Tina Turner (Photo by Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images)
Tina Turner (Photo by Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images)

She Wants Her MTV: How ‘Private Dancer’ Made Tina Turner a Video Queen

In this PopMatters exclusive, the directors, choreographers, and dancers behind Tina Turner’s platinum-selling Private Dancer video 45 recall how the Queen of Rock went from MTV to number one.

13 September 1985 — A standing ovation greets Tina Turner at Radio City Music Hall. It’s the evening of the Second Annual MTV Video Music Awards and David Lee Roth has just announced Turner as the winner of “Best Female Video” for “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, her number-one single off Private Dancer (1984). Prevailing in a category with strong contenders like Madonna, Sheila E., Sade, and Cyndi Lauper, Turner’s win completes a trio of year-long victories that began with multiple GRAMMY Awards and American Music Awards.

“To have this now with all the others, is really a triumph for me,” she says from the stage. “I’ve been really winning!”

“What’s Love Got to Do With It” had been an MTV mainstay ever since its premiere in June 1984. Original VJ Nina Blackwood was among the first to see Turner attired in a mini-skirt and denim jacket, strutting through New York’s West Village neighborhood. “The video was powerful,” she says. “All she’s doing in that video is walking, but you can’t take your eyes off of her. She has this dignity and this gravitas about her. It’s a very special way of carrying herself and that’s really on display in that video.”

Those same qualities shaped each of the four videos Turner made for Private Dancer, amplifying the singer’s undeniable magnetism. “Tina was special,” says Gale Sparrow, who presided as MTV’s Director of Talent and Artist Relations. “Everybody had a pick, each week, of someone that they really wanted to promote. Tina? Everybody wanted to promote.” Indeed, MTV executives regularly placed Turner’s videos in heavy rotation at a time when the channel had amassed 27 million subscribers over a four-year period. 

While music videocassettes had been on the market since the early-’80s, they became a key product line for record companies in the wake of MTV’s emergence as a groundbreaking promotional platform. In December 1984, Capitol Records and Sony Video announced their partnership on Tina Turner — Private Dancer (1985), a seventeen-minute “Video 45” featuring the four clips that fueled Turner’s comeback. It inaugurated Billboard Magazine‘s “Top Music Videocassettes” chart at number one in March 1985 before reaching platinum certification just a few months later.

As viewers await the premiere of Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s forthcoming HBO documentary Tina (2021), PopMatters revisits the four videos that sparked Turner’s career resurgence in 1984. For the first time ever, video directors David Mallet (“Let’s Stay Together”), John Mark Robinson (“What’s Love Got to Do With It”), and Brian Grant (“Better Be Good to Me”, “Private Dancer”) join legendary choreographers Toni Basil and Arlene Phillips (CBE), video cast members Cy Curnin (the Fixx), Ann Behringer, Ming Smith, and Jay T Jenkins, plus original MTV VJ Nina Blackwood and former MTV executive Gale Sparrow for an exclusive discussion about how Tina Turner — Private Dancer propelled Turner from MTV to number one.

“Rolling on the River” … and on the Screen 

The story of Tina Turner — Private Dancer began 20 years earlier on LA’s Sunset Strip, specifically Ciro’s nightclub. “That was the club,” says David Mallet. “Sonny Bono took me because I was working for [producer] Jack Good on Shindig!. I was nineteen years old. The Ike & Tina Turner Revue just blew the place apart. I’d never seen anything like it in my life.” As an assistant producer for Shindig!, Mallet was so struck by the singer’s performance that he booked her on ABC-TV’s weekly music series, furnishing one of Turner’s earliest prime time television appearances. 

Toni Basil, assistant choreographer on Shindig!, had also seen Ike & Tina Turner during their engagement at Ciro’s. “It changed me!” she exclaims. “You’d never seen anything like it. I was also assistant choreographer on The T.A.M.I. Show (1964) that’s when I saw James Brown, but I had seen Tina before I saw James Brown. There were so many other great singers that you wanted to hear them sing or watch them sing, but Tina and James? You wanted to see them dance as much as you wanted to hear them sing. What they were doing was actually what a Gene Kelly or a Fred Astaire were doing, but they were doing it from ‘street dance’ vernacular. They took street and really made it into a theatrical event.

“I think The Ed Sullivan Show did a damn good job with James Brown and Tina Turner because the white American audience really had never had any access to anything like that. Shindig! was featuring these people before Ed Sullivan but that’s more of a younger audience. The Ed Sullivan Show reached all ages, shapes, and sizes.” 

