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.

“What’s Love Got to Do With It”

It’s the first week of June 1984 and the first day of a week-long heatwave in New York.  Temperatures have already soared past 90 degrees, but Tina Turner is the quintessence of cool as a film crew follows her outside Seravalli Playground in the West Village. It’s the video shoot for “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, which Capitol has recently sent to radio. Director John Mark Robinson has one day to film the video and four days to edit the video in time for its MTV premiere. In five days’ time, Robinson will have created a video that captures, definitively, the leonine power and presence of Tina Turner.

A lot had happened in the months between Turner’s newfound success with “Let’s Stay Together” and finding herself at an early morning video shoot in Manhattan. Capitol had released a follow-up single for the UK market, a gospel-tinged version of the Beatles’ “Help” that Turner recorded with the Crusaders. Working with a modest budget, Turner, Roger Davies, and producer/A&R executive John Carter returned to London where they corralled musicians and vetted material for a full-length album.

“Roger Davies was the really smart cookie in the whole campaign,” says Cy Curnin, lead vocalist of the Fixx. “He was savvy enough to know that if Tina collaborated with artists that were making a little bit more noise in America at the time — primarily British Invasion acts if you like — and then made the videos, the market really kind of opened up for her. He really knew what he was doing. He’d set this thing up impeccably. It was like a home run.” Featuring personnel from the Fixx, Dire Straits, and Heaven 17, as well as star players like Jeff Beck, Private Dancer was recorded in a matter of weeks. 

Producer/songwriter Terry Britten presided over three tracks, “Show Some Respect”, a cover of Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain”, and a track he’d written with Graham Lyle, “What’s Love Got to Do With It”. At Turner’s request, he re-worked the latter tune for the singer, tailoring it to the rough-hewn textures of her voice. She conveyed a fascinating blend of sensuality and world-weary sophistication. Nothing else on the radio sounded like “What’s Love Got to Do With It”. 

John Mark Robinson was tasked with creating a video that drew on Turner’s visual appeal without upstaging the song. It helped that he’d long admired the singer. “I knew she was on her own and I knew she was on the comeback trail,” he says. “I was seeing her around peripherally and I remember being knocked out by it. It was exciting. I had always been a fan.As a teenager, I grew up in the Philadelphia area. ‘River Deep-Mountain High’ was my first experience with her and seeing her in her glory in the early days. Tina was remarkable from the get-go.”

Robinson began his career in New York as a stage actor and director before moving to Los Angeles where he did guest spots on Norman Lear and Aaron Spelling television series. He also co-founded a company called Modern Props that rented props to shows like Battlestar Galactica. Robinson had just started his business when the artist M approached him about directing a video for “Moonlight and Muzak” (the follow-up single to “Pop Muzik”) that would air on Top of the Pops. Sire Records was impressed by Robinson’s work with M and sent him to London to shoot the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket”, which later became the seventh video to air on MTV.

Over the next couple of years, Robinson directed videos for a range of acts, including the Ramones, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan, as well as Capitol artists like Bob Seger and Ashford & Simpson. In the spring of 1984, Capitol approached him about directing “What’s Love Got to Do With It”. “I was on another project,” he recalls. “I said when I could do it and what I thought it would cost. They said, ‘We’ll get back to you on that.’ I didn’t hear anything. I was heartbroken when they didn’t go for my initial idea. I don’t know whether it was money or schedule. I have a feeling it was a little of both.” 

Tina Turner "What's Love Got to Do With It"
Tina Turner ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ [1984] UK single. Courtesy of Capitol Records.

Director/producer Bud Schaetzle shot a video for “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, rendering the story in moody black-and-white tones, with Turner narrating a series of emotionally charged scenes. Capitol passed on Schaetzle’s video, though it was later released as a bonus clip on Turner’s Simply the Best (1991)video collection.

About a month after initially contacting Robinson, Capitol resumed conversations with the director, who’d always envisioned New York City as the backdrop for Turner’s video. At the time, she was opening for Lionel Richie and scheduled to appear in the New York area at the end of May and beginning of June. Between the singer’s packed itinerary, including an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, and the fact that “What’s Love Got to Do With It” was already on the radio, Robinson had to work fast.

“Capitol called me back and said, ‘Okay do it. You’ve got eight days.’ I was up for that!” Robinson recalls. “I knew that we’d be safe doing that song in New York. The city has its own life. When you’re shooting in New York, you can’t go wrong, particularly with Tina, her energy, and what she represents. She wouldn’t be out of place anywhere there. I thought, It’s just a slam dunk! I did little drawings and storyboards on the plane going there. I tried to link them together so we could move in a fashion that would be productive because the time was so short. 

