“And the ‘Record of the Year’ is…”
Diana Ross stands on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. It’s 26 February 1985, the evening of the 27th Annual Grammy Awards. In just moments, one of the following names will be announced: Chicago, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis & the News, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner. She tears open the envelope, stoking the crowd’s anticipation for a few spare seconds. “Do I make you nervous?”, she smiles coyly, and seconds later exclaims,
“‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’, Tina Turner!”
Applause erupts from the audience, who instantly rise and give Turner yet another standing ovation. The winner collects herself and hands her purse over to Richard Perry. Terry Britten, the song’s co-writer and producer, takes Turner’s arm in his and they walk together up to the stage. Leonard Bernstein and Debbie Allen smile from the front row. Diana Ross greets the winner with a warm, sisterly embrace. Triumphant, Tina Turner humbly says, “Well, you can tell that we’re new at this!” Even the most cynical misanthrope cannot deny the unbridled joy of this moment. Here’s an artist who had been rejected by nearly every major record label, including the one that ultimately signed her, since leaving Ike Turner in 1976. Now she stands victorious, holding the music industry’s greatest honor in her hand. How?
A combination of vigorous management, a determined record executive, a cadre of cutting edge producers, and the indefatigable spirit of Turner herself created Private Dancer (1984). For the first time in Turner’s career, an album finally accentuated the range of her unique vocal style, a quality that was often eclipsed by the spectacle of her platform-heeled dancing during the Ike & Tina Turner Revue years. Like a nine-part allegory in stereo, Private Dancer accented Turner’s life in a compelling way. Beyond its commercial and critical success, Private Dancer was, above all, a defining artistic statement. Chaka Khan, who added another Grammy to her collection that same evening, offers a succinct but no less significant statement, “Private Dancer is one of the best albums Tina’s ever done!”
In fact, it might even be the best. Now that Tina Turner is recognized as one of popular music’s greatest icons, it’s easy to take for granted just how remarkable Private Dancer was upon its release. How did a 44-year old woman successfully reinvent herself as a rock and roll queen after leaving one of the most respected R&B duos of all time? How did she cultivate such a massive—and youthful—audience after the industry all but relegated her to an “oldies” act? How did Private Dancer establish Tina Turner as both rock royalty and a pop phenomenon?
On the eve of Tina Turner’s 70th birthday, PopMatters explores the road Tina Turner traveled from playing fast food conventions one year to earning an armful of awards the next. More than 20 artists and producers join us in celebrating Private Dancer as we salute the making of a modern classic and pay tribute to the girl form Nutbush, Tennessee who conquered the world stage.
The “Rough” Years
The 1980s began quite differently for Tina Turner than they ended. With just 36 cents and a Mobil credit card to her name, she escaped a physically abusive marriage to Ike Turner in 1976. She also amassed considerable debt and owed money to promoters from canceled concert dates, since Ike booked gigs months in advance. Rhonda Graam, a former business manager for the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, helped the singer launch a solo career independent of her ex-performing partner. Tina Turner’s new professional life initially consisted of TV guest spots and a glitzy cabaret act to both pay back her debtors and support her sons. Turn the television on, circa 1977, and you might find Tina Turner on Donny & Marie, a revival of Laugh-In, Hollywood Squares, or The Sonny & Cher Show. From vamping with Madame and Wayland Flowers to singing “Big Spender” in a three-piece suit, which her male dancers stripped off piece by piece, Turner did just about anything on the small screen.
Rough arrived in 1978 on United Artists, Turner’s first solo release after finalizing her divorce. The album was little more than a vehicle to book Turner on Dinah! and The Midnight Special, where she emphasized that she was no longer “Ikeandtina”. Though live renditions of songs like “Root, Toot Undisputable Rock ‘N Roller” and “The Bitch Is Back” were dazzling, their studio counterparts sounded raucous and screechy on vinyl. She could make introspective songs like “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Sometimes When We Touch” her own but since Tina Turner was not known as a balladeer, United Artists refrained from working that angle of the album.