Nina Blackwood first saw Ike & Tina Turner on Sullivan’s Sunday night program in January 1970. The act’s rendition of “Proud Mary” exploded onscreen. “I was blown away,” she says. “Ed Sullivan seemed to be, as weird as it sounds, the MTV of the ’60s, where you saw artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Ike & Tina Turner for the first time. The Ikettes, with these wonderfully wild dance moves and this freedom of movement and expression, were so dynamic. I can’t think of anybody prior to Tina, other than James Brown, who had that powerful persona.”

Across the UK, Ike & Tina Turner had rocked television audiences during their 1966 appearance on the pioneering music series Ready, Steady, Go! “I was a mod,” says Brian Grant. “Mods listened to Black American music, which was Tamla and Stax and Atlantic, and they listened to two bands in England the Small Faces and the Who. ‘River Deep-Mountain High’ was probably the first Ike & Tina track I ever heard … and danced to it as a mod, probably!” Though it stalled in the US, “River Deep-Mountain High” reached the UK Top Five during the summer of 1966, securing Ike & Tina Turner’s invitation to open for the Rolling Stones later that fall. 

Whether standing in concert halls or seated behind small black and white television screens, viewers were mesmerized by Tina Turner’s kinetic performance. “I remember being absolutely blown away, not just by the voice but by the speed at which Tina moved and sang,” says Arlene Phillips. “It was like two separate instruments were working together, each one more powerful than the other, and vice versa. As I think about it, there was a style that was completely invented by Tina Turner and the Ikettes. It was just phenomenal.”

Applause notwithstanding, the singer left Ike Turner in 1976 after enduring years of his physical and emotional abuse. She embarked on the first phase of her musical reinvention a year later, rounding out her repertoire with ballads and disco numbers alike. Toni Basil was hired to choreograph Turner’s new solo show, which now featured two pairs of male and female dancers. She recalls, “I do not know how Tina knew about me but I got a call: ‘Tina has left Ike. She’s in hiding. When she comes out of hiding she wants to know if you’d be her choreographer.’ I remember the phone call. I remember where I was standing. Sure enough, it happened.

“When Tina asked me to work with her, I thought I was going to get to do Ikettes stuff. I was surprised. Tina wanted a whole new look when she left Ike. This was a different approach, with guys and girls. I had to turn my brain around. She wanted to have a jazz edge and be very sophisticated. She did different music and it was a lot of different dance styles. The music dictates steps. I choreographed ‘Disco Inferno’ … and ‘Disco Inferno’ was not ‘Proud Mary’!”

Turner sizzled onstage during her March 1979 UK tour, recasting Little Willie John’s “Fever” as a playful striptease before she and her dancers set the stage afire with the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno”. She’d recently released her first post-Ike solo album Rough (1978) on United Artists and would soon team with producer Alec R. Costandinos in London to record the follow-up Love Explosion (1979). Though neither album spawned a hit single, Turner’s concerts inspired all kinds of superlatives. “She showed that she’s still the female equivalent of Jagger and James Brown combined, and that her style, which embraces both wild rock and ballads, is based firmly on her strengths with the blues,” The Guardian noted about Turner’s show at Hammersmith Odeon (Apollo) in London. “She had no elaborate settings and she needed none” (17 March 1979). 

Brian Grant joined the crew of camera operators who filmed that concert, later released on videocassette with different titles including Tina Turner Live at the Apollo, Wild Lady of Rock and The Queen of Rock ‘n Roll.”I was a freelance cameraman at that point,” he says. “As far as that concert is concerned, it would have been a gallery shoot. In other words, shot as live with a vision mixer cutting live in a mobile control room. A bit like they do at sports events. It was recorded on two-inch video, so a long time before the advent of digital and all pretty crude. I’d made a couple of videos for Scott Millaney at Island Records and was looking to get my first proper job. A month later in April is when I shot ‘Pop Muzik’ (1979) by M, which really started my career as a director.” 

Grant’s video for “Pop Muzik” aired on the UK-based Kenny Everett Video Show, a music/comedy series hosted by former BBC Radio 1 personality Kenny Everett. Directed by David Mallet, the show featured a blend of subversive humor and risqué musical numbers, especially with Arlene Phillips’ dance troupe Hot Gossip as the show’s resident vamps. Turner also appeared on the program in April 1979 singing her cover of Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch”, but would soon toss middle-of-the-road pop ballads from her set, permanently, in a major career overhaul. 

‘Tina Turner — Private Dancer’ Video 45 [1985] promotional poster. Courtesy of Capitol Records/Sony Video.

