"Her hair all flying and her big man-eater teeth flashing. She ate us all for breakfast": Remembering the Queen Of Rock’N’Roll, Tina Turner

 Tina Turner studio portrait.
Tina Turner studio portrait.

Tina Turner defined the role of the female rock star and took it to stratospheric heights. Blessed with a strong, soulful singing voice and phenomenal reserves of energy, she was a performer with a smart, sophisticated sheen underpinned by raw, animal magnetism. Her 1984 album Private Dancer sold more than 12 million copies worldwide – a tally matched by only two other albums released by women up to that point (Like A Virgin by Madonna and She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper).

Turner’s show at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro in January 1988 in front of 180,000 fans earned her a place in the Guinness Book Of World Records for the largest audience ever assembled (at the time) by any performer, male or female, for a ticketed musical event. Turner was then 48 and close to the peak of her powers: a star of MTV, a member of the Live Aid rock aristocracy, a global stadium-rock phenomenon, and a household name. She was simply the biggest, as well as the best.

When I met her in London in June 1987, she had acquired an appropriate grandeur but was nevertheless a somewhat nervous and tightly strung object of scrutiny as she navigated her way through an afternoon of interviews with various international journalists, ending with an appearance on Terry Wogan’s show at BBC Television Centre. Smaller than you would think (5'4") and immaculately dressed in a simple but stunning skirt and top, she spoke quietly but firmly.

Her autobiography, I, Tina, written with Kurt Loder and published the year before, was by then an international best-seller. The book had lifted the lid on the years of physical and emotional abuse she had suffered at the hands of her former husband and musical collaborator Ike Turner. Her status as a fully qualified survivor had turned her into a symbol of female empowerment. Not only had she broken free of her tormentor, but she had also gone on, loudly and proudly, to eclipse in her own right all of her past achievements with Ike.

But her newly forged credentials as a feminist icon had not affected her style as one of the most instinctively sexy performers ever to embark on a career in showbusiness. Her long legs, short/slit skirts, plunging necklines and surreal bouffants enhanced an air of hyper-sexuality that she affected to be blithely unaware of.

“Now listen to me very carefully,” she told me in a low, steady voice that left little room for further discussion. “I have nothing to do with the labels people put on me. I was never promoting any cause. I was living my life. As for those dresses, I wore them then, I wear them now, because they’re practical for the work I do and the way I’m built; they’re just my style. They’re nothing to do with anything that I thought or did. I’m not for any ‘movement’. I don’t want that responsibility. I’m just living my life.”


And what a life it was. She was born Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, near Brownsville, Tennessee, the location immortalised in the 1973 hit Nutbush City Limits – one of the comparatively few songs that she wrote herself. ‘Church house, gin house, school house, outhouse… You go to store on Fridays, you go to church on Sundays.’ Her father was a sharecropper, and as a little girl she picked cotton and sang in the choir of her local Baptist church. When she was 11, her mother ran off to St Louis, Missouri to escape her husband’s abusive behaviour. Little Ann, as she was known, and her elder sister Alline eventually followed their mother to St Louis, where the two sisters would frequent the local R&B clubs.

Little Ann was 17 in 1957 when she first saw Ike Turner on stage at the Club Manhattan with his band the Kings Of Rhythm. He was 26 and already an established figure in the music business; a guitarist, pianist, songwriter, producer and the man behind Jackie Brenston’s 1951 single Rocket 88, which is often referred to as “the first rock’n’roll record”. She became a regular at Ike’s shows and dreamed of being a singer with his band. One night, during the intermission, she grabbed the microphone and started singing BB King’s You Know I Love You. Ike (and the audience) was suitably impressed, and her moment of bravado marked the beginning of a long and explosive partnership.

Ike changed Little Ann’s name to Tina – inspired by the popular TV series Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle – and encouraged her to develop a wild, uninhibited stage personality similar to that of the cartoon character. In 1960 they released their first single as Ike & Tina Turner, the gospel-tinged R&B song A Fool In Love, which found Tina testifying: ‘I trust the man and all that he do’ (it was Ike’s lyric).

The song was a substantial hit on the R&B chart, and became one of the first records to cross over into the mainstream US pop chart, where it reached No.27. A string of hits followed including Its Gonna Work Out Fine, Poor Fool and others, prompting Ike to re-brand his live show as the Ike& Tina Turner Revue and, with a trio of female backing singers/dancers known as the Ikettes, to embark on a never-ending schedule of touring and recording.

Tina was already the mother of Ike’s son Ronnie (b.1960), and the mother of another son Craig (b.1958) by the Kings Of Rhythm saxophonist Raymond Hill when in 1962 Ike and Tina were married in a registry office in Tijuana. Love did not have a lot to do with it. After the papers were signed, Ike took his new wife to a brothel where the floor show was “more gynaecological than erotic” as a mortified Tina described it in her 2018 memoir My Love Story.

