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A key bridge between blues and rockCopyright © 2008
By David Whiteis
Copyright (c) 2008 David Whiteis
Republished with permission from Living Blues
Ike Turner, an important figure in '50s and '60s blues and R&B and one of the founding fathers of rock & roll, died on December 12, 2007. The cause of death was initially announced as emphysema, but it was eventually revealed that he died of an accidental cocaine overdose. He was 76.
Whether by accident or design, Turner's life story remains in many ways elusive -- even some basic biographical facts have been disputed. He was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on November 5, 1931; for years his birth name was usually given as Izear Luster Turner Jr., but more recently he suggested that it was actually Ike Wister Turner.
We do know that early in his life he was initiated into the ugly realities of the Southern racial cast system: when he was very young, his father was beaten to death by a mob of white thugs.
Turner developed an avid interest in music early on. In his 1999 autobiography Takin' Back My Name: The Confessions of Ike Turner, he remembered that by the time he was eight years old he was well-known around the studio of Clarksdale's influential radio station WROX; the deejays there taught him to cue up records, and he said that he eventually became so good at it that they'd sometimes leave the control booth and let him have the turntable to himself.
Mentored by Robert Nighthawk and Pinetop Perkins, Turner was something of a prodigy: by the time he reached high school he was proficient on both piano and guitar, and he began gigging around the area with artists such as Nighthawk and harmonica great Rice Miller (a.k.a. Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2) when they came through town. While still in school, he also formed a couple of bands -- first a jazzy ensemble called the Tophatters, and then a stripped-down, harder-rocking group who took the name the Kings of Rhythm. The Kings included saxophonist Jackie Brenston, guitarist Willie Kizart, saxophonist Raymond Hill, and drummer Willie Sims, along with Turner himself. With his musical acumen and forceful personality, young Ike whipped his charges into a tight, driving R&B band; they became one of the most in-demand dance bands in the area.
The story has often been told of how Kizart's amplifier, tied precariously to the roof of the band's overburdened sedan, tumbled to the ground alongside Highway 61 when the group got pulled over by a traffic cop on their way to the Sun Records studio in Memphis for their first recording session on March 3, 1951. When they reached the studio, they discovered that the amp's speaker cone had been broken. Label owner and producer Sam Phillips, eager to get on with things, stuffed some paper into the cone and declared the session in progress. Four disks were cut that day, two featuring Turner's somewhat uncertain vocals, and two with Brenston at the helm. One of the latter, a propulsive ode to automobiles and eroticism called "Rocket 88," hit the charts and became a national No. 1 best-seller within a few months.
Generations of guitarists and technicians to follow labored mightily to reproduce the fuzzy, static-drenched distortion that Kizart's busted amp gave to "Rocket 88." It's that sound, as much as the song's rollicking boogie beat and archetypical lyric theme, that has led many historians to christen it the first rock & roll record ever recorded. But Turner was disgruntled by the way the record was billed -- as by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Combustible and driven, he soon parted ways with Brenston. He carried on with the Kings, alternating his music career with an equally influential job as talent scout and sometime A&R man for the Sun, Chess, and RPM/Modern labels. He and his band also contributed their incendiary power to some of the era's most important blues recordings, perhaps most notably Otis Rush's apocalyptic "Double Trouble" and "All Your Love" (from a 1958 Cobra session).
In 1954, Turner moved to St. Louis, where his reconstituted Kings of Rhythm rapidly became mainstays on that city's thriving R&B circuit. Although their discographical legacy is relatively sparse -- none of the sides Turner released under his own name or as a band leader between 1951 and the mid-'60s made the charts -- their influence was profound. That influence transcended music: their stance, as cocky youngbloods ready to take on the world, helped define the social norms that eventually became associated with both R&B and rock & roll. Turner's own image -- slick and urbane but tinged with danger, even a little devilish with his pointed chin, pencil-thin moustache, pompadour, flashing eyes, and lascivious leer -- was a major facet of his appeal, both onstage and off. He was a "magnet" for women, as Etta James put it, and he never hesitated to use this gift to his advantage. In the late '50s he ran across a gifted teenaged singer from Nutbush, Tennessee named Anna Mae Bullock. Smitten, he hired her as a vocalist with his band.
He soon re-christened her Tina Turner, and the band became the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Tina's stage presence was even more smolderingly sexual than Ike's: with her sensual strut, kitten-with-claws growl, and lascivious microphone technique, she became one of R&B's hottest attractions.
In 1962 (at least according to most accounts), Ike and Tina had a wedding ceremony in Tijuana, Mexico, the legality of which remains a matter of some dispute.
Already Chitlin' Circuit celebrities, they found that their reputation began to widen as the '60s progressed and whites became more enamored of blues and R&B. Their famous 1966 session with Phil Spector, which resulted in the epochal "River Deep, Mountain High," catapulted them into international acclaim. The Rolling Stones chose them as an opening act for their ill-fated 1969 tour; two years later, Tina cemented her historical legacy in both R&B and rock with her landmark cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary."
By his own admission, Ike possessed a mercurial temperament. Although uncomfortable fronting a band onstage, he always considered himself the leader of his groups -- the arrangements, many of the compositions, and the stage show were usually his creations -- and he resented it when others received credit that he believed rightly belonged to him (the Jackie Brenston "Delta Cats" episode remained a sore point with him throughout his life). Whether this contributed to the tension between him and Tina is difficult to assess, but their relationship was a stormy one. His growing alcohol and cocaine dependency certainly didn't help matters any; after the couple divorced in the mid-'70s, his demons began to assert even greater control over him, and both his life and career plummeted downward.
