Icon: Tina Turner

Ron Wynn

By Ron Wynn

on 05.16.11 in Icons

Over an extraordinary career that spans six decades, Tina Turner has personified sexuality, vocal power and authority. She’s earned her “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” title by surviving personal turmoil and the pop/rock musical universe’s constantly changing landscape. She’s forged a sound equally bluesy and invigorating. She’s also among the rare black female vocalists who have successfully moved from R&B into the rock world without alienating either the soul audiences who initially idolized her or the white crowds drawn to her sultry covers, feminist rhetoric and on-stage fireworks.

Born in Nutbush, Tennessee, the former Anna Mae Bullock got her early training in the bustling St. Louis’s nightclub scene. After meeting R&B bandleader/musician Ike Turner one night at Club Imperial, she pestered him so often that he finally added her to his show at 18 under the name of “Little Ann.” Their relationship soon became both professional and romantic, especially after the success of “A Fool in Love.” The scorching tune peaked at No. 2 on the R&B charts in 1960. The Ike and Tina Turner Revue dominated the soul club scene from the ’60s into the early ’70s. With Tina’s sensational dancing and powerhouse voice up front, buttressed by a flamboyant backing band under Ike’s leadership on bass, guitar and piano, the Revue was among the era’s busiest live acts. They took advantage of growing opportunities for black bands by expanding into TV and the Las Vegas/supper club circuit. They also established the template for Turner’s later direction with covers of tunes like the Rollling Stones‘ “Honky Tonk Woman,” the Beatles’ “Come Together” and, most importantly, Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s “Proud Mary,” their biggest pop hit (No. 4 in 1971).

But the couple’s lives began unraveling in a deluge of drugs and abuse. There were also questionable business practices that saw musicians arriving and departing the Revue so often they began declining as a recording and touring act. Even before their marriage splintered in 1976, Tina Turner had begun exploring solo opportunities. Her solo debut Tina Turns the Country On didn’t make much impact, but the 1975 follow-up Acid Queen was a mirror into the future. She’d made her cinematic debut in Tommy, the film based on the Who’s rock opera, and Acid Queen featured Turner belting out fiery rock numbers with passion and urgency. It took two years and thousands of dollars to end her involvement with Ike (she’d exited in the middle of a tour and was thus held responsible for lost income resulting from the canceled dates).

Rebounding with a host of TV appearances and failed LPs, Tina Turner floundered until, of all things, an R&B cover revived her career. “Let’s Stay Together” was a Top 30 pop hit (Top 5 R&B) and international smash in 1984. It paved the way for Private Dancer, the LP that marked her ascension into superstardom. The album’s second single, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” became one of her signature songs and is arguably her finest work. Turner’s declarative singing debunks fairytale notions about romance, and even questions whether love is a necessary component of a relationship. The song’s dynamic vocal flows over a quasi-reggae beat. It helped make the album a huge success both domestically (five million) and overseas (at least 11 million). Oddly, it also contained another strong R&B cover, a steamy version of Ann Peebles‘s “I Can’t Stand The Rain.” Turner would win four Grammys, embark on her first world tour, and get a featured role in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome alongside Mel Gibson.

Since the ’80s, she’s become an icon – beloved, admired and respected worldwide. She’s had other hits (“We Don’t Need Another Hero,” “One of the Living,” “It’s Only Love” with Bryan Adams, “Typical Male,” “Break Every Rule” and “The Best,” among others). There’s also been a best-selling autobiography (I, Tina), a film based on her turbulent years with Ike (What’s Love Got To Do With It) and honors from the Kennedy Center. She, Ike and the Turner Revue were also inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

Turner came out of semi-retirement in 2008 for a 50th-anniversary tour and performed with Beyoncé at the Grammy Awards. She may be approaching 72, but Tina Turner remains a formidable performer, gorgeous woman and the embodiment of perseverance and resilience.

