The Story of a Soul Survivor

'Private Dancer' at 25

by Christian John Wikane

24 November 2009


The Triumphant Return

The Triumphant Return
“This is quite a cover,” David Letterman quips to Tina Turner. It’s her first appearance on the young late-night television host’s program. Letterman is having a difficult time remembering the album title as he examines the cover.

It’s hard not to take your eyes off Private Dancer. Walk into a record store in June 1984, just after the album hits the shelves, and you cannot escape it: Tina Turner rests on a mound of silver canvas in a black, low-cut blouse with her legs wrapped in fishnet stockings. Her eyes stare defiantly at the camera. Her lips pout with a brush of crimson. It’s a provocative pose without being overly salacious. It’s sexy but not tawdry. It’s the perfect image to greet listeners before they tear the shrink wrap off the cover and discover two sides worth of contemporary pop, rock, and soul with a glossy European sheen.

By the time Tina Turner appeared on Letterman’s show, two major events conspired to add extra mileage to the promotion of Private Dancer: Turner’s opening slot on Lionel Richie’s spring-summer tour and the May release of “What’s Love Got to Do with It”. The video filmed for the single was just as irresistible as the song. Whether she climbed the steps of the Christopher St. subway station in Greenwich Village or stood overlooking the East River from Brooklyn’s Fulton Ferry, Tina Turner was a magnetizing presence in every frame. Her denim jacket, black mini-skirt, high heels, and explosion of hair created an instantly iconic look. She exuded confidence in close-up shots while the camera tracked her stiletto-heeled sashay, transferring the song’s thematic elements to the screen with the singer’s every movement. The video slipped into heavy rotation on MTV during the summer of 1984 and broadcast Turner’s striking visage to a national, 24-hour-a-day audience, affording many younger viewers their first glimpse of Tina Turner.

When “What’s Love Got to Do with It” shot to number one in August—24 years to the week that Ike and Tina Turner debuted on the charts with “A Fool in Love”—it was due in no small part to the powerful intersection of Turner’s strong visual presence and the song’s sophisticated sensibility. “I think ‘What’s Love Got to do with It’ was one of the best singles of its time”, says Ki Ki Dee, who saw Turner in London just before the release of Private Dancer. “The marriage of the song, the production, and Tina is one made in heaven. Love her. She is one of the all-time great singers and performers.”

The following month, Turner gave her first high-profile performance of “What’s Love Got to Do with It” at the debut of the MTV Video Music Awards. Introduced by a gushing Bette Midler, Tina Turner strutted out onstage and belted her chart-topping hit. The audience, comprised of industry heavyweights and young fans alike, responded with a standing ovation. Nona Hendryx sat in Radio City Music Hall that night and joined in the vociferous applause. She reflects on the significance Turner’s newfound success,

“I think it was a vindication for Tina after all the years of struggle, touring, singing and performing as a duo with Ike and then on her own to have that kind of success, artistically and financially. I’m sure many thought Tina didn’t stand a chance without Ike and that without him she would fail. The talent was always there, it just needed to be nurtured, supported, accepted and allowed to blossom into the one of a kind, amazing performer Tina is to this day. Unique and brilliant!” 

Coinciding with both the MTV awards ceremony and a Rolling Stone cover story, Capitol released “Better Be Good to Me” to radio and further expanded Turner’s rock audience. Her tough, no-bullshit persona in the video added an even edgier dimension to the song. She sold the song’s assertiveness and playfully taunted Cy Curnin, who made a cameo in the video with Jamie West-Oram. Adorned in her black leather pants and jacket, Turner was the absolute embodiment of rock music.

Another release in the autumn of 1984 garnered Turner additional airplay on rock stations. Bryan Adams was just finishing up his Reckless album when he sent a song called “It’s Only Love” to Turner’s office in Los Angeles. He didn’t receive a response until the last week of recording the album. His final attempt to corral Turner for the session finally worked. He recalls, “Tina was on tour as the support act for Lionel Richie, and she was going to be in Vancouver where I was working, so I asked again. This time, she said yes. I was so excited. I was 24, working with one of my favourite singers. When she came into the studio, I explained to her what I thought would work, and about three takes later it was done”. Like Private Dancer, the Reckless album had no shortage of hits and “It’s Only Love” landed both singers a Top 20 hit as well as a subsequent MTV Video Music Award for the live version of the duet.

