FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Thirteen: Tina Turner




Female Icons

IN THIS PHOTO: Tina Turner in 1993/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Part Thirteen: Tina Turner


THERE are a number of reasons…


 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

why I am including Tina Turner in my Female Icons section. In terms of icons and superstars, how many of us think of Tina Tuner?! There are plaudits levied the way of Madonna, Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin – who I have all covered – but one cannot discount the impact and importance of Tina Turner. TINA: The Tina Turner Musical is a jukebox musical featuring the music of Tina Turner and depicting her life from her youth in Nutbush, Tennessee, through her tumultuous relationship with Ike Turner and comeback as a Rock 'n’ Roll star in her '40s. If you are a fan of Turner, you can go catch the musical and learn about her fascinating (and often struggling) background. The musical is described thus:

From humble beginnings in Nutbush, Tennessee, to her transformation into the global Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Tina Turner didn’t just break the rules, she rewrote them. This new stage musical reveals the untold story of a woman who dared to defy the bounds of her age, gender and race.

One of the world’s best-selling artists of all time, Tina Turner has won 12 Grammy Awards and her live shows have been seen by millions, with more concert tickets sold than any other solo performer in music history.

Featuring her much loved songs, TINA – The Tina Turner Musical is written by Olivier Award-winning playwright Katori Hall and directed by the internationally acclaimed Phyllida Lloyd.

Presented in association with Tina Turner”.

I guess a lot of the icons and legends of music had humble and hard backgrounds – that is what spurs a determinism and that desire to succeed. Looking at Tina Turner’s life and she has endured a lot of struggle, hurdles and pain to get where she is. The idea of the music, according to Turner, was to inspire audiences and show that you can turn poison into gold; pain and struggle need not define you and you can overcome it. This inspiring message has amazed audiences and the musical runs in London until next year. Time Out caught the show last year and had this to say:

Where ‘Tina’ undoubtedly succeeds is in the casting of its lead. Broadway performer Adrienne Warren is virtually unknown over here, but it’s instantly apparent why she was tapped up for this. She doesn’t so much imitate Turner as channel her: her technically dazzling but achingly world-weary gale of a voice feels like it should be coming out of a woman decades, if not centuries, older. And while Warren doesn’t really look anything like Turner, she perfectly captures that leggy, rangy, in-charge physicality. From a musical standpoint, she virtually carries the show, singing nigh-on every song and even giving us an encore at the end.

Almost as good is heavyweight Brit actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who brings a demonic charisma to the role of Ike Turner. Tina’s abusive bandleader and husband is monstrous in his self-pitying, manipulative rage, but it’s not hard to see the appeal of his raw wit and powerful sense of certainty. It is a deadly serious performance.

But the talented creative team of director Lloyd and writer Katori Hall never really crack the correct way to use their leads”.

Although the review points at some downsides – mixing spousal abuse with a collection of greatest hits is an odd blend; the euphoria and scene-stealing end sort of tarnishes a sense of queasiness -, it is a magnificent show that does not shy away from the realities of Tuna Turner’s upbringing, peak and success. Music struck Turner as a girl. As a child (Turner was born Anna Mae Bullock), she performed in the church choir at Nutbush’s Spring Hill Baptist Church. Turner’s mother ran off when she was eleven – to escape from an abusive relationship – and, as a teenager, Turner (Bullock) worked as a domestic worker. There was a lot of tribulation and upheaval in Turner’s early life and she and her sister eventually were sent to live with their grandmother Georgeanna in Tennessee. The pain and scar of domestic abuse would revisit Turner in later life but it is safe to say things were far from smooth early in her life. Displaced and unsure where she would end up, one can only imagine the sort of unhappiness and fear Turner faced. Music, in a way, provided an escape and release from a less-than-stable upbringing. She began her singing career in 1958 as part of Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm and she was captivated by Ike Turner instantly.

It was not until the 1960s when she adopted the stage name of Tina Turner – she was ‘Little Ann’ when recording with Ike Turner in the early days – and Ike and Tina Turner enjoyed a long and fruitful recording career. In terms of Turner’s music, we can split it between her work with Ike Turner and her solo material. As a duo, they enjoyed success with hits like River Deep–Mountain High in 1966 and Nutbush City Limits in 1973. I want to focus more on Turner as a solo artist but, sadly, her split with Ike Turner in 1976 (they divorced in 1978) was a result of domestic abuse and mistreatment. The Tina Turner musical reveals this on the stage and it is an eye-opening experience. Having seen her parents divide and split with a background of domestic abuse, Turner had to experience so much hurt and abuse. There were many who thought Turner’s career could not survive without her partner. By 1983, she had released the incredible single, Let’s Stay Together, and that was followed by the 1984 album, Private Dancer – a huge success and one of the best albums of the mid-1980s. If some of Tina Turner’s earliest experiences of music were more Gospel-flavoured, she had matured into a captivating Rock singer by the 1980s – and was shaping up to be an icon when performing with Ike Turner.

