Tina Turner, Queen of Rock & Roll, Dead at 83

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Tina Turner - Credit: Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Tina Turner - Credit: Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Tina Turner, the raspy-voiced fireball who overcame domestic abuse and industry ambivalence to emerge as one of rock and soul’s brassiest, most rousing and most inspirational performers, died Wednesday at age 83. 

“Tina Turner, the ‘Queen of Rock & Roll’ has died peacefully today at the age of 83 after a long illness in her home in Küsnacht near Zurich, Switzerland,” her family said in a statement Wednesday. “With her, the world loses a music legend and a role model.” A cause of death was not immediately available, though Turner had a stroke and battled both kidney failure and intestinal cancer in recent years.

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Starting with her performances with her ex-husband Ike, Turner injected an uninhibited, volcanic stage presence into pop. Even with choreographed backup singers — both with Ike and during her own career — Turner never seemed reined in. Her influence on rock, R&B, and soul singing and performance was also immeasurable. Her delivery influenced everyone from Mick Jagger to Mary J. Blige, and her high-energy stage presence (topped with an array of gravity-defying wigs) was passed down to Janet Jackson and Beyoncé. Turner’s message — one that resounded with generations of women — was that she could hold her own onstage against any man. 

But Turner’s other legacy was more personal and involved a far more complex man. During her time with Ike — a demanding and often drug-addled bandleader and guitarist — her husband often beat and humiliated her. Her subsequent rebirth, starting with her massively popular, Grammy-winning 1984 makeover Private Dancer, made her a symbol of survival and renewal.

Born Anna Mae Bullock on Nov. 26, 1939, Turner grew up in Nutbush, Tennessee, a rural and unincorporated area in Haywood County chronicled in her song “Nutbush City Limits.” According to Turner, her family were “well-to-do farmers” who lived well off the business of sharecropping. Still, Turner and her older sister Ruby Aillene dealt with abandonment issues when their parents left to work elsewhere.

“My mother and father didn’t love each other, so they were always fighting,” Turner recalled in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview. Her mother first left when Tina was 10 to live in St. Louis; her father left three years later. Turner relocated to Brownsville, Tennessee, to live with her grandmother.

After high school, she began working as a nurse’s aide in hopes of entering that profession. Frequently, Turner and her sister would head to nightclubs in St. Louis and East St. Louis, where she first saw Ike Turner perform as the bandleader of Kings of Rhythm. The 18-year-old became enamored with the guitarist eight years her senior and his group’s music. One night, the drummer passed Turner the microphone while she was in the audience. Ike then invited Tina to be the group’s guest vocalist and instructed her on voice control and performance. As “Little Ann,” she sang alongside Carlson Oliver on Ike Turner’s “Box Top,” which was her first studio recording.

In 1958, the same year that “Box Top” was released, Turner gave birth to her first child, Raymond Craig, with Raymond Hill, the Kings of Rhythm’s saxophonist. Soon after, Tina moved in with Ike to help raise the musician’s two sons after he had broken up with their mother. A sexual relationship ensued, even though Turner told RS in 1984 that she wasn’t initially attracted to him: “I liked him as a brother,” she said. “I didn’t want a relationship. But it just sort of grew on me.” Inspired by the movie serial Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Turner changed her stage name per Ike’s request.

In 1960, Ike and Tina Turner released their debut single, “A Fool in Love.” It was an immediate success, reaching the Top 30 on the Billboard Hot 100. The next year, they released another hit single, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” which led to their first Grammy nomination for Best Rock and Roll Performance. The Ike and Tina Turner Revue maintained a rigorous touring schedule as part of the chitlin circuit in the early Sixties and became noted for the quality of their spectacle and diverse crowds they could reach in the South.

“The success and the fear came almost hand in hand,” Turner told RS, specifically noting Ike’s fear of losing her following “A Fool in Love.” Ike continued to sleep with other women, and Tina was aware that his songs were often about his other sexual relationships. She refused to travel and sing his songs at one point; the first time she did so, he began beating her with his shoe stretcher. Yet she stayed with him: “I felt very loyal to Ike, and I didn’t want to hurt him,” she told RS in 1984. “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.” The two married in 1962 in Tijuana; it was Ike’s sixth marriage.