The Albums

Private Dancer

Tina Turner

Calling Private Dancer Tina Turner's breakthrough album doesn't come close to describing its importance. It was among the cornerstone LPs of the '80s, as A Quiet Storm was to Smokey Robinson in the '70s. It established her brilliance and viability as a solo act outside the Ike and Tina Turner arena, even though it also contained one of her greatest R&B efforts, the cover of "Let's Stay Together," and an equally great second soul piece, "I Can't Stand the Rain." The cover shot of Turner sitting in a chair, sensual and challenging, was surpassed by an alternative shot of her sitting on a bed, those incredible legs well-showcased. (That one didn't make the front of the LP jacket in mid '80s America, but became a best-selling poster.)

The album ably displayed Turner's total comfort not only with rock, but with pop and even new wave. Mark Knopfler gave her an erotic, steamy hit with "Private Dancer" (also aided by a great Jeff Beck guitar solo), and she added outstanding editions of cuts by David Bowie ("1984") and John Lennon/ Paul McCartney ("Help").

"What's Love Got to Do With It" was the album's epic. Its dismissal of the notion that traditional love was essential to any successful relationship was presented in a steely, emphatic manner that wasn't so much cynical as realistic. Turner never sounded bitter or angry; just honest. She embraced and endorsed the idea of a union for mutual advantage, not mutual attachment. The main lyric became a pop culture catchphrase, and it stands as Turner's most memorable triumph. "Better Be Good To Me" was a fast-paced, rapid-fire number that was equal parts request and demand.

The album even had some jazz flavor, courtesy of the Crusaders, plus drummer Leon "Ndugu" Chancler. This was her fifth studio album, and it proved her biggest success. Besides topping the charts for three weeks, it made Turner the subject of numerous magazine and newspaper pieces. The album ranks among the finest solo LPs by any solo artist — and is certainly Tina Turner's greatest achievement.

Break Every Rule

Tina Turner

Tina Turner convincingly proved there was life after Private Dancer with her sixth solo work, Break Every Rule. Since Graham Lyle and Terry Britten had previously produced the monster hit "What's Love Got To With It," Turner gave them the entire A-side. It's also among her most versatile releases, thanks to the talents of such rock royalty as Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Mark Knopfler, as well as Bryan Adams. Collins's provides the percussive energy and edge for "Typical Male," another Turner number skewering the attitude and approach of would-be macho men. Clapton's piercing guitar underlines "What You Get is What You See," which along with "Break Every Rule" proved big R&B tunes. Winwood's prickly keyboard work helped make "Afterglow" a big club hit in America and Europe. Adams co-wrote and produced "Back Where You Started," which nabbed Turner another Top 10 rock hit, and was one of eight singles issued off the LP.

Along with the ace musicianship, the other strength of Break Every Rule was its vocal consistency. This was also among her hottest albums rhythmically. "Break Every Rule," "What You See is What You Get," and "Typical Male" were all issued in multiple mixes for clubs and dance radio, even though some fans overseas weren't thrilled by "Typical Male"'s lyrical message. Turner would also take advantage of working with Clapton and Collins to cut "Tearing Us Apart," a duet with Clapton that appeared on his LP August (produced by Collins). This is among her more underrated LPs, because everyone was so overwhelmed by Private Dancer this was seen as a disappointment or a lesser work. It's really among her best '80s releases, even if a reportedly wonderful cover of Sam Cooke's "Having A Party" never made it onto the album.

Foreign Affair

Tina Turner

This was a commercial disappointment; even though it features some excellent change-of-pace cuts and other tunes with fine lyrics and good stories, it lacked a breakout radio hit for American audiences seeking another "Private Dancer" or "What's Love Got To Do With It." It was also a less unified, more diverse work thematically, as reflected by the fact songs from Foreign Affair ended up on rock, dance, adult contemporary and R&B charts. "I Don't Wanna Lose You," one of her few tender/sentimental numbers, displayed a vulnerability Turner often avoided, as did "Look Me In The Heart." She did a couple of Tony Joe White numbers, the best being "Steamy Windows," a throwback tune to the earlier R&B-tinged years. "Falling Like Rain" and "Be Tender With Me Baby" were two more numbers a lot softer in tone and sensibility than usually the case for Turner during the '80s.