Disco auteur Alec R. Costandinos produced Turner’s follow-up, Love Explosion (1979) but the album made even less of an impact than Rough, despite decent recordings of “Music Keeps Me Dancin’” and “Backstabbers” by The O’Jays. The au currant pop-disco landscape was clearly an awkward place for Tina Turner. Worse, United Artists folded and the artist found herself without a record deal in the US (However, she remained under contract to EMI in the UK since the company owned United Artists and Turner had enough of a following in England to retain a record deal.)
Poor album sales notwithstanding, Tina Turner still packed houses. Adorned in Bob Mackie costumes and flanked by four back-up dancers with gravity-defying choreography, Tina Turner produced a more thrilling show than artists who were selling millions of records. Continuing to appear in the most unpredictable of places, Turner starred in Olivia Newton-John’s Hollywood Nights television special in 1979. It marked a crucial turning point.
Tina Turner needed new direction for her career. Lee Kramer, who managed Olivia Newton-John, took an interest in Turner and agreed to add her to his client roster under the care of manager Roger Davies. With an infusion of fresh perspective, Davies methodically revamped Turner’s act, firing everyone except pianist Kenny Moore, and hiring young rock musicians, who dressed in stylish black karate suits. Only two dancers—Annie Behringer and former Ikette, Edna LeJeune Richardson—accompanied Turner onstage.
By 1981, Tina Turner had a passport out of the Las Vegas musical desert. The artist who once shouted “Burn, baby, burn” and “Freak out!” to pay the bills surfaced with a strictly rock and roll show. A typical concert in 1982 opened with a wicked rendition of Rod Stewart’s “Kill His Wife” (featuring a noose as a prop), included numbers by the Rolling Stones and Bob Seger, and, of course, a trio of high voltage Ike & Tina Turner hits—“Proud Mary”, “Nutbush City Limits”, and “River-Deep, Mountain High”—without the faux-disco trappings of her previous Vegas show.
With true managerial instinct, Davies knew that buzz was the key to re-establishing Tina Turner’s credibility among rock’s cognoscenti. He booked Turner at Jerry Brandt’s club, The Ritz (currently home to Webster Hall), then the hippest concert venue in Manhattan. Celebrities like Diana Ross, Susan Sarandon, David Johansen, Iman, Grace Jones, Mary Tyler Moore, and John McEnroe attended Turner’s run of shows while she made headlines with uniformly excellent reviews in the New York press. The Village Voice heralded Tina Turner “the finest female rock singer today. That Tina Turner doesn’t currently have a record deal smacks of ageism”.
Friends in the right places were paying attention, though. Just days after attending one of her shows at the Ritz, Rod Stewart invited Turner to guest with him on Saturday Night Live and extended another offer to perform with him at the Forum in Los Angeles, where they playfully cavorted on a duet of Stewart’s “Hot Legs” and a cover of “Get Back” by the Beatles. Thanks to Keith Richards, Turner added another high profile gig to her calendar that very autumn opening three nights for the Rolling Stones on the New York-area leg of their tour. Tina Turner now had the attention of rock audiences in the largest concert arenas across the US.
National media suddenly took interest. Profiles in both People and Rolling Stone discussed the artist’s Buddhist faith, her raunchy image, and why she left Ike Turner. An interview on 20/20 included footage of the singer in the studio with hit producer Richard Perry. They recorded a cover of Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary” for the Summer Lovers (1982) soundtrack and attempted to capture Turner’s gospel-tinged reading of “Help” by the Beatles. However, what worked so well on stage did not translate to the particular kind of pop-rock that Perry specialized in. (Though Turner subsequently recorded “Help” with The Crusaders, it still lacked the vitality of the live version. When integrated into the European track sequence of Private Dancer, it sounded completely out of place amidst the edgier European-based productions.)
A more successful partnership arrived when Martyn Ware of Heaven 17 asked Turner to record “Ball of Confusion” for his Music of Quality and Distinction (1982) project with Ian Craig Marsh. Under the British Electric Foundation moniker, Turner’s interpretation magnified the severe realism of the lyrics, especially when set against the UK producers’ futuristic soundscape. Not since Tina Turner appeared as “The Acid Queen” in Tommy (1975) had a song captured the filmic qualities of her voice and made her musically relevant. To promote the song, director David Mallet shot a video at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Michael Jackson might have popularized videos by black artists on MTV, but Tina Turner was among the first ever to appear on the channel when the “Ball of Confusion” video debuted in 1982.