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.

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.