In 1966, the Turners partook in a now-legendary rock TV show, The TNT Show, whose musical director was producer Phil Spector. After signing the duo to his label, Spector produced what he considered his masterpiece, “River Deep – Mountain High,” putting Tina through countless vocal takes. The song wasn’t the blockbuster many assumed it would be, but it opened up other doors for Ike and Tina.

In 1969, they opened for the Rolling Stones on the band’s U.S. tour, then went on to have a crossover hit with a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” that, thanks to Tina, went from smoldering to souped-up; it won a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group. (“I loved her version,” CCR’s John Fogerty said in a statement. “It was different and fantastic.”) In 1975, Tina appeared as the Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s grandiose film version of the Who’s Tommy.

Amid it all, though, the Turners’ marriage began to unravel as Ike grew more abusive and more addicted to cocaine. Tina had previously attempted to leave him multiple times, and in 1968 was so desperate to part ways with her abusive husband that she attempted suicide. After what she would call “one last bit of real violence,” Tina fled — literally, to a Ramada Inn in Dallas, where the couple was playing — and asked her friend, actress Ann-Margret, for airfare to Los Angeles. Tina stayed with her Tommy co-star as Ike went looking for her; the couple would divorce in 1976.

“I didn’t even know how to get money,” she said later. “Ike didn’t think I’d be able to find a house, but I did. He sent over the kids, and money for my first rent because he thought I’d have to come back when that ran out. We slept on the floor the first night. I rented furniture. I had some Blue Chip stamps that I had the kids bring, and I got dishes.”

Turner also credited her introduction to Buddhism for giving her the strength to leave. “I never stopped praying … that was my tool,” Turner told Rolling Stone in 1986. “Psychologically, I was protecting myself, which is why I didn’t do drugs and didn’t drink. I had to stay in control. So I just kept searching, spiritually, for the answer.”

Despite her recognizable voice and musical accomplishments with her ex-husband, Turner struggled to establish herself as a solo artist. Her first solo records, starting with 1974’s pre-breakup Tina Turns the Country On!, failed to spawn any hits, and she took to the road for eight years to help pay off the debt she incurred from a canceled tour with Ike and an IRS lien.

To maintain a profile in a business that seemed to want nothing more to do with her, she played cheesy lounge gigs and appeared on variety shows and game shows like Hollywood Squares. In a shocking story recounted in the recent Tina documentary, one attempt at a new record deal in the Eighties almost collapsed when a higher-up at the company referred to her with a racial epithet.

Turner’s comeback began in 1982, when Heaven 17, the British synth-pop band, recruited her for a remake of the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion.” The song led to a new record deal for Turner with Capitol. Turner’s manager Roger Davies then suggested that she and Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware cut a remake of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which hit the Top 30 in the U.S. With that, and the support of her friend David Bowie, Turner began recording her Capitol debut, Private Dancer.

Reflecting the way she and Davies wanted to integrate synthesizers and more contemporary production touches, they cut songs like “What’s Love Got to Do With It” by British songwriter Terry Brittan. Although Turner disliked the demo of the song, she later said she was urged to make it “a bit rougher, a bit more sharp around the edges.”

With that, she reclaimed the song, which spent three weeks at No. 1, became an MTV staple, and rebooted Turner’s career in a way that rarely happened for Sixties veterans on her level. By refusing to sound retro and showcasing her voice in a way that hadn’t been done in at least a decade, Private Dancer introduced Turner (and her MTV-perfect wigs, stiletto heels, and fishnet stockings) to a new, younger audience. “What’s Love Got to Do with It” walked away with three Grammys (including Record of the Year and Female Pop Vocal Performance). In another sign of her determination, Turner performed the song live during the telecast despite having the flu.

The triumph of Private Dancer was only the beginning of Turner’s relaunch into pop culture. The following year, she starred as the villainous Auntie Entity alongside Mel Gibson in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdomewhich included another hit, “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” — partook in the all-star “We Are the World” session, and commanded the stage at Live Aid alongside Mick Jagger. (Thanks to it all, she later wrote, she had “enough money to pay off all those debts I had.”) In 1986, her first memoir, I, Tina, co-written with then-RS writer Kurt Loder, was published and became a bestseller. “One of the Living,” another song she cut for the Mad Max movie, won a Best Female Rock Performance Grammy in 1985.