Turner enjoyed success through the 1980s and 1990s but her ‘golden period’ is the 1980s, in my view. The 1993 film, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, is a sort of early version of the Tina Turner musical and looks at her tumultuous relationship with Ike Turner. I will bring in a couple of articles that highlight the huge importance of Tina Turner’s work and how she has changed music. It is hard to select specific highlights but 1960’s A Fool in Love was a huge chart hit; the charted cover of Otis Redding’s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long is extraordinary, as is Turner’s solo rendition of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together. Maybe her greatest year was in 1985 when she won a total of four Grammys – including Record of the Year for What’s Love Got to Do with It. She was touring her Private Dancer album at this time and was appearing in films and was pretty much unrivaled at that time. Consider other powerful female artists like Madonna and Kate Bush were peaking in 1985 and, to me, Turner topped the lots. Her incredible voice and power blew people away and, like so many recordings from the 1980s, Turner’s work does not sound dated or of a particular moment. Although Turner has not released a studio album since 1999’s Twenty Four Seven, there are many golden records in the collection.


1975’s Acid Queen is a covers album (with a few song by Ike Turner) but features versions of The Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together and The Who’s I Can See for Miles. 1984’s Private Dancer remains a seminal work and a hugely influential album. AllMusic, in their review, were full of praise:

In 1984, a 45-year-old Tina Turner made one of the most amazing comebacks in the history of American popular music. A few years earlier, it was hard to imagine the veteran soul/rock belter reinventing herself and returning to the top of the pop charts, but she did exactly that with the outstanding Private Dancer. And Turner did so without sacrificing her musical integrity. To be sure, this pop/rock/R&B pearl is decidedly slicker than such raw, earthy, hard-edged Ike & Tina classics as "Proud Mary," "Sexy Ida," and "I Wanna Take You Higher." But she still has a tough, throaty, passionate delivery that serves her beautifully on everything from the melancholy, reggae-influenced "What's Love Got to Do With It" to the gutsy "Better Be Good to Me" to heartfelt remakes of the Beatles' "Help," Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," and David Bowie's "1984." A reflection on the emptiness of a stripper's life, the dusky title song is as poignant as it is depressing. Without question, this was Turner's finest hour as a solo artist”.

Although 1989’s Foreign Affair is, perhaps, more commercial than Turner’s early work, it contains some of her best-known hits. The Best and Steamy Windows are classics whilst I Don’t Wanna Lose You is a more mature and controlled Turner.

One can look here to see Tina Turner’s accolades and honours but it is clear what she has done to music and how many artists she has inspired. The Tina Turner musical opens on Broadway in the autumn and there is a lot of new interest around the superstar. Turner is eighty later this year and, although she is not releasing any more material at the moment (and might never do), she still holds incredible power and influence. I will bring in an older interview and a feature that studies Turner from different sides. This 2018 article from The Guardian gave an affectionate account of Turner’s early life and how she became this Rock icon:

Her singularity as an artist is undeniable. Turner merged sound and movement at a critical turning point in rock history, navigating and reflecting back the technological innovations of a new pop-music era in the 60s and 70s. She catapulted herself to the forefront of a musical revolution that had long marginalised and overlooked the pioneering contributions of African American women and then remade herself again at an age when most pop musicians were hitting the oldies circuit. Turner’s musical character has always been a charged combination of mystery as well as light, melancholy mixed with a ferocious vitality that often flirted with danger. Perfect, then, for a big-budget musical.

But it was Turner’s voice that spelled liberation even more potently than her moves, and similarly crystallised the era’s insurgent shifts in rock’n’roll singing. Whereas Little Richard squealed his queer pleasures and James Brown screamed of funk rebellion – and the Brits who idolised them followed suit, Turner turned her abrasive timbre and audacious delivery into singing that reverberated with the newly emboldened spirit of an evolving pop phenomenon.


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

She generated her own rendition of sonic blackness and femininity while gigging in the 70s, finding a new home for her voice as “the acid queen” in the 1975 adaptation of rock opera Tommy. And she turned to a whole new set of covers – Under My Thumb, Let’s Spend the Night Together, I Can See for Miles, Whole Lotta Love – turning those masculine (and often misogynist) narratives of power, desire, independence and sexual prowess into the sound of brave and unbridled, sexually and socially assertive womanhood”.

