By the time that Ike Turner met and transformed young Anna Mae Bullock into Tina Turner, he had already had a lengthy career on the southern blues and R&B circuit. In the ensuing success of Ike and Tina Turner as well as the notoriety accorded Ike by Tina’s subsequent account of their marriage and career, drug problems, and appearance on People’s Court, the innovations wrought by Ike’s Kings of Rhythm band have all but been forgotten by the general public. True, many music writers and musicologists credit the outfit with the recording of the very first rock record, “Rocket 88”. But for the most part, Ike has been relegated by most to the back pages of popular music history. Fortunately, this entry in the Blues Kingpins series, released to coincide with the broadcast of Martin Scorsese’s blues documentary this autumn, does much to demonstrate that Ike was a heavy influence on much of the R&B and rock music that followed.
Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the legendary birthplace of the blues, Turner first cut his teeth as a pianist influenced by the boogie pyrotechnics of Willie “Pinetop” Perkins. It was as a pianist that Ike started out, playing piano on the famed “Rocket 88” single, which was released by Chess records under the name of saxophonist/vocalist Jackie Breston. At the same time Turner was playing the ivories behind acts like Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James as well as acting as a talent scout for the Bihari brothers’ Modern/RPM record labels, helping to scour the south in search of new talent. In 1952 he cut his first RPM record, accompanying himself on the piano while he sang “Trouble and Heartaches” and “You’re Driving Me Insane”. Both tracks display Ike’s boogie-woogie piano roots, which weren’t buried too far beneath the surface of his style. He then hooked up with singer/girlfriend Bonnie and recorded two duets, “Looking for My Baby” and “My Heart Belongs to You”. Since Bonnie could play the piano as well as sing and Ike was having trouble finding and keeping a steady guitarist, he got himself an electric Fender guitar and began to work on the instrument.
By 1954 he was playing guitar on recording sessions for other artists, and he began recording on the instrument himself at his own Clarksdale recording studio. He recorded several tracks here that unleashed his newfound guitar style, which was modeled on the work of Guitar Slim. This is the place where Turner really left his mark, with his hyper whammy-bar attack providing fertile inspiration for many later blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and even surf guitarists. “Cubano Jump” finds Ike’s high-powered guitar work punctuated by the saxophone work of Jackie Brenston and Raymond Hill. Then there’s the rollicking ode to whiskey “Early Times”, featuring vocalist Dennis Binder. Ike’s work on this track is much more of a supporting role, his blues guitar riffs walking the piece forward. Binder also takes the vocal chores on “Nobody Wants Me”, with Ike slashing and pushing the singer along. “Go to It (Stringing Along)” is like a Delta blues recipe book, with Ike stringing together a series of tasty ingredients to make his final dish spicy and rib-sticking. “Cuban Getaway” features a mellower style, but with the intense reverb and picking style Ike still manages to turn it into an exciting statement. One of the highlights of the collection has to be the amazing “All the Blues All the Time”, an eight-plus history of the blues and its influence on boogie and rock. In fact, Turner manages to work in the guitar riffs of a number of blues legends, including Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and B. B. King.
The Blues Kingpin series is a set of six CDs, each of which focuses on a major musician in the trip from the early country blues to the modern, electric urban blues and straight into the halcyon days of R&B and the conception, if not the birth, of rock and roll. Other releases in the series feature B.B. King, Elmore James, Fats Domino, John Lee Hooker, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. It’s good to see Turner in his rightful place here, as a leading light in the transition from blues-based R&B to the beginnings of rock music. Whatever his later problems, Turner left a series of signposts for future artists as a songwriter, a pianist, a guitarist, and as a mover and shaker on the Southern blues circuit. Though the legacy of his recordings with Tina Turner will likely always overshadow his earlier accomplishments, it is only fitting that those accomplishments be honored in this, the official year of the blues. Ike Turner’s Blues Kingpins collection is a great introduction to Turner’s music and to his contribution to the blues and all that came after.