Off the Charts

Tina Turner: Finding Her Own Voice

Tina Turner is a textbook case of a talented woman finding her own voice by freeing herself from an abusive man. Born in 1939 in Nutbush, Tennessee, she became an international sensation not once, but twice – the second time on her own terms, in one of the music industry’s most astonishingly successful re-brandings.

She started recording with Ike Turner in 1958 under the moniker “Little Ann” (her birth name was Anna Mae Bullock). Ike renamed her “Tina Turner” in 1960, two years before they married, so that he could own the name in case she left his band. Ike and Tina made 24 studio albums together and had lots of hits, most famously “Proud Mary” in 1971. Their tempestuous musical and personal relationship fell apart in 1976, by which point Tina was ready to start a solo career.

The duo’s 1961 debut release was The Soul of Ike and Tina Turner on Sue Records. She shows what she’s made of on their very first album, which included the hit “A Fool in Love.” Joe Morris penned a non-single track called “I Had a Notion”; the duo also re-recorded it in 1973 for the Let Me Touch Your Mind album. Here’s the original, showing off the gritty emotional depth and power of Tina Turner’s voice:

 

Don’t Play Me Cheap, their fourth record, came out in 1963. Its only single was “Wake Up,” but there are some nice things to explore on the album. The string arrangements by Jesse Herring and René Hall tend toward the sticky-sweet, but once Tina comes in for her solo work, that nonsense all falls away.

Case in point: The album’s closer, “My Everything to Me,” written by Ike, is a slow R&B number that starts out with a treacly blend of orchestra and back-up singers. But Tina quickly takes over and lays her soul bare. The material doesn’t deserve her performance of it.

 

Sue Records did not renew the Turners’ contract, leaving the act searching for a studio. Their first stop was a short-lived entity called Cenco Records. Get It – Get It had no year printed on its label, but it is estimated to date from 1966. The contents of this album have been given wider distribution thanks to retrospectives by Capitol Records and other companies.

The highlight is “My Babe,” by the great bluesman Willie Dixon. Turner, with that signature wobble in her voice, lends a wistfulness to the lyrics even while she’s belting. The arrangement is satisfyingly lean, probably the result of limited funds, but it works to the song’s advantage:

 

In the duo’s work for Blue Thumb records, Tina managed her first solo Grammy nomination for her singing on the album The Hunter (1969). The uncredited blues guitar playing is by Albert Collins, who kept his name off to avoid a lawsuit from another record company.

This album is unusual for having few tracks by Ike Turner. Eddie Jones and Memphis Slim co-wrote “The Things I Used to Do,” a 12-bar blues that Tina pulls and wrenches with a musical aching that you won’t soon forget. Collins’ guitar really shines on this track.

 

An interesting aspect of the 1975 album Sweet Rhode Island Red is that Tina, not Ike, wrote most of the songs. By this point Ike was mired in drug problems and not very functional. The Turner team was nearing its end.

Tina’s title song did well on the R&B charts in both the US and UK. The album also includes a couple of Stevie Wonder tracks, including the gloriously funky cover of “Higher Ground.” The session musicians are criminally uncredited. I hope at least they got paid.

Finally extracting herself from what was by all accounts a traumatizing marriage and exploitative business arrangement, Tina Turner launched her solo career in 1977, thank to financial help from an executive at United Artists and a willingness to work any kind of gig and do any kind of promo. Her lack of self-aggrandizement paid off with steady jobs and a steadily rising industry profile.

Even before the divorce, she had made a couple of solo albums, the second of which was an interesting project called Acid Queen (1975). Side A was all covers: two each by the Rolling Stones and The Who, and one by Led Zeppelin. Check out the Tina Turner take on Pete Townsend’s “I Can See for Miles,” reconceived as R&B with a disco edge:

 

Rough (1978) was her next solo album and the first one post-Ike. It bombed commercially, which makes Turner’s subsequent rise to superstardom all the more impressive and surprising. The problem with Rough is that Turner hasn’t quite defined her new style yet. It’s an awkward combination of disco, pop, rock, R&B, and blues. Witness this strangely brash arrangement of the old Willie Dixon song “Earthquake and Hurricane”:

 

Of course, Turner soon figured out exactly who she was musically, and by 1984 she had a No. 3 album in Private Dancer. The album was a smash, thanks to hits like the title track, a cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” That was followed by another big success, Break Every Rule, in 1986. But nothing lasts forever, and the US had turned its attention elsewhere by the time Foreign Affairs came out in 1989. However, this album is aptly named, since it sold very well in non-US markets.

One of the few tracks on Foreign Affairs that challenges worn-out ’80s tropes is “Falling Like Rain.” This song by David Munday and Sandy Stewart has an interesting structure of unpredictable line-lengths. Turner doesn’t over-sing, but instead holds back until she hits key phrases in higher registers. (I fully acknowledge how annoyingly robotic that drum machine is.)

The last of Turner’s ten solo albums is Twenty Four Seven, released on Parlophone in 1999. She turned to the production team of Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling, fresh from their massive success with Cher’s Believe. Twenty Four Seven was no Believe in terms of album sales, but it did hit No. 21 on the Billboard 200.

One of this album’s most pleasurable moments is Turner’s cover of the Bee Gees’ “I Will Be There.” It’s nice to hear her do something less emotionally extreme than her usual fare.

As of this writing, Turner is living in Switzerland at age 80. In case there was any doubt of her place in the pop music firmament, a juke-box musical about her life called Tina – A Tina Turner Musical recently opened on Broadway.