While Roger Davies continued to seek creative ways of positioning Tina Turner, someone at a major US record label finally noticed the unique premise of signing the label-less artist—a man named Carter. Initially hired as an A&R executive at Capitol Records, Carter’s success with acts like Bob Seger, The Motels, and Missing Persons landed him another role at the label, Staff Producer. He remembers the moment when fate sparked what would become his greatest career achievement. “A journalist wanted to interview me,” Carter explains, “and one of the questions he asked was, ‘Name three artists you’d like to produce.’
“I quickly off the top of my head said, ‘John Fogerty, Van Morrison, Tina Turner.’ I’m sure that I was probably half-glib about the whole thing. Later that day, or the next day, I’m at Tower Records. For anyone in the industry, when you are in a record store, your radar is always on. You’re seeing what’s being displayed, what’s selling, watching other people shop. I’m checking out my records and the guy in front of me in line says, ‘You’re out of Ike and Tina Turner!’ The guy behind the counter says, ‘Really? Again? Unbelievable!’ That was interesting enough that I go back to my office and phone another record chain, Music Plus. I said, ‘You got any Ike and Tina Turner?’ The guy on the phone says, ‘Will you stop driving me fucking crazy with Ike and Tina Turner!’ Well this is really interesting! I do a little research, I find out that she’s got a substantial manager. I go home that night. There she is on 20/20 as a battered wife, kind of nothing to do with her music career. It was like, ‘OK! I hear you, music Gods! You are talking to me!’”
Intrigued by the synchronicity of events, Carter attended Tina Turner’s show at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco. The demographic in the 400-500 seated venue crossed all boundaries, from parents and their children to a solid contingent of gay men. “They certainly weren’t a bunch of old gay hippies,” Carter laughs. “They were young gay guys that were into her.” His fascination with the sold-out crowd, and the discovery that Tina Turner had somehow found a new audience even without a record deal, propelled Carter to Las Vegas for the next gig, which stirred a whole other profile into the mix. “Vegas was dead,” he says . :The room Tina was playing was probably in the thousand-seater range. Maybe it was just the show I went to but there was a ton of Japanese businessmen. I was fascinated by the fact that with a down economy in Vegas, Tina Turner, in her way, was still a strong attraction.”
Backstage in Vegas, Carter offered Tina Turner what had eluded her in the two years since Roger Davies became her manager—a record deal. “I discovered that Roger Davies had gone to 20 record labels and everybody had passed. My record company was like, ‘Who? What? Why?’ I was like, ‘Trust me.’ I signed her to a modest, fundamental deal and set about working with Roger Davies and looking for songs.”
Carter collected a pile of tracks to play for Turner, including “I Wrote a Letter” by German artist Inga Rumpf. Its steely atmosphere sated Turner’s appetite for rock and set a stylistic foundation for the direction of the project. She recorded the song with Carter and turned in one of her most hair-raising vocal performances. Turner spat out the lyrics—“You can make a white girl sing the blues”—with absolute conviction and suspended anyone’s disbelief that she was the scorned white girl in the song.
“When I Was Young” also survived the cut from one of Carter’s initial listening sessions with Turner. She completely inhabited the character created by Eric Burdon on the 1967 hit by the Animals. The fearsome precision of her vocals was cold and cutting, foreshadowing her role as Aunty Entity in George Miller’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Just after the song’s suspenseful climax, the bitterness in Turner’s voice transformed into full-tilt wrath. Eric Burdon explains Turner’s appeal in his distinctly mercurial way, “The female Spartacus turned loose. The lion mother unleashed! Makes every man say out loud, ‘That’s what I want!’ And she gives it to me, she set’s me free and she takes me higher!” Hardly faint praise from the song’s writer.
“Lion mother” is also what Martha Davis of the Motels conjures when remembering Tina Turner’s version of her song “Total Control”, another of Carter’s productions and one that was intended to appear on what eventually became Private Dancer. “I was a big fan of my act, the Motels,” Carter explains. “Anything I was listening to, it was, ‘Could Tina do that?’ ‘Total Control’ was a white record that had the word ‘soul’ in it. I was always looking for that smart song that she could do, something that was very hip on the alternative side.” Tina Turner’s recording of “Total Control” represents one of her very best moments in the studio with Carter. New wave via a peculiar strain of blues-rock, the rhythm section generated a simmering atmosphere for Turner’s voice to stew. “I’d sell /my soul / For total control,” she sang with a gentle roar, maintaining the friction between the somewhat stuttering restraint of the verse and the forthright entreaty of the chorus.
“I was thrilled and honored,” says Martha Davis about Turner’s rendition of “Total Control”. A fan of ‘60s R&B, especially Ike & Tina Turner records, Davis was moved to tears when Carter shared the recording with her. “It was one of the most vivid memories of the ‘80s,” she says. “The day came when he called and asked if I’d like to come to the studio for a listen. I remember sitting down. The song began and Tina sang my words. I began to weep. This beautiful Icon, this tender Lioness, this graceful Survivor, was singing my song. I was so touched and moved.”
In the mean time, Carter approached another young songwriter with a burgeoning career to submit a song for consideration—Bryan Adams. “He had asked me to write a song,” recalls Adams, “which I did, but it didn’t make it past the post office. The lyric went something like, ‘Lock up your sons, cuz Tina’s in town!’ We never heard back about that one.” (Bryan Adams would be back, though.)
While recording sessions continued, a new regime of executives moved into Capitol. The new label president called Roger Davies and summarily dropped TIna Turner from the roster. Carter relays the ensuing showdown, which offers a truly disturbing glance into the racist, ageist, and sexist discourse of many music industry executives:
“Roger calls me. I flip out. I go downstairs to (the new president’s) office. I said, ‘This is my act. I’ve got all the action here. Pick up the phone and call Roger Davies. Say you made a mistake.’ The classic quote is, ‘Carter, you signed this old nigger douchebag?’ I said, ‘I’m making a record and I’m really happy about it now pick up the phone and call Roger Davies.’ He said, ‘No fucking way.’ I open the door, because on the outside they can hear that it’s heated. I go back. I get on my knees and say, ‘I’m now going to beg you. I’m not going to get up until you pick up the phone.’ There’s a long stare down. He blinks and he picks up the phone. He says, ‘Okay. She’s back on the roster. You finish your record but you understand that we’re going to do nothing for this record. Zero. We’re just going to put it out.’ I said, ‘Fine that’s all I ask. We put out that record.’ Now, I almost have to get out of town to make it.”