The Story of a Soul Survivor

'Private Dancer' at 25

by Christian John Wikane

24 November 2009


Phoenix Rising

Phoenix Rising
Some of the most cutting edge artists on American radio playlists, circa 1984, hailed from the UK (think Eurythmics, Culture Club, Duran Duran). To build on the kind of sonic sophistication that Martyn Ware manifested in his recordings with Turner, Roger Davies sought Rupert Hine, a producer known for exporting hits by the Fixx, who had just scored a huge hit in the US with “One Thing Leads to Another”. The producer involved Jamie West-Oram, the lead guitarist of the Fixx, in the process of writing and recording “I Might Have Been Queen”, the one original song on Private Dancer written expressly for Tina Turner.

“When Rupert Hine invited me to play on Tina’s album”, Jamie West-Oram recalls, “I nearly fell over! Then he asked me to co-write one of the songs with him and Jeanette Obstoj and I did fall over. Jeanette had already written the lyric to ‘Queen’ having talked to Tina to look for a theme. Rupert is a genius. I probably had something to do with the guitar riff and the chord structure of the bridge.”

The lyrics Obstoj penned for “I Might Have Been Queen” poignantly and poetically reflected Turner’s belief in reincarnation. When sung by the vocalist, the lyrics, “I remember the girl in the field with no name”, had a profound resonance, signifying Turner’s childhood in Tennessee working in the cotton fields. “I’m a soul survivor,” she declared at the song’s climax, and in just three seconds, encapsulated the quasi-mythological spirit of her life.

It came as little surprise to Jamie West-Oram that Obstoj brilliantly extrapolated such depth from her conversation with Tina Turner. “Jeanette is an inspired lyricist,” he says. “She wrote the words to ‘Secret Separation’ and ‘Woman on a Train’ for the Fixx. Anyone who can get Cy to sing his or her words has got to be good because Cy is such an exceptional lyricist himself.” Cy Curnin even contributed background vocals to “I Might Have Been Queen”. “I can remember standing in front of the microphone next to Tina,” says the front man of the Fixx. “I had to pinch myself. When we started to sing I knew things would never be the same again. The power of her voice is only matched by the emotion within it.”

“Better Be Good to Me”, the second track Rupert Hine produced for the project, transferred the combination of power and emotion in Turner’s voice to a song penned by Holly Knight, Mike Chapman, and Nicky Chinn. Sassy with attitude to spare, her performance revivified a song Knight recorded with her group Spider some years earlier. The songwriter shares the “urban legend” about how “Better Be Good to Me” came to live a second life, “Tina was in an A&R meeting to go over possible tunes to cut when she heard ‘Better Be Good to Me’ (Spider’s version). She jumped out of her seat and said this was what she had been looking for—a rock and roll tune with empowering lyrics.”

Tina Turner tore into the song every bit the rock goddess. “Oh yes I’m touched by this show of emotion / Should I be fractured by your lack of devotion,” she enunciated with spiky, staccato inflections. “Tina has always had the good sense and respect to sing the vocals very close to the demos I turned in,” says Knight, who’d pen a total of 11 songs for Turner over the years, including the Grammy-winning “One of the Living” (1985). Hine’s thunderous production was the perfect conduit to illustrate Turner’s innate love of rock music. She delivered the song with as much authority and authenticity as anything she ever recorded with Ike Turner.

The process of acquiring “Better Be Good to Me” loosely blueprinted how Carter procured more cuts for Turner to record, a process that initially frustrated the producer until he realized that Turner didn’t need a songwriter’s latest, greatest creation to turn in a remarkable performance. “As I would go out to the publishers and look for a song, they’d say, ‘Tina Turner? No. We’re saving that for Pat Benatar. We’re hoping that Heart’s got that on hold. Fuck Tina Turner. Fuck you!’ It’s absolutely true.”

“When we then got this old Holly Knight song, I said, ‘Oh, I get it.’ I went back to all the publishers and said, ‘Okay, I don’t want your great new song. I want that song you thought was great five years ago that you never got cut. Give me your fucking garbage, man.’”

That same kind of methodology landed something called “What’s Love Got to Do with It”.