I will discuss Turner’s legacy and influence a bit more in a bit but it is clear huge stars such as Beyoncé are the natural successors. You only need to turn on the radio now to know that Turner’s influence extends beyond Rock to multiple genres and various corners of the music world. The Guardian’s article continues:  

The heir to Turner’s throne has long been Beyoncé, who paid homage to her foremother back in 2005 at the annual Kennedy Center Honors: “Every now and then, when I think of inspiration, I think of the two Tinas in my life – that’s my mother, Tina, and of course, the amazing Tina Turner …” Three years later, during the opening performance of the 2008 Grammys, the love-fest continued with Beyoncé celebrating the history of black women musicians and concluding her medley by introducing the “queen” (a line that Aretha Franklin would famously contest) to sway, “nice and easy”, right alongside her. The verse in Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Drunk in Love, in which the rapper references a scene from the biopic in which Ike abuses Tina – “eat the cake, Anna Mae!” – was a less apt tribute.

Beyond Beyoncé, Turner’s legacies remain rich and varied in the world of pop, ranging from the brooding neo-soul of Meshell Ndegocello (who recently released a pensive, darkly lilting rendition of Private Dancer) to the underrated white funk vocalist Nikka Costa (whose 2005 cover of the Ike and Tina barnburner Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter revived the duo’s brand of nasty, in-your-face battle funk, all sweat and confrontation).

We see her brash and glamorous strut every time Rihanna takes to the stage, and even rapper Cardi B, with her stalwart posturing and vibe of unpredictability, owe Turner a bit of a debt. In our #MeToo age and with pop’s women unapologetically reclaiming their time, Tina: The Musical is poised to remind us of the sister who, legs and all, kicked open the door for this moment”.

I will end by discussing Turner’s legacy but I found a very revealing and honest interview she gave to Rolling Stone in 1986. You would never get an interview as revealing nowadays but, as she was at her peak, Turner was asked about her life, including her time with Ike Turner, She was asked about her parents and being abandoned:

Psychologically speaking, there really isn’t anything worse than being abandoned by your mother, is there?

I think not. But I was different, because I’ve always been a loner. It mattered that she’d left – but it also didn’t matter. What I simply missed was that she didn’t love me. And I knew the difference, because I used to watch her with my sister, Alline – how she was with her and then how she was with me. She loved Alline. But, strangely enough, I wasn’t sad about it. It was just a fact that my parents didn’t care that much for me. See, my mother didn’t want me in the first place. She had taken my father away from another girl – which is instant karma right there. She was in the process of leaving my father when she got pregnant with me.

IN THIS PHOTO: Ike and Tina Turner in 1972/PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images 

That, of course, began sixteen years of beatings. You were a battered wife, controlled by fear.

It was a thoroughly unhappy situation I was in, but I was too far gone. I was trapped into really caring about Ike. If I left him, what was he going to do? Go back to St. Louis? I didn’t want to let him down. As horrible as he treated me, I still felt responsible for letting him down. That was a mental problem I had at the time. And I was afraid to leave. I knew I had no place to hide, because he knew where my people were. My mother was actually living in Ike’s house in St. Louis. My sister was living in an apartment basically rented by Ike.

Are you surprised by the way your life has turned out?

No. I’m not surprised, because I’ve always wanted this. And I won’t stop until I get that respect. I may not ever get it completely, because my life has been too hard so far. But I’ve gotten a taste of what that respect is probably like, and I like it. I may not be able to get that class, because I didn’t act my life, I lived it. I am Tina Turner. I am raunchy. But I know I’m a lady and that deep inside of me there’s a craving for class. I know I’m accepted, but what I always wanted was the principal’s daughters’ world. And maybe that was my lesson in life . . . . Maybe I had to learn something from wanting that and then not being able to have it. Instead, in this lifetime, I came back, so to speak, a slave girl”.

There are plenty of articles that dub Turner an icon and talk about her legacy. Turner has survived so much and overcome all of this to become the hugely inspiring artist she is. Her story is being told on stage and will, no doubt, engage new fans. This article from Afropunk in 2017 drills down the core:

Once described by the Rolling Stone as “the world’s greatest heartbreaker”, Tina Turner’s musical legacy remains to be unlike any other we’ve seen before or since. From the onset, Turner’s pioneering musicianship and unrelenting vocals bridged the mainstream (read: imaginary) gap between Rhythm and Blues and Rock-n-Roll. One of the greatest vocalists of all time, Turner’s presence on the stage challenged the conventional, “pretty” performances of Black female performers of the 1960s. With her legendary physicality and hypnotic showmanship, she brought to life the electricity and soul of rock music in ways that have paved the way for every single one of your favs.

A survivor of Biblical proportions, Turner survived and fought her way to freedom against an industry and an abuser that would have swallowed the strongest amongst us mortals whole”.

Tina Turner is a fighter and survivor. She is a Rock goddess and star. She is an idol for many and a fountain of strength for so many others. I am a big fan of her music and deeply respect and admire her work; the way she has come through some dark times and captivated the world. A peerless and stunning artist, when it comes to competing with the amazing Tina Turner, everyone else has to settle…

FOR second best.