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London Calling... Again

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London Calling… Again
In 1966, Tina Turner recorded “River-Deep, Mountain High”. Though the song is credited to Ike and Tina Turner, it essentially marked the singer’s first solo outing. Producer Phil Spector wanted only one-half of the duo to front the 75-piece orchestra, the biggest production he’d ever assembled. It was meant to be the producer’s finest hour and a guaranteed hit. Striking, evocative, and larger-than-life, “River-Deep, Mountain High” hit the airwaves in May 1966… and flopped. US disc jockeys couldn’t find a home for the song. The prevailing reason: “Too black for pop radio, too pop for black radio.” Across the Atlantic, however, the song hit #3 on the UK charts. The Rolling Stones invited the duo to open for them on tour, planting the seeds for Tina Turner’s undying connection with audiences in the UK.

Martyn Ware was a fan of “River-Deep, Mountain High”. Explaining its durability, he says, “The DNA is a kind of timelessness that I think Tina had when she sang, ‘When I was a little girl I had a rag doll.’ You can hear it on the radio and it’s not necessarily about nostalgia, it’s about an immediacy.” With co-producer Greg Walsh, Ware would create another timeless production for Tina Turner.

Ware’s previous success with Turner on “Ball of Confusion” had impressed Roger Davies, who knew that working with young, hip producers was essential to making Turner a credible artist. Approached by Davies, the producer agreed to craft another production for Turner. “I believed that Tina was a totally underrated and under-appreciated artist,” he emphasizes. “She’d do one-off shows and people loved them but there was no kind of recording career at that point. I was a young lad. Roger, God bless him, took risks. It was a brave thing to do.” 

Hired for the job, Ware embarked on a mission to prove that electronic-based music was not “cold and detached”, which many naysayers believed. “I wanted to maintain that tension between electronic music and soul,” he says, “rather than electronic music and rock, which is a bit of a less interesting combination. I perceived in Tina that she philosophically kind of turned her back on soul music and, to me, that was a tragedy. When I saw her perform live, I thought, this is the greatest soul vocalist I’d ever seen. Not rock, not rock-soul, but soul.” Indeed, many of the songs Ware suggested to Turner were classic R&B songs that she was not compelled to revisit after years of singing—and living—the blues with Ike. The two finally settled on “Let’s Stay Together”, Al Green’s chart-topping hit from 1972.

“You can’t get much more soulful than the original version of ‘Let’s Stay Together’,” says Ware. “On one level, a lot of people would be going, ‘You must be mad trying to improve on that.’ I just knew. Tina probably thought that it was going to be faithful to the original. It was faithful to the original from a spirit viewpoint, not obviously faithful at all from a sonic viewpoint. That was the innovative part of it—taking similar components and creating them in an entirely different way.”

Fading up like a moonbeam peering from behind a cloud, the opening of “Let’s Stay Together” established an aural space that was light years removed from the song’s Memphis birthplace. “That frozen chord was quite an innovation at the time,” Ware explains, “and created a sense of a slightly futuristic atmosphere from the outset”. Greg Walsh, who worked with Ware on Heaven 17 productions, painted the sonic landscape. “He grew up as a kind of old-school engineer and was trained by Geoff Emerick, who worked with the Beatles. His ability to manifest what our ideas were was very important to the process,” says Ware. Walsh also brought guitarist Ray Russell into the fold, who played on The Luxury Gap (1983) by Heaven 17. His understated guitar work is a key ingredient to Ware’s vision of combining electronic and soul elements. “I have an enormous admiration for his talent,” he says. “He’s played on some fantastic records.” Once Tina Turner began singing, however, the producer just rolled the tape. 

“I would never in a thousand years tell Tina Turner how to sing a soul song,” Ware exclaims. “It’s in her blood. She knows how to do it intuitively. She obviously planned how to sell the song because there’s an enormous range of conceptual dynamic. I’m not talking about soft and loud, I’m talking about intimate and thoughtful (as the original record is) versus strident. She piles into it as if her life depends on this passion. In that sense, it reminds me a little bit of Jennifer Holiday doing ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’. To me, it sounded like a great actor doing the role of their life, a soliloquy. She absolutely nailed it. That’s what it is to me, it’s a soliloquy. You listen to it, I listen to it—and I made the record—and it’s like she’s making a direct connection to you. All the great soul records do that.”

That conceptual dynamic is what made Tina Turner’s performance nothing less than riveting. She embroidered every note on “Let’s Stay Together” with a combination of sweetness, soul, and sweat. Her delivery was unfiltered and spontaneous, with fervent phrasing that intensified throughout the five-minute, sixteen-second duration of the track. “Loving you wheth-ah,” she wailed, and planted ad-libs where words ceased to express her emotions. 

She recorded her vocal in one take. “That performance is completely attached from beginning to end,” Ware remarks, still astounded by what he heard.

“There is no way you could improve it. She turned up at the studio, totally prepared, which goes back to the old-school approach about doing your homework and coming in to give the performance of a lifetime. When we were recording the vocal, even in my limited experience at the time, I just knew that this was an exceptional moment. How often do you get that in today’s world, let alone the world of Auto-tune? Can you imagine saying to the artist today, ‘Right, we’re going to record this and the band live and we’re going to use the entire take. We may do two takes if you’re lucky’. They’d just go, ‘You got to be kidding’. I still believe that ‘Let’s Stay Together’ is probably the best piece of production I’ve ever done.”

No one could deny the song’s might. Paula Cole, then an aspiring artist, remembers how the song made an immediate impression. “When I heard Tina’s version of ‘Let’s Stay Together’,” she says, “I needed to go find the music and do the Vulcan mind-meld.” Perhaps one of the greatest compliments about Turner’s version comes from the song’s original co-writer and producer, Willie Mitchell. “Tina really captured the magic of the song and sang it like it was her song,” says Mitchell. “That’s the way to cover a tune.”

Released in late-1983 to coincide with a spate of appearances in the UK, the “Let’s Stay Together” single, featuring “I Wrote a Letter” as the B-side, quickly reignited Turner’s devoted British audience. She appeared on the popular music program The Tube with Martyn Ware and his Heaven 17 partner Glenn Gregory. Turner induced such a wildly enthusiastic response that the show’s producer booked her for a second appearance only weeks later. 

Stateside, an import of the “Let’s Stay Together” 12-inch found a home in clubs. While Carter continued on his quest to convince Capitol Records that TIna Turner was still a viable artist on the roster, the label’s Head of Promotion suddenly grasped the appeal Turner’s latest release could have in the pop marketplace. At Capitol’s weekly marketing meeting, the promotion executive shared the epiphany he experienced at a club in Palm Springs. Carter recalls the story, “He said, ‘They play this record and the whole crowd jumps on the dancefloor, to the point that I ask them what record it is. It’s this import of ‘Let’s Stay Together’ by Tina Turner that Carter’s been ranting about.’ Literally, it came down to some disco club that this guy happened to walk into and saw that it wasn’t just the insane A&R guy, but that there was really something to this record.”

Capitol released “Let’s Stay Together” in late January 1984 for the US market. The song climbed to #26 on the pop chart after topping the Disco/Club play chart and lodging a Top Five R&B hit. In a dramatic reversal of their priorities, Capitol now demanded a full album be delivered to capitalize on the success of the single. Since tour dates were already scheduled across England, Roger Davies insisted that the remainder of the album be recorded in the country that never abandoned Tina Turner. Capitol agreed but with one caveat—she had less than a month to complete it.

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 

Tagged as: tina turner
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