Written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, “What’s Love Got to Do with It” had been sitting around for a few years, trading hands among some of pop’s hottest female artists, but never materialized into a recording. Turner’s lukewarm response to the demo changed when she met Terry Britten in person. With just his guitar in hand, he reshaped the architecture of the song to fit the feel of her voice. At the actual recording session, Carter knew Turner not only had a hit but an award-winning anthem. “Tina came in and recorded a Grammy in 20 minutes. I go back to my hotel. I call the new head of A&R and I say, ‘I haven’t just made a record here. We’re going to win a Grammy.’”

Turner’s raspy voice marinated with the rough lacquer of Terry Britten’s sleek production. Her vocal attack embodied the friction between physical attraction and the illusion of love. Describing Turner as “Fearless Fire”, vocal powerhouse Ledisi observes, “This song gave women strength to say what was considered taboo at the time.” When she punctuated “Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?” with a guttural growl, Turner didn’t so much ask a question but assert a world-weariness informed by years of life experience. 

“What’s Love Got to Do with It” resonated with many of Turner’s peers who felt a kinship with the artist after hearing the song. “I knew we were sisters in the hood,” says Melba Moore. Having watched Tina Turner perform with Ike years before, Ruth Pointer saw parallels between her life and Turner’s.

“The song says it,” Pointer explains. “At that point in my life I was older and I had a little more experience with relationships under my belt and that song made sense. I always felt like I had some kind of spiritual connection to her in some way. I know her relationship with Ike was very tumultuous, violent, and crazy, and during that same time, I was in a very similar relationship that I had to get away from. I think that probably has something to do with why I connect with her on that level and in that spirit—the freedom that comes with pulling yourself out of a situation like that is unbelievable. When I went to see her perform, it was just a joyous feeling of watching this wonderful, beautiful woman just feeling and being herself. I was so proud. It was like she was another one of my sisters.”

“Show Some Respect”, another song Britten wrote and produced for the the project, also reflected the tautness of Turner’s self-possession. The textures of her voice bounced full-throttle above Britten’s punchy synth-rock arrangement. “It’s funky!”, enthuses Ledisi. “I love Ms. Tina’s voice on it, especially towards the end of the song. Awesome.” When Turner used “Show Some Respect” as the opening number on her Private Dancer tour, explosions and smoke bombs amplified the song’s power.

Of the three productions Terry Britten produced, “I Can’t Stand the Rain” was the lone cover.  Like Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, it scored a major hit for the Hi Records label when Ann Peebles recorded it in 1974. After a succession of covers by Graham Central Station and the disco outfit Eruption, Tina Turner merged the soul and synthesized versions with a sui generis style of her own. The recording stands as one of Janelle Monáe’s favorite songs from Private Dancer. “It has a really funky groove and vocal approach,” she says. “I instantly connect with the emotion in her voice. I love when she performs it live. She is so raw, but yet so polished at the same time. I have always admired the attention she gives to her performances.”

The range of covers expanded with Martyn Ware’s production of David Bowie’s “1984”. Since striking out on her own in the mid-‘70s, Turner had become a fan of Bowie’s, incorporating a smoldering version of his “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” into her 1983-1984 concert sets. “I knew she liked Bowie, because she mentioned it before,” Ware explains, “and I had always been a big fan of (Bowie’s) Diamond Dogs (1974) album. In Britain, his concept was appreciated and the live show was appreciated but the songs weren’t fully appreciated. I loved that song and I liked the challenge of creating an electronic and interesting version of it because it really was 1984. It was something that was both topical and unexpected to hear from Tina. I think she’s just a great storyteller. She does that with the attitude in her voice. She’s showing you the idea of the lyrics in every line of the songs that she sings.”

With the same kind of theatricality that dressed “Cat People”, Tina Turner heightened the drama of “1984” and turned Bowie’s song into a mini-acting piece through Ware’s panoramic production. The piano trills by Nick Plytas and string arrangements by Dave Cullen augmented the ominous atmosphere of Bowie’s lyrics. Just three minutes long, Turner wrung an epic performance out of each note while the foreboding backing vocals by Heaven 17 approximated the drone of Gregorian chants. The dynamic production contrasted in every which way with Ware’s “Let’s Stay Together” and further underscored Turner’s versatility.