“I thought, what would make Tina look best? We got to get the legs! We’ve got to have a short skirt, but it’s got to have a New York street feel to it. It can’t be too highly stylized for her, just because of what the song is. It was more about what would make Tina look good and also what would be right with the pulse of the song. It was something about her movement. It had to be appropriate for the feel of the song. I felt as though just her walking through each shot would be the right tempo. She was a narrator, so she had to be floating through whatever the scene might be.”

The singer’s own wardrobe — denim jacket, black leather mini-shirt, black high heels and stockings — created a truly iconic look for the video as she moved through different scenes. “I wanted to use Tina’s stuff because I wanted her to be as real as possible,” says Robinson. “She had no attitude about what she wanted to use or what she didn’t want to use. ‘We can do this. We can do that.’ She was just the easiest, most pro to work with.” An explosion of hair, styled and sculpted by the singer, put the exclamation point on the whole ensemble.

Acclaimed photographer Ming Smith was among the young, stylish New Yorkers who crossed paths with Turner as Robinson’s storyboard unfolded. An accomplished artist and model, Smith made history in 1978 as the first Black female photographer whose work was acquired for the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. She also hailed from a close-knit community of friends and fellow artists who helped ornament the style for “What’s Love Got to Do With It”. 

“We were out to win the world,” she says. “It seems like yesterday when you start talking about it. My best friend Toyce Anderson helped cast that video. Ed Love was the choreographer. Ed and Toyce were best friends. Angelo Colon did the make-up. He was a singer and a performer and he was Grace Jones’ stand-in. I was a dancer and a model so they cast me in the video, although it wasn’t a lot of hard-core dancing. I basically did the video because I was Toyce’s friend. I was friends with all of them.

“I loved that feeling of a group of people making something happen because this is Tina Turner! When they were doing the camera set-ups, they had me strutting like Tina!She was a very nice, loving kind of person. Nurturing. She knew I was her stand-in.”

Tina Turner by Ming Smith
Tina Turner by Ming Smith. ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ video shoot [1984]. Courtesy of Ming Smith.

The day-long shoot began at Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklyn along the East River. “There was something about the prelude into the music,” Robinson explains. “It had a ‘watery’ sound. It was something that had a little bit of flow to it.” An establishing shot of the Manhattan skyline introduced the song’s opening chord. Panning the river, the camera gradually reveals Turner at the pier, watching a tugboat coast through the water. The shot was timed to perfection. 

“The director of photography was a guy called Ed Lachman who went on to be quite a big name in Hollywood,” Robinson continues. “We rehearsed the opening a couple of times with Tina walking down the pier. I said, ‘Let’s try one … Wait a second! There’s a tugboat coming! Let’s see if we can time it to the boat and the song and the lip sync and the walking and the dance.’ Well, we did it and the first take went all the way to the end of the pier perfectly. Lachman jumped off the camera into my arms! [laughs] 

“Technically, it was one of those things that just went right. You could shoot the shot twelve times and never get it. Something would go wrong. You could never re-position the tugboat. I think somebody at Capitol wanted a close-up in the middle of that. It broke my heart to have to break it up because it was one shot all the way down through the end of the pier, with Tina’s perfect little two-step with the guy. For a director and a cinematographer, a long shot like that, dollied, was perfect. Perfect sync, perfect timing. Tina did it perfectly. I couldn’t even believe it. It was a good omen.”

Choreographer Ed Love doubled as the suavely suited gentleman who meets Turner along the pier. “They needed someone to be Tina’s partner when they had the boat scene,” Smith recalls. “I said, ‘Why not you? You’re perfect.’ I urged him on because he was supportive of me and I was supportive of him.” Turner’s interplay with Love capped the opening sequence with a flirtatious exchange that subtly underscored the lyrics’ sexual tension. 

Before Turner and the film crew decamped for Manhattan, Smith photographed the singer in a candid moment on the pier. “I brought my camera almost everywhere,” she says. “Me taking a photograph was just coincidental. My friends all knew I was a photographer. I didn’t make a big thing of it.” Smith’s photo documented Turner in a rare moment of repose. “Tina was just standing there,” she continues. “I think she was just within herself. She could have been meditating. She was not ‘on’. She was just being. She was just getting the job done. She didn’t necessarily pose for me but I had my camera and I was shooting and I just caught her. I feel like she was giving me that moment. There was some type of real connection. She knew and I knew.” Juxtaposed with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background, Turner’s stance in the photograph depicted a woman quietly in command of her power. 