By the end of 1984, Private Dancer peaked at number three on the album charts.  It was an amazing feat. Just a year before, Capitol Records was ready to drop Tina Turner from its roster and now she was the label’s hottest act. The media hyped Turner as the comeback of the decade, though many of her peers knew that she had never really been away. “This wasn’t a come back,” Joan Armatrading clarifies. “Tina was around, she was just biding time.” Kim Carnes, whose “I’ll Be Here Where the Heart Is” received a stirring rendition in Turner’s 1983 shows, concurs. “She was great before and after Private Dancer, but that record gave her the total acceptance she so deserved. There is no voice, no performer as gifted. I love Tina… as an amazing human being, and as a one of a kind talent.”

Millions of record buyers also loved Tina. As 1984 yielded to 1985, Tina Turner earned a fourth hit single when the title track climbed to number seven on the pop charts following the Top Five success of “Better Be Good to Me”. The album was certified triple platinum in the wake of Turner’s performance on the American Music Awards, where she performed “Private Dancer” and won “Favorite Soul/R&B Female Artist” and “Favorite Soul/R&B Female Video Artist”. 

Young sets of eyes were watching closely and learning from Tina Turner. Dionne Farris says, “For me as a young black girl wanting to do that which I saw, which was to sing, she showed me yet another way to go about doing it. She’s a survivor and an innovator. Every time she has graced us with her presence, she never disappoints (that is something that I strive to achieve). We marvel at her fire and her talent (and her great legs). The woman is a Goddess.”

Nikka Costa, who was already a young star around the world when Private Dancer made its ascent on the album charts, recalls her discovery of Tina Turner. “I was too young to have really known her as a performer in the ‘70s but once Private Dancer came out, I knew she had to be a force to be reckoned with. She was so hot and assured with that gravity defying hair (and skirt for that matter!) and that amazing voice. I started looking up her earlier stuff and was astounded at the footage I saw. Her performance, her sexuality, her toughness, just the original bad ass. She is a total inspiration to me and so many others. We owe her a lot for coming first on so many levels.”

“I don’t think there’s any way I could possibly thank her enough for what she’s given me,” says Paula Cole, echoing Costa’s sentiment. “For years I have carried a picture of Tina with me on the road to remind me to keep the fire and joy in my soul alive, even in the darkest of circumstances.”

The fire in Tina Turner’s soul was ablaze on 28 February 1985—Grammy Night. Even with the flu, she summoned a show-stopping performance of “What’s Love Got to Do with It”.  She invoked the song’s feisty attitude but could hardly contain her excitement about finally reaching that career pinnacle on her own. As the evening passed, Tina Turner picked up one award after another, “Best Rock Performance, Female” for “Better Be Good to Me”, “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female” for “What’s Love Got to Do with It”, and, of course, “Record of the Year” (Terry Britten and Graham Lyle won “Song of the Year” for “What’s Love Got to Do With It”). Standing next to Lionel Richie, who took home the “Album of the Year” trophy, Tina Tuner smiled radiantly for the throngs of press who gathered to interview the singer after the show.

Within hours of the ceremony, Turner hopped a plane to continue the European leg of her Private Dancer world tour. Her show in Birmingham (UK) was filmed and released on video, a definitive document of how, within one year, Tina Turner went from playing conventions for executives at McDonald’s to selling out major arenas. When she uttered the words, “I’m gonna sing songs from my album Private Dancer for you,” the crowd responded with a deafening scream.

A whole new generation of fans, who knew nothing of Tina Turner’s musical past, clamored to see the 45-year-old singer while those who grew up listening to “Nutbush City Limits” and “I Wanna Take You Higher” watched, enthralled, as Private Dancer immersed Tina Turner in a completely different musical environment. Alison Moyet is one of those artists who first knew Turner as the sizzling centerpiece of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue before watching her take flight as a solo artist. “Tina Turner came to my attention in my mid-teens and left a deep impression,” she says. 