Carter witnessed how Turner effortlessly navigated the range of repertoire as the corresponding number of producers grew exponentially. In both his productions and in the sessions with other producers, Carter saw first-take recordings transpire before his eyes onto the tape. “She’d sing the song perfectly,” he remembers.

“I’d say, ‘Can we do it again?’ She’d say, ‘What did I do wrong?’ I’d say, ‘Nothing but I just automatically think that we got to get another take.’ She’d say, ‘You just want to see me dance!’ She would do the second take as good as the first but do the choreography. She’d say, ‘Don’t you want me to do the background part? I’ve already rehearsed the background parts. Roll it.’ She’d do the harmonies. I’d say, ‘Man that is fantastic. Let me play that for you.’ She said, ‘I know what I did. I don’t need to hear that. That’s why I have you. I’m going shopping.’ She never wanted to hear it. She was prepared. She did it perfectly and she was gone.”

Despite the ease of producing Tina Turner, the deadline for submitting an album to Capitol was imminent and only three-fourths of an album had been recorded. The two tracks by Rupert Hine and Terry Britten’s three productions wrapped over a ten-day period while the Martyn Ware cuts, of course, were completed months before. Still short a full-length album, Roger Davies scurried to find additional material. He contacted Ed Bicknell, who managed Dire Straits and UK-based singer-songwriter Paul Brady at the time. Bicknell delivered the final pair of songs, “Steel Claw” and “Private Dancer”.

The latter tune consisted of an instrumental track leftover from Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold (1982) album. Mark Knopfler, the group’s frontman and primary writer, hadn’t recorded a vocal for the song, thinking it didn’t suit a male vocalist. Due to legal clearance issues, the instrumental track needed to be re-recorded if the song was to appear on Turner’s album. According to Carter, Knopfler was reluctant to play on the session for the track, though the rest of the band readily agreed to record “Private Dancer”. “The band wanted to do it,” he says. “Knopfler refused to be on the session. He left town. Once it was a big hit and everybody said, ‘Congratulations, Mark’, then he decided it was cool.” Whatever reservations Knopfler had did not detract from the stellar performances his band mates recorded.

Tina Turner lucidly personified the hopes and dreams versus the tortured reality of a taxi dancer. Her voice was alternately cool and contemplative in the verses, then transmitted ache and yearning in the chorus and bridge. Billy Porter, who first heard “Private Dancer” in his high school Jazz Dance Class, remains an ardent admirer of the song. His interpretation is incisive. He says, “The song is about a woman who owns her ideological and moral contradictions, moving through the imperfect with hope and grace.” Joan Armatrading was also struck by “Private Dancer”, specifically the melding of a great vocalist and songwriter. “One of the songs Tina made an instant classic with her incredible vocal range,” she says, “Tina and Mark, what a combination.”

Carter, who produced both “Private Dancer” and “Steel Claw” in Knopfler’s absence, brought another factor into the song’s amalgam of creative forces. At one of Turner’s London shows, he spotted Jeff Beck standing in the audience. He immediately offered the renowned guitarist a spot to play on the album. Beck’s only stipulation was to spend 30 minutes in the studio with the singer. His nuanced guitar solo on “Private Dancer” perfectly conveyed the emotional complexity of Knopfler’s lyrics.

Jeff Beck also cut a solo for “Steel Claw”, which featured Dire Straits (sans Mark Knopfler) as the backing band. Fueled by a furiously energetic performance, “Steel Claw” proved that Tina Turner could even hold her own in a heavy metal context. The ferocity in her rendering of Paul Brady’s tune, originally from his True for You (1983) album, was spellbinding. When reviewing Private Dancer for his Consumer Guide in The Village Voice, Robert Christgau remarked how Turner adapted the printed lyrics of “Steel Claw” to “her own spoken idiom”. Indeed, her stream-of-consciousness phrasing defied the words on the page. By the time she announced Jeff Beck’s guitar solo with a shriek—“Jeff Beck. Ow!”—the door to Ike and TIna Turner had been slammed and bolted once and for all. 

Against almost every odd imaginable, Private Dancer was finally complete.

Topics: tina turner
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