Robinson cross-faded to Seventh Avenue South in the West Village where Turner emerged from the Christopher Street subway station. “It was done guerrilla-style,” the director says. “We did it a couple of times. We set it up ahead of time and then walked Tina in it. I had a P.A. downstairs with a walkie-talkie. I said, ‘Go twelve steps down and come out of there on Action! and then take a left.’ We held that shot a little long. She almost looked like she was about to buy a paper!” Remarkably, bystanders didn’t interfere with filming. “If people know they’re being photographed, you lose it all,” Robinson says. “I considered myself lucky. Nobody said, ‘Oh! That’s Tina Turner!'”

The director headed west from Seventh Avenue South to James J. Walker Park, filming Turner through the park’s wrought-iron fence as she walks along St. Luke’s Place. The singer happens upon Ming Smith and a small crew of guys playing dice on the sidewalk. Musician and choreographer Jay T Jenkins, who danced on Soul Train in the late-’70s and had previously toured with Rick James and Prince, meets Turner’s gaze with a penetrating stare from behind a pair of shades. Outfitted in a yellow tank top, he complemented Turner’s effortless swag. 

Tina Turner — Private Dancer
Tina Turner — Private Dancer [1984] album cover [US edition]. Courtesy of Capitol Records.

“I had that musician look and that musician vibe,” says Jenkins. “Back then we called it the ‘new breed’ look. There were a bunch of us dancers and musicians who kind of had that look. I think that’s how I ended up getting cast. I think because my hair at that time looked a little bit like Tina’s, they thought, We could do something with that. It was that type of vibe that got me in. It wasn’t even on the dance side. It was more visual. ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ was the first video I appeared in.

“There was no real rehearsal until you got to the set, so you didn’t even know if they came up with that idea beforehand. They may have been like: ‘We got this group of extras. Let’s have Tina walk down this street. Let’s have her interact. Okay, let’s try this. Where’s that guy with the look? Okay, you! The camera’s right here. Turn, turn! Real quick, just snap. Freeze.'”

During Turner’s exchange with the group, she pushes Jenkins back towards Ming Smith, almost out of frame. “At the end, Tina apologized,” Jenkins laughs. “She said, ‘I’m so sorry!’ She warmed up to me because I respected her time and space. In our brief conversations, I may have broken the ice by saying something where she was aware that I knew music history. I wasn’t just a straight-up extra. I was just being professional. On film sets, you see people trying to weasel their way into this and that. I didn’t act like that.” 

Turner’s next stop brought her to nearby Seravalli Playground off W. 13th Street where a group extras posed along the park’s chain-link fence. From crop tops to short shorts, each style reflected the neighborhood’s hip aesthetic. Turner’s spiked heels even got their own close-up. “Tina was at home in those heels, okay?” Smith chuckles. “She was walking around all during the video, regardless, with those heels on.” In fact, Smith herself only lived about a twenty-minute stroll from Seravalli Playground. 

“I lived on Seventh Avenue South and Carmine Street,” Smith continues. “Toyce lived in the Village too. When I moved there, Carmine Street was still very very Italian. There were artists. It was a place where James Baldwin used to live and frequent. It was just very freeing. One time I took this acting class. There were maybe nine students in the class and each one had to say ‘Where does this person look like they live in New York?’ Everybody said I was a Village girl. Not the upper east side or lower east side — the Village! Some of my friends, before they came to New York, they were closeted. They had girlfriends in high school but then when they came to the Village, they were out. They had people around them that were accepting of them and creative and loving and real. That’s the way it was. I loved that. It was freedom for me too. I didn’t have to look a certain way, walking around the Village. I was free to be who I am.”

That sense of freedom also informed the video’s final location outside the Cherry Lane Theatre on Commerce Street, home to Sam Shepard’s True West at the time. “I have a soft spot for that area,” says Robinson. “Part of it was visual, part of it was respect to what the city means, artistically. I can’t tell you for a fact how it came about but I’m sure it was visual first, and I would maybe even say convenient to a degree. It was a run-and-gun day. What’s a place we can get to without driving for a half an hour?”

Ming Smith re-appeared during the Cherry Lane sequence, dancing around a lamp post with the video’s makeup artist Angelo Colon. Vanessa Bell Calloway, who later starred as a fictional Ikette named Jackie in Touchstone’s Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993), even makes a brief cameo in the scene. Turner bids the smiling group of extras adieu before strutting off into the sultry New York night.

“I wanted to mix it up and have it hopefully look like New York and look like the contemporary world at the time,” says Robinson, noting the colorful variety of fashion in the scene. “I always wondered if the look shouldn’t have been a little more towards what Tina had as opposed to the stylized day-go colors and so forth. They were so prominent at the time. They were right on the edge of things and Tina wanted to be as contemporary as she could. She just had to be herself.”