There is some amazing footage from this early period now available on YouTube and elsewhere of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue performing on stage and in TV studios in America. But very little if any of it reached UK TV screens at the time. One memorable introduction to Tina’s unique performing style was through the evocative writing of Nik Cohn, whose account of a show in London stood out among the many brilliant pieces in his epochal 1969 book Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom:

“She’s a great big woman with long black hair right down her back and a beautiful snarling animal face and a truly cosmic arse. Not pretty but sexual as hell. All this time, Ike Turner, her husband, plays guitar behind her and looks mean, a neat little man with a goatee and sad cynical eyes. I was standing right under the stage.

"So, Tina started whirling and pounding and screaming, melting by the minute, and suddenly she came thundering down on me like an avalanche, backside first, all that flesh shaking and leaping in my face. And I reared back in self-defence, all the front rows did, and then someone fell over and we all immediately collapsed in a heap, struggling and cursing, thrashing about like fish in a bucket.

"When I looked back up again, Tina was still shaking above us, her butt was still exploding, and she looked down on us in triumph. So sassy, so smug and evil. She’d used her arse as a bowling ball, us as skittles, and she’d scored a strike. Smart woman: her flesh dissolving and her hair all flying and her big man-eater teeth flashing. She ate us all for breakfast.”

But along with the sensuality and physicality of her performing style there was another, more technical, side to Tina’s singing abilities which was revealed by Phil Spector when he co-wrote and produced the landmark 1966 hit River Deep Mountain High. Although Ike Turner was credited on the record, Spector, who was a similarly unhinged control freak, had ensured that Ike had no involvement in the making of it.

Musing on the song years later, Tina said: “I didn’t know it at the time because I couldn’t see into the future, but I came out of that collaboration transformed, with a taste of independence, an unaccustomed sense of self-worth, and an audience in Europe, where they embraced the song that America didn’t know how to appreciate. After that song, a line was drawn… I knew better, and I wanted more.”

Following the No.3 chart success in the UK of River Deep Mountain High, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue made their first visit to Britain where they opened for the Rolling Stones on their tour of 1966. It was the start of a long and fruitful relationship between Tina and the Stones, and particularly between Tina and Mick Jagger. The Stones hired Ike & Tina again to open their 1969 tour of America, and footage of Tina giving a spectacularly lascivious performance of I’ve Been Loving You Too Long was included in Gimme Shelter, the 1970 documentary directed by Albert and David Maysles which chronicled the tour that ended with the disastrous events at the Altamont free festival.

It’s often said that Turner taught Jagger to dance. “That’s not true,” she told me in her emphatic way. “Inspired him, perhaps. He would stand at the corners of the stage and watch us. And in the same way that you take certain ideas that help you to write songs, you take certain things that help you to create your performing style. I may have shown him how to do the pony steps that we used in our routines. But not teaching him. His mother taught him to dance. I met his mother and that’s what she told me. Mick and I we’re performers, not dancers. We just do street dance steps.”

The 1970s brought more hits. Their extraordinary version of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song Proud Mary, which began sotto voce and then exploded into a frenetic, rock’n’roll free-for-all, became a million-selling hit in 1971, landing them firmly in the top five of the US pop chart for the first time. Nutbush City Limits was a top-five hit in the UK and a big smash throughout Europe in 1973. It was to be their last big hit as a duo.

Tina’s memorable performance in the role of the Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s 1975 film Tommy, based on The Who’s rock opera, gave her a taste for acting and, perhaps more significantly, another taste of what it was like to work and live independently of Ike. By the mid-70s Ike had become heavily addicted to cocaine, which brought out the worst of an already deeply flawed personality. He would beat Tina before and after their “lovemaking” sessions, and “punish” her for the most minor transgressions by burning her with scalding coffee and cigarettes.

Tina, by contrast, had found solace by becoming a Buddhist and immersing herself in a daily routine of chanting and meditation which brought her calmness and an inner strength. She later wrote the book Happiness Becomes You (published in 2020) which outlines how she applied her Buddhist principles to overcome the many personal and professional challenges she faced throughout her life.

She needed every ounce of resolve at her disposal after events came to a head in July 1976. During a car journey from Dallas airport to the Statler Hilton, Ike set about her with his fists and a shoe. “By the time we reached the hotel, my face was swollen and my once-beautiful suit was splattered with blood,” Tina recalled in her memoir. “We attracted a lot of attention when we stepped out of the car, although Ike claimed we had been in an ‘accident’. I looked like a woman who had been broken and silenced.”

Tina waited until Ike had fallen asleep in their hotel room before gathering a few toiletries into a case and slipping out of the hotel via the kitchen and into a back alley. In a state of panic and confusion she ran across a busy interstate highway and up an embankment to a Ramada hotel where, battered, bloodied and with just 36 cents in her pocket, she presented herself to the manager and asked for sanctuary.

There followed a stretch in the wilderness during which Tina fought to re-establish her career as a performer in her own right and to make a life for herself without Ike. At the age of 37 she was dependent on friends for a place to live. “While my hosts were out, or at work, I scrubbed their homes from top to bottom, organised their closets, and got rid of their junk and trash,” she recalled. “Better to be someone else’s maid than Ike Turner’s wife was my attitude.”