She didn't completely abandon aggressive, surging material. "The Best" was the type of confident, animated number (co-written by Holly Knight and Mike Chapman) that had become a patented part of her sound. Turner's crackling manner and swaggering delivery elevated rather routine lyrics and a decent, though not spectacular arrangement. White's "Foreign Affair" had nice verbal byplay and another energetic Turner performance. Special guests included saxophonist Edgar Winter, guitarist/keyboardist Dan Hartman, Mark Knopfler again on guitar and White helping out on guitar, harmonica and synthesizers. It didn't do that well on these shores, but Foreign Affair was a big hit overseas, particularly in England (her first No. 1 LP there). Listening to the LP again today, it sounds like Turner wanted to end what had been an amazing and hectic decade with a restrained, subtle work.

What's Love Got To Do With It

Tina Turner

The history behind the turbulent professional relationship and troubled marriage between Ike and Tina Turner became big screen fodder in 1993 with the release of the Touchstone Pictures film What's Love Got To Do With It. Besides forever ruining Ike's reputation, it depicted Tina as both a survivor of horrific abuse and, ultimately, a reborn survivor. Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne were magical on screen, and Turner revisited her past musically, cutting several new versions of prior hits, as well as a handful of good-to-excellent new pieces for the soundtrack.

The remakes were mostly outstanding, especially "Proud Mary," "A Fool In Love" and "It's Gonna Work Out Fine." She sounds particularly expressive on "A Fool In Love," and equally intense on "Proud Mary." She shines on the blues tunes "(Darlin') You Know I Love You" and "Rock Me Baby." Her cover of the Trammps' "Disco Inferno" and remake of "Nutbush City Limits" are also prime numbers. The set is rounded out by two selections from Private Dancer: The stellar title track and decent "I Might Have Been Queen." "I Don't Wanna Fight" and "Why Must We Wait Tonight" are adequate filler tunes, but the other material here far surpasses them.

Wildest Dreams

Tina Turner

This album tends to get overlooked, despite some strong performances. "All Kinds of People" was a Sheryl Crow offering, with Crow backing Turner on a first-rate rendition. "GoldenEye" was used to introduce a new James Bond, and Turner's sultry title cut was penned by Bono and U2. (Her vocal, and their song, was a lot better than the overly long film.) The Pet Shop Boys supplied "Confidential," and Neil Tennant's vocals provide background to Turner's pithy lead. Perhaps the most unusual cut on this (and almost any other Turner release) was "In Your Wildest Dreams," which paired Turner with Barry White. His bombastic baritone and her highly-charged response vocal made quite a team, even though the song isn't nearly as erotic or striking as one might imagine. Sting also made a guest appearance, joining Turner for "On Silent Wings."

Once more, the American response was rather mild. It generated more activity within the R&B world than it did from the rock/pop bunch, despite the presence of Sting and U2. The White cut got a little airplay, and a cover of Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy" got some club attention. But the label didn't push some potential hits ("All Kinds of People" and "GoldenEye") and there was no glamour video or big tour to improve its prospects. By this time, Turner's star had faded, and none of the six singles issued were a big hit. However "Wildest Dreams" deserves a fresh look, because several of these pieces are well-sung and produced. They could work in today's pop or adult R&B markets just fine.

Twenty Four Seven

Tina Turner

Turner's final studio release as of this writing also failed to match her previous heights, though it did at least crack the Top 30, peaking at No. 21. Turner was about to celebrate her 60th birthday, and while there were occasionally hints of the whirlwind pace and the frenetic soul from her background, Turner is controlled and less intense on several tunes. She didn't coast or become tentative, but there aren't any songs that call to mind her big hits. This was a restrained, polished and professional effort, but not a majestic or exciting one.

But there are good moments. "I Will Be There" and "When the Heartache is Over" are nicely sung testimonials, not coy or sappy. She's still resilient and confident, but there's no signs of combativeness. "Falling" and "Don't Leave Me This Way" are also less forceful, though she never sounds afraid or helpless. Turner recaptures some assertiveness on "Absolutely Nothing's Changed," and the determination that's marked her material since "Private Dancer" reappears on "I Will Be There," a number co-written by the Gibb brothers (Barry, Robin and Maurice). There's more straight pop influence than on almost any Turner record, and familiar face Bryan Adams returns on "Twenty Four Seven" and "Without You." Tina Turner has never made a completely worthless release, but hopefully she will eventually return to the studio; Twenty-Four Seven does not make a suitable swan song.

