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.”