Her divorce from Ike was finalised in 1978. She took no money or property from the settlement; her sole “demand” was the right to continue using her name (which Ike had trademarked). For a while Tina earned money from guest appearances on TV chat shows (Hollywood Squares, Donny & Marie, The Sonny & Cher Show) and playing on the cabaret/Las Vegas circuit. She released a couple of solo albums, Rough (1978) and Love Explosion (1979), neither of which sold well, after which she was dropped by her label United Artists

She was beginning to look like a hasbeen, but never lost faith in her own ability or ambition. She approached a young Australian promoter called Roger Davies to become her manager in 1980, and with his help and guidance Tina began to re-fashion both herself and her music to appeal to a new, much broader audience.

Her rock friends rallied round. In 1981 Rod Stewart invited her to tour with him and she performed Hot Legs with him on the influential US TV show Saturday Night Live. And the Stones once again added her to the bill for dates on their American Tour to promote Tattoo You (the highest grossing tour of 1981). In 1982 she recorded a version of The Temptations’ hit Ball Of Confusion for BEF, an offshoot of the UK group Heaven 17, and made a video which was shown to good responses on the new video channel MTV.

In 1983 when she was trying to negotiate a recording contract with Capitol, David Bowie helpfully told executives at the label that Tina Turner was his favourite singer. He showed up at her showcase gig at The Ritz in New York with Keith Richards and other celebrities who later partied the night away with Tina – an event which she subsequently described as a “Cinderella” moment which “changed my life dramatically”.

The initial breakthrough as a solo star came with a version of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together produced with a modern, stylish touch by Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh of Heaven 17. A surprise hit on both sides of the Atlantic, it paved the way for the album Private Dancer and its accompanying single What’s Love Got To Do With It, both released in May 1984. With its title track, written by Mark Knopfler, and other songs by bespoke pop songwriters such as Terry Britten and Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, there was no doubt that Tina had been guided in her choice of material by Roger Davies.

“There was a lot of the music on Private Dancer which she didn’t really like, to be honest, and she’ll tell you that herself,” Davies told Charles Shaar Murray in 1988. “But I said: ‘That’s the direction we have to go in. I know you want to do an AC/DC album, but we’re not ready for that yet.’ If Tina had a choice, she’d do a real hard rock, heavy metal album. I don’t mean bang-your-headagainst-the-wall stuff, but real good, pumping stuff like early AC/DC.”

Her rock credentials were bolstered by a duet with Bryan Adams on his song It’s Only Love. Adams joined her on stage during the Private Dancer tour, and there is a memorable video of the pair performing in Birmingham in 1985. The chemistry is off the scale as the two of them romp through the song, their rasping vocals set against the soaring, swooping interplay between the two fine guitarists in Turner’s touring band, James Ralston and Jamie West-Oram. There is a classic moment when Turner steadies Adams’s vocal mic in a way that is somehow both lewd and motherly.

“Looking sexy on stage was never my primary goal, and I didn’t worry about how guys would react to my look,” Turner said. “I always played to the women in the audience, because if you’ve got the girls on your side, you’ve got the guys. I wanted the women to like me, so I set out to convince them that I was just having fun, not trying to steal their men.”

But if looking sexy was not her primary goal, she was not shy about doing what it took to grab the attention of her male fans. In 1985 she took a starring role in the Live Aid show singing State Of Shock and It’s Only Rock ’N Roll with her long-time admirer Mick Jagger, who ended a performance of supercharged sexual energy by rather ungallantly ripping her skirt off. In the same year, Turner took on the role of Aunty Entity in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

“That was the greatest costume I ever had on my body,” she said. “It was cutting me up, but I thought: ‘I don’t care. I’ll bleed. I’ll die. I love where I am. I love every minute of it. This is where I need to be.’” The soundtrack provided another enduring hit with We Don’t Need Another Hero.

Having established herself as a solo star, and with her destiny now grasped firmly in her own hands, there were no further missteps on the road ahead. A succession of multimillion-selling albums ensued – Break Every Rule (1986), Foreign Affair (1989), What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993), Wildest Dreams (1996) and Twenty Four Seven (1999) – each accompanied by increasingly extravagant tours of the world’s biggest venues.

By the time she went out on her Twenty Four Seven Tour, at the age of 60, Turner was a certified megastar. Striding across a vast stadium stage set designed by Mark Fisher (Rolling Stones designer), she wended her way through a futuristic, multi-level vision of cantilevered walkways and chrome archways that exploded into life with shooting pyrotechnic displays. And every night as she sang Nutbush City Limits she would be hoisted into the air and swung above the heads of the audience on the end of an enormous crane arm.

In 2013, Turner married former record label executive Erwin Bach, her boyfriend of 27 years, and was getting ready to settle into a well-earned retirement, when she suffered a devastating succession of health problems: a stroke, intestinal cancer and kidney failure, the latter requiring a transplanted organ, which was donated by Bach.

She came through it all strong enough to attend the opening of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical at the Aldwych in London in April 2018. Watching her life story unfold in front of her eyes, Turner thought about “the long road I travelled from Nutbush to this theatre in London – all that I went through, from the beginning of Little Anna Mae, all the way to here. And I thought: ‘I am blessed.’”