LA-based dancer Ann Behringer helped fashion a fresh sound and style for Turner. As a teenager, she’d seen the Ike & Tina Turner Revue perform in Phoenix. “When I saw these beautiful Black women with these legs and hips, I totally resonated with it, with the whole vibe, the music and everything,” she says. After moving to Los Angeles, Behringer met Toni Basil through her longtime affiliation with the Tubes, dancing to David Bowie’s “Suffragette City” in “Toni Basil’s Follies Bizarre” at the Fox Venice. She wrapped production on Xanadu (1980) just a few months before auditioning for Turner. At the time, the singer still featured a quartet of male and female dancers, including David Werthe, Geronne Turner, and former Ikette, LeJeune Fletcher. Turner needed one more dancer to replace Deborah Jenssen, who’d recently been cast on Solid Gold.

“Toni Basil recommended me along with around ten other girls,” Behringer continues. “I had a few months sobriety when I went for the job. I was basically detoxing. I’ve been sober for 41 years. Tina said that I was the only one who came in with my portfolio, ready to sing and dance. The tape that I sang to was for a singing class, so I could learn how to sing. I’d never sung ever before. Tina said, ‘Can you sing?’ Of course I said Yes that’s what you do in the business! I sang ‘Heat Wave’. She said, ‘Girl, you can sing!’ She had me sing a slower song, ‘Since I Fell For You’, a cappella. She called me back and said, ‘I’m gonna give you the job.’ I said, ‘There’s two things I won’t do.’ She gave me that look like, Oh no … she’s trouble already. I said, ‘I don’t drink or use no matter what.’ She said fine. After Ike Turner, that was no big deal. I had hair down to my butt. I said, ‘I’m not cutting my hair.’ She said, ‘Oh, I don’t want you cutting it at all! I want that hair next to me!’ It was a dream come true, really. It was 1979 when I got the job. I started touring with Tina in the beginning of 1980. I jumped on that road like a duck takes to water.”

From the Ritz to “Let’s Stay Together” 

“Tina Turner is back, and nothing else can possibly matter much at all,” declared the Daily News on the eve of Turner’s three-night stand at the Ritz in May 1981. New York audiences were about to experience the singer’s newly revamped stage show. Over the past year, Australian manager Roger Davies had helped steer Turner from the Vegas trappings of numbers like “Big Spender” to stripped-down rock ‘n roll, discharging her male dancers and replacing almost every musician except pianist/vocalist Kenny Moore.

Turner performed more than a dozen concerts at the Ritz between 1981-1984, but her first string of dates in May 1981 set the tone for the star power she’d regularly draw at every show. “I look up, there’s Mick Jagger, there’s David Bowie, there’s Diana Ross,” Behringer recalls. “It was like every star on the planet was there to support her. There was so much electricity in the whole building. When I look back, it still blows my mind because it was kind of like her coming-out party.” 

Three months later, a coming-out party of another kind rocked the music world the premiere of MTV. Directed by Russell Mulcahy, the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” launched the network on 1 August 1981, along with several videos helmed by David Mallet, including David Bowie’s “Fashion” and “Boys Keep Swinging”. At the time, Mallet and Mulcahy, along with producer Lexi Godfrey, ran a production company called MGM before partnering with fellow director Brian Grant and producer Scott Millaney to form the London-based MGMM Studios in December 1981.

Tina Turner in concert [1983]. Copyright: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

“We thought that it would be better to have all three of the main people at the time directing videos under one roof,” Mallet explains. “The three of us being together had the whole industry covered, as it were. We were all different. Russell was by far the most avant garde of the three of us. He was a great surrealist and made these wonderful mini-films. Hugely talented. I was kind of reinventing the way that you cut pictures to music and Brian was halfway between the two.” Mallet and Grant had advanced the form’s conceptual possibilities, directing full-length video albums for Blondie’s Eat to the Beat (1979) and Olivia Newton-John’s Physical (1981), respectively, while Mulcahy’s theatrical, New Romantic-themed video for Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” garnered praise from no less an auteur than Steven Spielberg.

Mallet, Grant, and Mulcahy’s growing library of videos kept MTV afloat during the channel’s first few months, especially since several American record companies wouldn’t even fund music videos. “In the beginning, we didn’t have any videos,” says Gale Sparrow. “When we were looking for videos, I called [production company] Gowers, Fields, and Flattery in LA because they had done the Queen long-form video [‘Bohemian Rhapsody’]. Paul Flattery was really helpful on where to find videos.