Tina Turner — 'Private Dancer'
Tina Turner — ‘Private Dancer’ [1984] promotional photo. Courtesy of Capitol Records.

Robinson saved a clever shot for the very end of the video — a chalk illustration of Brian Aris’ cover photo for the US edition of Private Dancer, which doubled as the single sleeve for “What’s Love Got to Do With It”.”I found somebody doing that in Central Park and I said, ‘Can you do this? How long would it take?'” he says. “That was the last shot of the night because it took a little while for him to do it. I don’t remember where it was, but I know Capitol liked it a lot!” With Private Dancer fresh on record store shelves, the closing frame functioned as brilliant cross-marketing.   

Before uncorking bottles of champagne after a full day’s work, Robinson filmed Turner’s close-up, one of the most striking pieces of footage in her career. “It was a nicely lit lip sync of her going through the entire song,” he says. “I knew what I wanted and Ed Lachman got it for me. He deserves a lot of credit for that whole thing. I think it may have been filmed by the river. It’s timeless. Wherever we needed the close-up, we could plug it in, although for that dolly shot [by the pier], I wish I didn’t have it!

“Tina made it her own. She worked hard. It was 97 degrees that whole day. It was a really hard day, I remember that, but Tina was very trusting. She’s a pro. Tell her what to do and that was it. There was no emotional nonsense. No need for attention.”

Robinson had less than four days to edit the video before delivering it to MTV. “It was up on the air that day,” he says. “The record was just starting to chart as well, so Capitol really wanted to have the material to exploit it.” New York-centric music videos had become an MTV staple, whether Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” or Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, but “What’s Love Got to Do With It” maximized the cinematic qualities of the city. “That was one of the first that showed a little bit of the grit and a little bit of the beauty at the same time,” says Jenkins. “Tina’s coming out of the subway, so you still got the New York grit of the underground subway, but you also get the beauty of the East River, so it doesn’t look like the Bronx.”

Private Dancer bowed on the Billboard 200 the week ending 16 June 1984 just as “What’s Love Got to Do With It” moved into “hot” rotation on MTV. “I love that video because it has that New York vibe,” says Nina Blackwood. “Looking at it now, it’s a snapshot of that period. I love the song of course and I love Tina. When she had that look with her hair — even though that’s more mane-like as a male lion — she is a lioness. She is the epitome of a female.” By summer’s end, the video had powered Tina Turner to the top of Billboard‘s Hot 100 for the first time in her career. “What’s Love Got to Do With It” crowned number one for three consecutive weeks and would become the second biggest single of 1984, just behind Prince’s “When Doves Cry”.

Turner celebrated the news of her latest triumph onstage during her three-night stint at the Ritz in August 1984. “The entire MTV staff was at my door wanting tickets,” says Gale Sparrow. “The Ritz, or maybe it was Roger Davies, accommodated 35 of us there. That night … I can’t even explain it. I think it’s in my top three concerts. That show was so captivating, the hottest ticket in town, and nobody wanted her to stop. From the moment she walked out on that stage, she controlled it. All by herself. No backup singers. No dancers. Her performance was non-stop electricity. She delivered. I remember talking to Steven Tyler, who looked like he was going to fall apart. He wanted to get up on that stage with her so much. He was beyond himself. Everybody was humble that night because we were in a room with greatness, pure greatness.

“She greeted a lot of us backstage afterwards. I have pictures of me with her and everybody in that picture looks like they’re having the best time of their life because they’re surrounded by the Queen of Rock ‘n Roll. Tina’s smiling and beaming. We were in awe. It’s a bunch of kids at MTV that never went backstage with anybody and they got tickets. The look on everybody’s faces, including mine, was pure glee. Everybody was gasping at the end, saying, ‘Can we do it again?’ It was three nights but I couldn’t ask for 35 tickets for the next show. We had to be satisfied with the one night.”

Three weeks later, an effusive Bette Midler introduced Turner’s performance of “What’s Love Got to Do With It” onstage at Radio City Music Hall for the First Annual MTV Video Music Awards. In a nod to the video’s popularity, MTV screened the intro with the Manhattan skyline before segueing to Turner’s live performance.

Everyone from music legends in the audience to young viewers at home cheered Turner’s phenomenal re-emergence, due in no small part to what Robinson created with Turner on a hot June day in 1984. “He had the perfect artist to work with him,” says Blackwood. “I’ve found, over the years, the real greats, the ones with the super talent, tend to be the more professional and easier to work with. Tina’s chanting, her Buddhism has a lot to do with it because Buddhism, especially, is the lack of ego. It transcends the ego. That is part and parcel of what makes Tina who she is.”