Remembering Tina Turner: Music’s Indispensable Female Icon

Photo Credit: Dave Hogan via HBO

Tina Turner, one of the most important and iconic figures in music in the late twentieth century, died on May 24th at age eighty-three. While a highly influential performer in R&B, Tina fully embraced rock ‘n’ roll and explored a variety of other music styles including dance and even country. Defined by her distinct raspy voice, dynamic stage presence, and bold-yet-sensitive persona, she spent the Sixties and early-Seventies as part of the R&B duo Ike & Tina Turner before going solo and staging one of the greatest comebacks in show business history in the mid-Eighties.

Tina Turner was born Anna Mae Bullock and grew up in the rural community of Nushbush, Tennessee. She would later describe her childhood and family situations as being something of a struggle. Still, she fell in love with singing at an early age and in her late teens met Ike Turner, who at the time was already an established and respected musician in R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll. Her unique vocals convinced him to incorporate her into his band, thus beginning a long, professionally fruitful but very difficult personal relationship. The two were married in 1962.

In 1966 after several years of success as Ike & Tina Turner, the pair caught the ear of another brilliant but deeply troubled musical figure, Phil Spector, who produced the duo’s album River Deep Mountain High. The now-classic title song would be only a moderate hit in the U.S. but was met with great success in Europe, particularly the U.K., where it went to number three on the singles chart and became an anthem in swinging London. England took further notice in 1969, when the duo opened a U.K. tour for the Rolling Stones, thus beginning Tina’s longtime affiliation with the legendary band (particularly Mick Jagger, who was known to have picked up many of his classic stage moves from watching her perform). This further fueled her gravitation towards rock ‘n’ roll, and in 1972 Ike & Tina would have their biggest hit in the U.S. with a fast, fiery cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.”

Photo Credit: Gab Archive/Redferns

During this period Tina would also strike out on her own, though with mixed results. She attempted to tackle country music for her first full solo album, but despite the ambitious move, the record didn’t even chart (although it did receive a Grammy nomination). By contrast, her memorable performance of the song “Acid Queen” (and as the character of the same name) in the successful 1975 film adaptation of the Who’s rock opera Tommy prompted the release of Acid Queen, which would become her most successful solo album before her mid-Eighties comeback.

The Turners’ marriage had long been quite turbulent – Tina would later recount being subjected to much emotional, mental, and physical abuse over the years at the hands of Ike (who, in turn, would always claim those allegations to be overstated). The couple separated in 1976 and got divorced two years later (though Ike would later state on multiple occasions that the two were never legally married). Tina’s share of the settlement was comparatively moderate but granted her the right to continue to use her stage name (which Ike had created for her and legally owned).

The gamble did not initially pay off. The title of Tina’s first post-Ike solo album would accurately sum up her career at that point: Rough. That 1978 release didn’t even chart, nor did the follow-up, Love Explosion, which then resulted in Tina being dropped by the record label. As a live performer, Turner had been reduced to appearing as a nostalgia act in hotel lounges. Tina managed to stay in the public eye through TV appearances, even if it meant dubious outlets like the notorious Brady Bunch Hour or even as a celebrity panelist on Hollywood Squares. However, in 1983 a video for her cover of the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” ran on MTV (during a period when the relatively new network was still phasing in black artists). MTV was about to become instrumental to the next, explosive phase of Tina’s career, which was now just around the corner.

Photo Credit: Denize Alain/Sygma

Tina was still considered a commercial risk (at best) when A&R rep John Carter defied the label brass by signing her to Capitol Records. Armed with a new look and sound tailor-made for the Eighties, Tina released Private Dancer in May 1984, and in her mid-forties was suddenly embraced by a new generation of fans who had never heard of Ike Turner. The album would spawn six singles (including the U.S. number one “What’s Love Got to Do with It”) and eventually sell twelve million copies worldwide.

The following year Tina returned to acting, starring alongside Mel Gibson in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (and the accompanying soundtrack gave her two more hit singles). She also became the most in-demand duet partner in rock, recording tracks with David Bowie, Eric Clapton, and Bryan Adams. In July 1985 she joined old crony Mick Jagger at Live Aid, and the two singing on stage together instantly became the defining image of the decade’s biggest live music event.

In 1986 Tina published her autobiography I, Tina (later adapted into the movie What’s Love Got to Do with It, where she was portrayed by Angela Bassett), and released her next album Break Every Rule, which would end up as another worldwide success. She would continue to release new albums through the Nineties, most of which would be more successful in Europe than in the U.S. In 1995 she helped another icon, James Bond, make a return by performing the title song (written by Bono and the Edge of U2) to the movie Goldeneye.

In 2000 Tina hit the road for what would become that year’s highest-grossing concert tour. She also publicly announced that she would retire after the tour was concluded. Although she would release new music and perform on occasion, she spent most of her later years in her adopted country of Switzerland (where she became a citizen in 2013). In her final few years, she suffered from multiple serious health issues before passing away at her home on May 24th of this year.

Tina Turner left behind a legacy that few will ever be able to match. Her voice was – and will always remain – one of the most recognizable in all of music. Through both major phases of her career, she epitomized strength, courage, and perseverance but never at the expense of sensitivity or even humor. She was a feminist figure who appealed just as much to men and broke through the color lines in music without ever alienating anyone. One of her biggest hits was based around the lyrical refrain, “You’re simply the best.” Tina Turner was exactly that.

Written by: Richard John Cummins

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