“Most of our videos came from England. In London, MGMM were the biggest and the best. They were an extremely creative company. Millaney was a great producer. Mallet was so prolific and everybody loved him. Brian Grant knew how to work with women! Russell Mulcahy — his videos are the reason we could launch because I think more than eight of the videos were Rod Stewart!

“We were financed by Warner Communications, so we had Warner, Elektra, and Atlantic Records. Then there was Chrysalis. They were with us at the beginning. Island Records was really good. The American record labels, if I can be honest, some of them really almost lost a year-and-a-half of breaking artists on MTV. I was a CBS ex-employee. John Sykes, who was a VP, had also worked at CBS, and artist managers would just give us videos. Billy Joel actually decided he was going to pay for his own videos so he could decide where they were going to go. ‘The record company doesn’t want to give it to you, but I own it.’ Springsteen — same thing.”

Nina Blackwood and fellow VJ’s Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson, and Martha Quinn quickly became the public face of the burgeoning music channel. When Turner resumed her Ritz residency in the fall of 1981, Blackwood joined Gale Sparrow to witness the singer’s heralded return. “We launched in August, so MTV had just started,” says Blackwood. “I was kind of shy and Gale would shepherd me to these events. Gale was so responsible, in the early days especially, of getting the caliber of artists that we had involved with MTV because some of them thought, ‘What is this?’ Gale brought me, her assistant Roberta Cruger, and I don’t remember who else, down to see Tina perform. She was incredible! She was gorgeous. Her band was awesome. Her command of the stage, and that voice …  It is the quintessential voice with everything going for it — the power, the rasp, the soul, the rhythm. Everything.”

In a matter of months, Turner would make her MTV debut with “Ball of Confusion”, the opening track to British Electric Foundation’s Music of Quality and Distinction, Volume One (1982). Heaven 17 producers Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh coupled thunderous synthesizers with Turner’s raw, razor-sharp delivery, outfitting the Temptations’ classic for modern listeners. It had been years since the singer had sounded so vital on record.

David Mallet was hired to direct a video for “Ball of Confusion” during the spring of 1982. “I think the person that really had the foresight was Roger Davies,” he says. “The first time I met him was when we did ‘Ball of Confusion’. He was the one that saw that Tina wasn’t just an out-of-date club singer. I agreed with him.” Mallet also filmed Turner’s tour stop at Hammersmith Odeon in April 1982, shaping the show into a full-length concert video, Nice ‘n Rough (1982). “I didn’t get to see Tina that night,” he clarifies. “You put the cameras there, you do it, and go home.”

Mallet worked more closely with the singer on “Ball of Confusion”, keeping the special effects to a minimum and focusing instead on Turner’s magnetizing stage presence. “We were all part of a huge learning curve,” he continues. “I remember thinking that what we did must be based around live performance. We can’t do something with a story, and a this and a that. We can’t do an Ultravox-type of thing with it. I don’t think Tina had done an awful lot of what you might call ‘single camera’ filming up to then. I remember thinking, Ah, we got a problem here because Tina is a great live act, but how is she, as it were, more or less being a film person, doing the same thing time and time again? I remember trying to set it up as much as possible in big chunks so she could get into it. She got the hang of filming after that, obviously. She’s a quick learner.”

Between the video’s London set, British Electric Foundation’s production, and a UK-based label, Virgin Records, supporting the single, “Ball of Confusion” arrived at MTV as an import release. In promoting the video, the channel also broadcast Mallet’s Nice ‘n Rough concert, which typified the excitement of Turner’s shows at the Ritz. The singer even stopped by the channel’s studio on W. 33rd St. to film a station ID for the network’s “Knock Knock” promo featuring Boy George and Thomas Dolby. 

“Tina was wonderful,” Blackwood recalls. “It was in our first studio that I met her. We would wake up to go into the studio and it was virtually a parade of artists in and out. Tina was a spiritual person — grounded, strong, kind, warm, optimistic — a joyous person. It sounds fawning, but trust me I would not fawn. I don’t believe in false praise and all that. She’s somebody that you’d want to hug as soon as you met her. There’s some people that you just know that they’re good souls. She is one of them.”

Most significant of all, Turner became one of the first Black female artists to appear on MTV, along with Joan Armatrading and Grace Jones, at a time when Album Oriented Rock (AOR) still governed the station. “MTV was built around a very strict radio format and it took us awhile to finally get it — that we weren’t a radio channel, we were a visual channel,” Sparrow explains. “We finally realized that our audience was smarter than we thought. They liked the visual as much as the song. Thankfully, we evolved.” MTV continued to expand its musical format throughout 1983, with Michael Jackson’s game-changing videos for “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” opening the door for several more pop-oriented Black artists like Lionel Richie and Donna Summer to join Prince and Tina Turner in rotation on the network. 