Turner had never entirely given up working as a solo artist -- he released sides under his own name for Pompeii, Sterling Award, and United Artists between the late '60s and the mid-'70s -- but both onstage and in the studio he needed a forceful, dynamic vocalist and a well-honed ensemble to bring out his best. In the 1980s, as Tina built her own career into one of the most successful in all of popular music, Ike drifted further and further into crisis. A recording studio he had build in Los Angeles burned down; he was arrested several times on narcotics charges; by 1989 he was behind bars for the eleventh -- and what turned out to be the final -- time. He was still there in 1991, when he and Tina were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She accepted the honor on behalf of both of them.
After his release in 1993, Turner set to work revitalizing his career. It wasn't an easy task. Tina's 1986 autobiography, I, Tina, had shocked readers and reviewers with its depictions of their relationship, which she portrayed as something akin to a Gothic horror tale. Her 1993 biopic, What's Love Got To Do With It, was even more lurid in its descriptions. For his part, although he admitted that they had had problems and sometimes even owned up to having hit her, Ike insisted that both the book and the movie overstated the case. With vocalist Jeanette Bazzell, whom he'd known since the late '80s and finally married in 1995 ("I've never hit her; but if I needed to, I would," he told an interviewer), along with a reconstituted group of Ikettes, he recorded a comeback CD, My Blues Country (Mystic), in 1996.
In the U.S., the ongoing controversy over his and Tina's domestic problems hindered his acceptance, especially among younger white listeners (who now comprised the bulk of his fan base). Overseas, where even casual fans often have knowledge of blues and R&B history, he fared better. His financial situation improved significantly after the rap duo Salt 'N' Pepa sampled his "I'm Blue" (originally released in 1962 as by the Ikettes) on their 1993 hit "Shoop." He began to reclaim his old image: sporting flashy jewelry and gold chains, dressing in flamboyantly styled, colorful suits, and carrying himself with cocksure imperiousness, he looked and acted every inch the aging but still-potent streetwise player. His comeback stage show featured him wielding his axe, preening and glowering like a pimp Svengali, behind his front line of scantily-clad Ikettes. Later he toned things down a bit with a new Kings of Rhythm revue, in which the focus was more on his still-formidable keyboard and guitar skills, as well as his often-criticized but mostly serviceable singing voice.
In 1999, his autobiography, written with the British writer Nigel Cawthorne, was published. Although he was pretty straightforward in his descriptions of the ups and downs of his life, he insisted -- in his book, as well as in interviews -- that it was time to put the past behind and move on. Again, though, given his complex personal makeup, this was easier said than done. He continued to insert acerbic references to Tina in his stage act; he'd sometimes hand out autographed photos of himself inscribed with the legend, "What's love got to do with it? Not a goddamn thing." It also didn't help that some rappers seemed to embrace his dark side as something to admire: the late Biggie Smalls name-checked him in "Dreams," in which he rapped, "Slap Tina Turner / Give her flashbacks of Ike."
Nonetheless, almost in spite of himself, Turner garnered significant new respect, if not redemption, during the final decade of his life. Disks on C-Ya, Ikon, Isabel, ABC, and Zohon -- several recorded live -- earned critical acclaim. In their wake, he toured with greater frequency. Slowly he began to find acceptance, even in his home country. He appeared twice at the 2001 Chicago Blues Festival; his performance there on the Front Porch Stage was featured in Martin Scorsese's PBS series The Blues. I was the emcee for that set, and I remember it as utterly torrid -- one of the highlights of the modern festival's 25-year history. In 2002, he cut another live disk at the Montreux Jazz Festival; he even began doing service work in schools, lecturing youngsters on the pitfalls of drug abuse.
There were still some painful moments: although he was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 2001, six years later the city's mayor, citing Ike's history of drug abuse and domestic violence, refused a request from the organizers of the Big Muddy Blues Festival to honor him with an "Ike Turner Day." But in 2004, the Grammys feted him with their Heroes Award; despite the lingering resentments and criticism, it appeared as if Ike Turner was going to be able to enjoy a relatively leisurely and lucrative journey into the sunset of one of pop music's most remarkable and volatile careers.
That's why it came as such a disappointment to his admirers when it was revealed that he'd died from drugs. He's hardly the first musician to re-succumb to demons thought vanquished; for that matter, he's hardly the first public figure to have been outed for domestic abuse, and an argument can certainly be made that there was at least an element of racism in the way he -- instead of, let's say, Frank Sinatra, Jackson Browne, or Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzman -- was pilloried for his misbehavior. Nonetheless, America loves a story of redemption, and even his harshest detractors had to admit that Turner struggled manfully -- albeit in his own inevitably hard-headed, irascible way -- to achieve his. It was heartbreaking to see him fall short in this final quest.
As always, though, let the music have the final word: exuberant, brash, charged with that hard-edged tinge of evil that's been an element of blues expression since at least the days of Charlie Patton, it remains among the most vital in the American popular music canon. Without Ike Turner, the blues, R&B, and rock & roll would sound very different from the way they sound today. Flawed though he may have been, he was -- and is -- among the giants of America's musical legacy.