Turner had first gone public about her troubled marriage to Ike in a People magazine interview in 1981, but I, Tina, delved deeper. The result was not just a bestselling memoir — which, arguably, set the template for other rock stars to pen theirs — but a book that gave hope to survivors of domestic abuse, and Turner herself helped ensure that domestic violence was addressed in the culture at large.

“I don’t want to depend on a man to give me money,” she told RS in 1986. “I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I used to think I had to get married to help me get the things I wanted in life. When I realized I could get those things for myself, by myself, I began to like that feeling. I feel if I can secure myself, I wouldn’t have to depend on a man; we would only share love.”

1989 brought another multiplatinum album, Foreign Affair, and with it another huge hit, a rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s “The Best.” For Turner, the decade that followed served as an ongoing validation for her career. I, Tina was turned into a 1993 movie, What’s Love Got to Do with It, starring Angela Bassett in the title role and Laurence Fishburne as Ike. “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” a new song included on that film’s soundtrack, became Turner’s last Top 10 hit.

Bassett, who was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Turner, said in a statement following the singer’s death, “How do we say farewell to a woman who owned her pain and trauma and used it as a means to help change the world? Through her courage in telling her story, her commitment to stay the course in her life, no matter the sacrifice, and her determination to carve out a space in rock and roll for herself and for others who look like her, Tina Turner showed others who lived in fear what a beautiful future filled with love, compassion, and freedom should look like.”

Turner went on to win additional Grammys, for “Better Be Good to Me,” the live album Tina Live in Europe, and for her participation in Herbie Hancock’s 2007 Joni Mitchell tribute album, River: The Joni Letters, on which Turner sang Mitchell’s “Edith and the Kingpin.” 

In 1999, Turner released what would be her final album, Twenty Four Seven, partly produced by the same team who worked on Cher’s “Believe.” The album didn’t achieve the commercial success of the records that preceded it, but the accolades and recognition continued. In 2005, Turner, along with Tony Bennett, Robert Redford, and others, was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor by then-president George W. Bush, with Beyoncé celebrating Turner with a rendition of “Proud Mary.

Between 2008 and 2009, she embarked on a 50th anniversary tour. Tina, a musical based on her life, premiered in London in 2018 and on Broadway the following year. Adrienne Warren, in the title role, won a Tony in 2020 for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.

As Turner herself would later say, though, the ongoing retelling of her life story and time with Ike — in movies, musicals and documentaries — came with a price. As much as her troubles inspired others, she constantly had to relive them and was always asked about Ike, even after his death in 2007. “He did get me started and he was good to me at the beginning,” she said in the Tina doc. “So I have some good thoughts. Maybe it was a good thing that I met him. That, I don’t know.” 

In 1986, Turner met German music executive Erwin Bach; the two became a couple soon after. They first lived in Germany before moving to Switzerland. In recent years, Turner suffered a stroke three weeks after their wedding in 2013, then developed intestinal cancer. In light of possible kidney failure, Bach donated a kidney to his wife in 2017. “I wondered if anyone would think that Erwin’s living donation was transactional in some way,” she wrote in her 2018 memoir My Love Story. “Incredibly, considering how long we had been together, there were still people who wanted to believe that Erwin married me for my money and fame.”

“Tina was a unique and remarkable force of nature with her strength, incredible energy and immense talent,” Turner’s longtime manager Roger Davies said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “From the first day I met her in 1980 she believed in herself completely when few others did at that time. It was a privilege and an honor to have been a close friend as well as her manager for more than 30 years. I will miss her deeply.”

Reflecting on how she connected to an audience, Turner said to RS in 1986, “My songs are a little bit of everybody’s lives who are watching me. You gotta sing what they can relate to. And there are some raunchy people out there. The world is not perfect. And all of that is in my performance…. That’s why I prefer acting to singing, because with acting you are forgiven for playing a certain role. When you play that same role every night, people think that you are it. They don’t think you’re acting. That is the scar of what I’ve given myself with my career. And I’ve accepted that.”

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