The Compilations

The Collected Recordings: Sixties To Nineties

Tina Turner

While she had left the label, Capitol decided they would take advantage of the enormous publicity around the film What's Love Got To Do With It and offer fans a set that covered Turner's long history with the company. They compiled 48 cuts on three discs covering 30 years. It is a wonderful retrospective set; one arranged so you can trace her stylistic evolution and hear some cuts that seldom got radio play.

The first volume gathers all the pivotal Ike and Tina Turner Revue singles, most notably "It's Gonna Work Out Fine" and the Phil Spector-produced "River Deep, Mountain High," as well as the major rock covers. The second volume is both a transition set and sampler of seldom heard numbers, like her covers of "Ball of Confusion" and "A Change is Gonna Come," which she cut with the British Electric Foundation. The set is rounded out with some live cuts (a great version of Prince's "Let's Pretend We're Married"), some duets and an oddball number or two — especially Johnny and Mary," from an even more obscure 1982 soundtrack, Summer Lovers.

The third volume is a basic greatest hits anthology, with all the expected numbers, though it's good that "Steamy Windows" and "Foreign Affair" are set alongside "Let's Stay Together," "Private Dancer" and "What's Love Got To Do With It." If you're only looking for one representative Tina Turner release, this compilation would be it.

Simply The Best

Tina Turner

This is a more standard greatest-hits work, though the label gave fans a bonus with three new cuts and a re-recorded "club edition" of her theme song, "Nutbush City Limits." Among the trio of fresh tracks was "I Want You Near Me," a less-than-sterling effort by the duo of Britten and Lyle, a soulful (though lyrically routine) romance piece called "Love Thing," and "Way of the World," another bit of hard-edged realism. One thing that's a bit irritating about this disc was the decision to use the seven-inch single versions of her biggest hits. Some of the extra flourishes on "Let's Stay Together," "The Best," "Better Be Good To Me," "We Don't Need Another Hero" and even "Private Dancer" are sorely missed.

Besides the opportunity to once again hear "River Deep - Mountain High," "Typical Male" and "What You Get is What You See," there is a fine duet between Turner and Rod Stewart ("It Takes Two"). He's no Marvin Gaye, but Stewart's always excelled on soul and R&B covers. He compensates with verve for what he lacks in vocal agility. By contrast, Turner has even more power and fire in her vocal than Kim Weston (whose singing on the original was fabulous in its own right). Hearing them swoon through the tune's mid-section and exchange innuendo-laden leads is a treat. Also, re-hearing "I Can't Stand The Rain" makes you wonder how Turner would have approached other Stax tunes by singers like Carla Thomas.

Tina Live

Tina Live In Europe

Tina Turner

Tina Turner was at her peak as a singer and performer when the performances for this double-disc project were recorded. The bulk of the numbers were culled from her "Break Every Rule" tour, but they're interspersed with items from the Private Dancer tour as well as from the 1986 HBO special Tina Turner: Break Every Rule. The set is special for many reasons. Turner's success and personal happiness is reflected in the performances. Turner smartly incorporated a number of soul standards into the set — mostly uptempo, aggressive numbers that allowed her to display the showmanship and sexuality that were big parts of her star appeal. She had a first-rate band behind her, and the choices of rock and pop covers were just as inspired as the R&B pieces.

There's very little disposable or forgettable numbers on either LP. She begins with the most familiar pieces ("What You Get is What You See," "Break Every Rule," "Typical Male"), then shifts into expected favorites ("Private Dancer," What's Love Got To Do With It," "Let's Stay Together"). In the second half, she takes audiences back to the old days, ripping through "Land of a Thousand Dances," "In the Midnight Hour, "Proud Mary" and "River Deep-Mountain High," singing each with great style and flair. The disc also pairs her with tremendous duet partners. Robert Cray contributes a fine instrumental solo on "A Change Is Gonna Come" and a solid vocal on "634-5789," while David Bowie ("Let's Dance," "Tonight"), Eric Clapton ("Tearing Us Apart") and Bryan Adams ("It's Only Love") make valuable contributions. It's not completely like the atmosphere at one of Tina Turner's '80s shows, but Live In Europe comes as close as any recording to accurately conveying the feel and the electricity.