooted her entire career. —A.G.
“What’s Love Got to Do With It” (1984)
Written by the British duo of Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” was rejected by Cliff Richard and Donna Summer before Tina Turner got her hands on it. She was 46 and seen by much of the industry as a decade past her prime, but she infused every word of the song with heartache and pain drawn from her real life. Millions connected to it, and the song topped charts all over the world, solidifying one of the great comebacks in rock history. “It’s neither rock & roll nor R&B,” Turner told Rolling Stone right after it hit. “It’s a bit of both.”
“Private Dancer” (1984)
Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler wrote “Private Dancer” for his band’s 1982 album, Love Over Gold, but ultimately felt uncomfortable singing the lyrics since they’re from the perspective of a stripper doing what she needs to do to get paid. A couple of years later, he offered it to Tina Turner, and the rest of Dire Straits recorded it with her (though Jeff Beck replaced Knopfler on guitar). “I’m your private dancer, a dancer for money,” she sings, reaching deep into her gut to hit the high notes. “I’ll do what you want me to do.” The pain (and also a little pride) that she poured into the words still feels wrenching as she plays a character coming to terms with her career: “Tell me, do you want to see me do the shimmy again?” But the way Turner sang it with such conviction made it a Number Seven hit. —K.G.
“Better Be Good to Me” (1984)
Though this song was originally recorded by the New York band Spider, who released it in 1981, Turner made it feel like a signature statement, imbuing its demand for respect with rock-star swagger and her own story of struggle and resilience. “Better Be Good to Me” helped set the emotional tone for her glorious comeback LP Private Dancer, and won a Grammy for Best Female Rock Performance in 1985. —J.D.
“We Don’t Need Another Hero” (1985)
The 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is generally seen as the weakest chapter in the original Mad Max trilogy. But nobody disputes that Tina Turner was brilliant as the evil Aunt Entity. Even better was her contribution to the soundtrack, “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome).” The anthem played over the closing credits, and gave Turner a Top Five hit in America. Another piece of her ever-growing legacy, it remained a key part of her live show all the way until her final tour in 2009. —A.G.
“Typical Male” (1986)
After Private Dancer helped launch a global comeback for Turner, she kept the immense success going with 1986’s Break Every Rule. She kicked off the album cycle with “Typical Male,” a fizzy pop-rock bop that has her falling for a lawyer, then realizing he’s just like all the other guys who want her. Featuring Phil Collins on drums, the song is a perfectly kitschy Eighties pop hit with Turner’s playful, sexy charm burning down the house. The song was an instant success, becoming her second single to top the Hot 100. —B.S.
“The Best” (1989)
Bonnie Tyler, the “Total Eclipse of the Heart” hitmaker, recorded “The Best” a year before Tina Turner. It’s a stunning recording — Tyler sold just how much she adored her lover, and it’s truly one of Tyler’s best songs — but it failed to chart. When Turner covered it for Foreign Affair, she poured her own unique passion into songwriters Mike Chapman and Holly Knight’s words; added a key change, a bridge, and an Edgar Winter sax solo; and turned the song into the megahit it was always meant to be. The way she drops her voice to sing “You’re better than anyone, anyone I ever met” still gives chills. When Tina Turner gave a compliment, she meant it. —K.G.
“I Don’t Wanna Fight” (1993)
The 1993 Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It featured brilliant performances by Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as Tina and Ike, earning them both Academy Award nominations. For the soundtrack, the real-life Turner took a ballad originally penned by Sixties British pop star Lulu and turned it into her final Top 10 hit in America. Lulu didn’t write the lyrics with Turner in mind, but it summed up Turner’s spirit perfectly, transforming it into a sequel of sorts to 1984’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” “But me, I’m getting stronger,” Turner sings. “We must stop pretending/I can’t live this life.” —A.G.