CHICAGO—Ike Turner, who died Wednesday at age 76 in his suburban San Diego home, changed the course of modern music, scored numerous hits and yet is best known as the scoundrel who abused Tina Turner.
The couple’s bloody, bruised relationship, portrayed in the 1993 movie “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” helped turn Ike Turner into a villain. Yet before he ever met Tina, Ike Turner was a visionary multi-instrumentalist and songwriter.
Long before Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry burst into the public eye, Turner was playing rock `n’ roll. Some people think he even invented it with the pummeling “Rocket 88” in 1951, recorded with his Kings of Rhythm at Sam Phillips’ Sun studio in Memphis and spiked by Turner’s distorted guitar. The song, released on Chicago-based Chess Records and released under the name of the singer, Jackie Brenston, established a pattern for Turner’s career: He would always be the man behind the scenes, a crucial but often unrecognized cog in the development of blues, R&B, rock `n’ roll and soul over the next three decades.
“Blues men in America, we were outcasts,” he said in a 2001 interview with the Chicago Tribune. “All of our lives, since I was born, we were outcasts. Before the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds came along—it had to come from whites in England for America to appreciate what we did.”
Turner grew up in Clarksdale, Miss., the cradle of the modern blues, but his childhood was an ugly one. He was sexually abused and witnessed the lynching of his father. He learned piano by watching Pinetop Perkins play in a friend’s basement, “and music became my life,” he said.
He mastered piano and guitar, and worked as a band leader and talent scout through the `50s, participating in historic sessions by B.B. King, Otis Rush, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Elmore James, Little Milton, Junior Parker and countless others. Turner moved his Kings of Rhythm to St. Louis later in the decade, playing a high-octane brand of blues, boogie and rock `n’ roll. When Annie Mae Bullock barged onto Turner’s stage one night between sets and demanded to sing, the bemused bandleader gave the teenager a shot, and was sold. With the soon-to-be-christened Tina Turner, he had found his meal ticket.
Ike and Tina Turner became one of the biggest soul acts of the `60s and `70s, crossing over to the rock audience thanks to collaborations with Phil Spector (Tina Turner sang lead on “River Deep, Mountain High”) and the patronage of the Rolling Stones, who asked the duo to open the band’s legendary 1969 North American tour.
Ike Turner’s arranging and playing provided a backbone for hits such as “A Fool in Love,” “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” and an incendiary remake of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.” But it was the vivacious, raw-voiced Tina Turner who got all the attention. Their relationship spiraled downhill in the `70s as Ike Turner plunged deeper into drug addiction, and Tina left him in 1976. Her 1984 comeback album, “Private Dancer,” outsold any of her recordings with Ike, and in 2000 she became the top-grossing female artist in concert history.
Meanwhile, Ike Turner’s life unraveled. He was arrested 11 times in the `70s and `80s for various offenses, mostly drug-related. In 1990, he was convicted of possessing and transporting cocaine, and the next year, as he and Tina were being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was sitting in a prison cell, completing an 18-month sentence.
The release of “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” loosely based on Tina Turner’s autobiography, further damaged his career and reputation. It portrayed Ike Turner as a musical Svengali and surrogate father figure who turned his women—wives, backup singers and lovers alike—into servants and punching bags.
When his days with Tina Turner were brought up in the 2001 Tribune interview, Ike Turner was defiant. “I did a lot of wrong things in my life, and a lot of good things, and I don’t regret any of them,” he said. “The only regret I have—I made one mistake in my life, during the time I was doing drugs—I signed a contract with Walt Disney (makers of “What’s Love Got to Do With It”) giving them permission to portray me in this movie any way they wanted, not realizing I was signing away my right to sue them. They totally exaggerated everything she said in the book on the screen, and that sabotaged my career.”
In a 1993 Tribune interview, Tina Turner described a life of “torture” with Ike Turner, and said she stayed with him for 14 years only because she was the mother of their four children (two from a previous Ike Turner marriage). “It wasn’t about money, it was about having kids in school, and I wasn’t going to subject my kids to living on the streets because I couldn’t live with Ike Turner,” she said. “I was strong enough to put up with his crap until they were out of school.”
When Ike Turner was released from prison, he turned his life around. He stopped taking drugs and started performing and recording again. “He fought that devil and he has won,” said the executive who first hired Turner to a recording contract, Joe Bihari, in a 2001 Tribune interview.
Turner pieced together a new Kings of Rhythm and recorded music at his home studio in San Marcos for a 2001 album, “Here and Now.” Last year, he won a Grammy Award in the traditional blues album category for “Risin’ With the Blues.” He was touring and performing to the end.
“It doesn’t matter if I invented rock `n’ roll, because it didn’t make me any money,” Turner told the Tribune. “I made $60 from `Rocket 88’: Six-oh. I don’t care about the glamour or the money. I don’t care about the nominations and Grammys, all that bull. I just care about making people happy—getting onstage and getting everybody going.”