“When I found out that music could get me out of Mississippi, it became my life,” says Joshie Jo Armstead. Exactly 60 years ago, with only two dollars spending money, Armstead left Yazoo City, Mississippi, and began her professional singing career as one of the original Ikettes in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. She never looked back.
Indeed, Armstead charted a unique course through the music industry. After leaving the Revue and establishing herself in New York’s bustling Brill Building scene, she forged a writing partnership with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. By the end of the 1960s, she emerged as a solo artist, songwriter, and producer, and one of the first women to own a successful label, Giant Records. That was before she conquered other creative realms with Melvin Van Peebles, Cy Coleman, playwright/activist Oscar Brown, Jr., and even a prize-fighting boxer. “It’s a man’s world, but I found my way in it,” she says.
A few years after Giant folded, Armstead signed with Stax Records and recorded an album’s worth of material for the label’s Gospel Truth imprint. Stax released four sides from the sessions, including “Ride Out the Storm” (from the musical Seesaw) and “Stumblin’ Blocks, Steppin’ Stones (What Took Me So Long)”, before the label declared bankruptcy in 1975, halting the album’s release. The recordings didn’t disappear completely, however. Armstead later included her Stax singles on A Stone Good Lover (1996), titled after one of her solo hits on Giant, and Craft Recordings recently re-issued them on The Gospel Truth: The Complete Singles Collection (2020), unveiling four dynamic performances that sound as fresh and vital as ever.
The songs Armstead wrote, recorded, and produced on Giant have also found a second life, particularly “I Feel an Urge Coming On”, a longtime standard among Northern Soul devotees. Singer-songwriter Nick Waterhouse recorded a bracing version of the song on his 2019 self-titled set for Innovative Leisure, where it’s since become a favorite of music supervisors. Over the past two years, his version of “I Feel an Urge Coming On” has appeared in episodes of Riverdale and Black Lightning, introducing Armstead’s work to new generations of listeners.
Armstead learned the value of song catalogs and copyrights very early on in her career. Though she co-wrote the Ikettes’ “I’m Blue (The Gong Gong Song)”, Ike Turner claimed sole writer’s credit on the track. She’d later confront, and successfully challenge, a similarly unscrupulous deal with her ex-husband Mel Collins over the song “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over)” by Ruby Andrews. Ultimately, Armstead’s uncredited writing contribution on “I’m Blue” helped shape the Ikettes’ biggest pop hit, which reached the Top 20 and climbed to number three on the R&B chart in 1962.
“I’m Blue” remains one of the most enduring songs from Armstead’s eclectic catalog of hits, whether covered by the Shangri-La’s or the Sweet Inspirations, or sampled by Salt-N-Pepa on “Shoop” decades later. “‘I’m Blue’ is simply the best soul song ever recorded,” director John Waters stated on the eve of Armstead’s appearance at the Apollo Theater in 2019. “I never felt happier, sexier … and more excited when I first heard this song as a teenager in Baltimore on the Fat Daddy radio show on WSID. When I needed a soundtrack number for Hairspray (1988)to dance the ‘Dirty Boogie’ to, there was never another musical number considered. It still makes me crazy every time I hear it.”
Beyond singing and songwriting, creativity in some form or another has constantly propelled Armstead forward. While her mother was a minister and her grandfather was a bootlegger and a gambler, young “Joshie Jo” was destined to become a Renaissance woman. “Being poor in Mississippi, you had to create whatever it is you wanted,” she says. “If my mother couldn’t afford to buy me a doll, then we took Coca-Cola bottles and put seagrass in the top, and combed it, and that would be our doll. You use your imagination. You take what you have and create something from it, so I’m creative every day of my life.”
Armstead’s verve and flair made her a sought-after session vocalist during the 1960s and 1970s, from infusing Ashford & Simpson’s production of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for Diana Ross with her soaring soprano to singing lead on Burt Bacharach’s “I Took My Strength from You”. That same kind of vitality comes across even when sitting in conversation with Armstead. At a robust 78 years-old, she exemplifies what it means to stay curious and inspired, no matter the age. In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, Armstead shares what’s kept her going for nearly eight decades and why, to quote one of her compositions, “the urge keeps coming”.
TINA (2021), the Tina Turner documentary, recently premiered on HBO. There’s very little footage that exists, if any, of the the Ike & Tina Turner Revue during your tenure as an Ikette from 1961-1962. Take me through what a typical Ike & Tina Turner Revue show would have looked and sounded like at that time.
I call my time with Ike & Tina Turner “the formative years” because Ike was just shaping it and putting it together and it was, as Tina would say, “rough“. [laughs]
That was what they called the Chitlin’ Circuit, when I was there. First of all, we were in a little rickety passenger van with the drums and amplifiers on top. We played juke joints, road houses, and honky tonks. Maybe an auditorium every now and then. There were no frills, but we were young and we were having fun.
I remember the band would come on, the Kings of Rhythm, and they would play an uptempo number and get everybody moving and hopping and jumping. Ike always had a male singer that doubled as the emcee and doubled as his driver, too. When I was there, his name was Jimmy Thomas, so Jimmy would come on and sing a number. Ike had given all of the Ikettes numbers that featured each of us. He said “Ike & Tina Turner Revue” so I guess he had to move it along with a lot of acts, so we all had a number to do. And then Tina would come on, but it was so unpolished that we’d be in the back smoking cigarettes and having a little drink or two and joking.
Though Ike didn’t credit you with co-writing the Ikettes’ “I’m Blue (The Gong Gong Song)”, you’ve mentioned over the years how those early experiences with the Ikettes introduced you to different aspects of the music business. What exactly did you learn from working with Ike Turner?
I basically learned the fundamentals of the business from Ike. He was really a business man. We always got paid … except I never got paid. When I got with the group I was broke so I had to borrow into my pay and when payday came I was in the hole, so it was almost like I was sharecropping!
I remember Tina’s sister Alline was on the road with us. I think Ike must have been touring on a 60-40 percentage basis of whatever the house would make, and Alline had this little clocking thing where she knew how many people were there so Ike wouldn’t get stiffed for his money. Besides that, I learned quite a bit from Ike — songwriting and the way he was shaping the show. I was fortunate enough to see his creativity and his vision.
It’s inspiring how your bond with Tina has endured over several decades. What’s one of your lasting impressions of Tina from those early years?
Tina really wanted to be a singer. In the beginning, Ike was making her do things that she didn’t like doing — she hated the screaming — which eventually morphed into her being “Tina”. Now, Ike told me a secret. The dancer that he wanted Tina to emulate was Juliet Prowse — the legs, the movement, the whole bit. In the end, Tina personified that but in the beginning she didn’t like it.
You attended the opening preview of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical in 2019 and met Adrienne Warren who channeled Tina’s dynamism as a performer. All of these years later, what do you think distinguishes Tina from other artists?
I think it’s her delivery, number one. The way she sings the song with movement. There’s never a dull moment. I think that’s one of the reasons she’s mesmerizing. Her lyric and her movement match and so you can’t keep your eye off her. You’re listening to her and you’re watching her, so I think that’s it. I think she married those two forms together very very well.