“It was the first time I had heard aggression and power in a female voice. From her throat, I recognised a sound that made sense of me; the boy in the girl. Then, she was an exotic creature from another time and a distant place, howling out from my scratched records. With Private Dancer, Tina was here in your face. She skipped beautiful legs on impossibly high heels. A mouth itching, lips sketching every word and a voice that almost sang chords. Tina owned her own sex.”

“Only Tina could show women it’s okay to be bold, beautiful and uninhibited”, adds Ledisi. “Private Dancer as an entire album is a beautiful mixture of soul and rock. She creates her own definition of soul music that speaks to all genres, all generations, which is why she’s a legend.”

“The sheer will of a strong black woman.” That is what Billy Porter attributes to Tina Turner achieving such remarkable success when many artists at a similar point in their career had already peaked. She inspired groups like The Pointer Sisters, who had been through their own set of stylistic transformations. “To come into such great success at the age that she did was so fabulous for a lot of women,” says Ruth Pointer. “I know it was for me. We started thinking, ‘Oh, we’re getting near 40. Nobody wants us anymore’. Ms. Tina shut all that down to the point where there is no limit for women anymore. I don’t feel it.”

Donna Summer cites Turner as an inspiration for changing the paradigm about what’s expected of black female artists. “Tina has long been an inspiration to me, the first black female pioneeress of rock and roll. Private Dancer took her from Ike and Tina to Tina Turner—it was always Tina anyway—and with that album, she got her just due. There is only one Tina Turner: she’s simply the best!” Joan Amratrading, another artist who challenges conventional notions of black female singers, agrees. “Tina has one of the most amazing voices and can really turn any rock song into a masterpiece.”

Tina Turner’s advocates and co-conspirators, of course, were instrumental in making Private Dancer not just a noteworthy record but a career-defining masterpiece. Everyone from Roger Davies to Carter to photographer Brian Aris to the mixing and mastering technicians figured into the equation of the album’s appeal. Though Turner’s voice was the reason why all the components ultimately clicked, just imagine “Private Dancer” without the wailing sax solo by Mel Collins or the synthesized harmonica on “What’s Love Got to Do with It”.

The latter song has retained its allure 25 years on. The metallic sheen of the introduction still glistens from the sound design created by film composer Nick Glennie Smith. A breeziness wafts through the production and heightens the sensation of Turner’s crisp, impeccable performance. “It’s part of culture,” says Carter about the song, while Dionne Farris opines, “It’s great music that stands the test of time.” Those needing evidence of a perfect hit single needn’t look any further.

A quarter-century later, the songs on Private Dancer resonate with listeners as both timeless pieces of music and melodic parables. Turner’s legend has only multiplied since 1985, when the album sold millions of copies even a year after its initial release. The half-dozen world tours, a presence on movie screens (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) and off (Goldeneye), a towering number of awards and honors, two decades-worth of solo hits, an autobiography, and a critically acclaimed biopic have established Tina Turner in the pop cultural firmament while Private Dancer is a reminder that anyone can flourish in the face of adversity. Billy Porter shares, “The real impact of Private Dancer came many years later when I discovered what she had been through. I had no idea that she had been so abused by Ike. I revisited the album and would just weep for her. I was so happy that she had broken the chains!” 

The only chain that remains unbroken is the connection Turner has with her audience. Martyn Ware explains how seeing Tina Turner perform “Let’s Stay Together” before thousands of people added a new layer to his understanding of the song’s impact,

“I went to see Tina perform at the O2 Center about six months ago,” he explains, “and I had never seen her perform ‘Let’s Stay Together’ live. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve performed it with her onstage but I’ve never sat in an audience and watched her sing it. I hadn’t seen the development of 20,000 people singing every lyric, every inflection of the original song. We perform all the time with Heaven 17 and you hear the audience singing back to you but that level of detail, with all those inflections that everybody is singing, just blew my mind completely. I think for a minute and a half Tina stopped singing. It became their song. It was so beautiful.”

Tina Turner’s show at the O2 arena in London—in the year of her 70th birthday, her 50th year of performing, and the 25th anniversary of an album that stands as her greatest work—exemplifies what makes an artist timeless. The key to her longevity? Ask David Bowie. “Still one of the greatest voices and performers out there. Unbeatable,” he proclaims, for the voice of Tina Turner is the sound of a soul survivor. She was, is, and forever will be queen.

Topics: tina turner
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