Turner’s next video tilled the foundation for one of the most dramatic comebacks in popular music history. Since signing with Capitol Records in 1982, the singer had recorded a series of tracks with A&R VP John Carter, including covers of the Motels (“Total Control”) and the Animals (“When I Was Young”). She’d also worked with Pointer Sisters producer Richard Perry on Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary” and Perry’s engineer Dennis Kirk on “Crazy in the Night” for the Summer Lovers (1982) soundtrack, plus other tracks for a potential full-length album that never materialized.

Martyn Ware re-teamed with Turner to record a new single for her fall ’83 European tour. Turner and Ware listened to several R&B classics before settling on Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”. In just one take, Turner completely remodeled the song, transforming it into a showstopping tour de force of unbridled yearning and passion. 

While Capitol prepared “Let’s Stay Together” for single release, Turner and her dancers flew to London for a video shoot with David Mallet. Ann Behringer recalls, “We were in the US doing two shows a night for probably a solid two weeks and then they said, ‘You’re getting on a plane tomorrow to go to London. You’re going to be doing a video the next day.’ The video took eleven hours. We were so exhausted when we did that video. It was intense. I’ve never worked so hard!”

Mallet’s precision had a purpose. “I just wanted do so something more ambitious than the last video,” he says. “I thought we’d broken the mold for Tina Turner on ‘Ball of Confusion’ and I remember thinking, Now we’ve got to outdo that one some how, but still keep her slightly live performance-oriented.” For “Let’s Stay Together”, Mallet would craft a three-and-a-half minute showcase for the singer’s smoldering appeal.

A lone spotlight illuminated Turner in the video’s introduction. She projected an alluring combination of strength and sexuality, animating the words with heart and intention. “Tina takes direction but you don’t really have to give her much,” says Behringer. “Her persona onstage is just this raw, sensual, elegant woman. The essence of a woman, really. I think she and David Mallet were in sync.”

The transition between the intro’s celestial ambience and the track’s infectious beat revealed a softly lit stage, flanked by a group of tuxedoed percussionists, while Behringer and Fletcher danced at Turner’s side. “A lot of it was choreography from the show,” Behringer continues. “That’s what Tina would do. She would take pieces of choreography dating back to the Ikettes and basically we would re-work the patchwork quilt of choreography — Toni Basil’s choreography, I threw in some moves, LeJeune threw in some moves. It was always this mix.”

Tina Turner with Ann Behringer (left) and LeJeune Fletcher (right). ‘Let’s Stay Together’ [1983] 12″ single. Courtesy of Capitol Records.

However, the impulse behind the video’s defining moment belonged to Behringer. “The whole movement of us going down Tina’s legs was my idea,” she says. “That was my choreography. Have you seen her legs? Okay. Nuff said! They kept it, but when they showed the video in London, they blocked us out because they thought it was too racy. It’s crazy. That was during the time of Boy George. There was a rumor going around that we were guys, that we weren’t really women, which I thought was hilarious!” [laughs] In fact, the trio coyly replicated the provocative pose during Norman Seeff’s photo session for the “Let’s Stay Together” single sleeve. 

A backdrop of flickering flames framed the singer and her two dancers for the second half of the video. “Fire is always good,” chuckles Mallet, who used a similar effect in Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” video. However, Turner’s bond with Behringer and Fletcher is what gave the scene its soul, like a trio of glamorous “Wonder Women” ready to soar. “We were tight,” notes Behringer. “We were close. We worked together non-stop all the time. We were doing two shows a night, traveling on the tour bus with the band. I’m still very close to LeJeune to this day. She’s like my sister.”

“Let’s Stay Together” entered the UK chart in November 1983, where it became the singer’s first Top Five hit as a solo artist, though “River Deep-Mountain High” had essentially served as a solo vehicle for Tina Turner years earlier. The singer bookended the single’s debut with a pair of appearances on the UK music program The Tube in October and December. The camera even spied a besotted Annie Lennox dancing in the audience during Turner’s performance.

Capitol quickly rushed a single release in the US, where “Let’s Stay Together” bowed on the Hot 100 the week ending 21 January 1984. Two months later, it topped the dance chart for two weeks and peaked at #27 in the Top 40. Capitol had a hit single. Now the label needed a hit album and another hit single. Fast.