“And the ‘Record of the Year’ is…”
Diana Ross stands on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. It’s 26 February 1985, the evening of the 27th Annual Grammy Awards. In just moments, one of the following names will be announced: Chicago, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis & the News, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner. She tears open the envelope, stoking the crowd’s anticipation for a few spare seconds. “Do I make you nervous?”, she smiles coyly, and seconds later exclaims,
“‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’, Tina Turner!”
Applause erupts from the audience, who instantly rise and give Turner yet another standing ovation. The winner collects herself and hands her purse over to Richard Perry. Terry Britten, the song’s co-writer and producer, takes Turner’s arm in his and they walk together up to the stage. Leonard Bernstein and Debbie Allen smile from the front row. Diana Ross greets the winner with a warm, sisterly embrace. Triumphant, Tina Turner humbly says, “Well, you can tell that we’re new at this!” Even the most cynical misanthrope cannot deny the unbridled joy of this moment. Here’s an artist who had been rejected by nearly every major record label, including the one that ultimately signed her, since leaving Ike Turner in 1976. Now she stands victorious, holding the music industry’s greatest honor in her hand. How?
A combination of vigorous management, a determined record executive, a cadre of cutting edge producers, and the indefatigable spirit of Turner herself created Private Dancer (1984). For the first time in Turner’s career, an album finally accentuated the range of her unique vocal style, a quality that was often eclipsed by the spectacle of her platform-heeled dancing during the Ike & Tina Turner Revue years. Like a nine-part allegory in stereo, Private Dancer accented Turner’s life in a compelling way. Beyond its commercial and critical success, Private Dancer was, above all, a defining artistic statement. Chaka Khan, who added another Grammy to her collection that same evening, offers a succinct but no less significant statement, “Private Dancer is one of the best albums Tina’s ever done!”
In fact, it might even be the best. Now that Tina Turner is recognized as one of popular music’s greatest icons, it’s easy to take for granted just how remarkable Private Dancer was upon its release. How did a 44-year old woman successfully reinvent herself as a rock and roll queen after leaving one of the most respected R&B duos of all time? How did she cultivate such a massive — and youthful — audience after the industry all but relegated her to an “oldies” act? How did Private Dancer establish Tina Turner as both rock royalty and a pop phenomenon?
On the eve of Tina Turner’s 70th birthday, PopMatters explores the road Tina Turner traveled from playing fast food conventions one year to earning an armful of awards the next. More than 20 artists and producers join us in celebrating Private Dancer as we salute the making of a modern classic and pay tribute to the girl form Nutbush, Tennessee who conquered the world stage.The 1980s began quite differently for Tina Turner than they ended. With just 36 cents and a Mobil credit card to her name, she escaped a physically abusive marriage to Ike Turner in 1976. She also amassed considerable debt and owed money to promoters from canceled concert dates, since Ike booked gigs months in advance. Rhonda Graam, a former business manager for the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, helped the singer launch a solo career independent of her ex-performing partner. Tina Turner’s new professional life initially consisted of TV guest spots and a glitzy cabaret act to both pay back her debtors and support her sons. Turn the television on, circa 1977, and you might find Tina Turner on Donny & Marie, a revival of Laugh-In, Hollywood Squares, or The Sonny & Cher Show. From vamping with Madame and Wayland Flowers to singing “Big Spender” in a three-piece suit, which her male dancers stripped off piece by piece, Turner did just about anything on the small screen.
Rough arrived in 1978 on United Artists, Turner’s first solo release after finalizing her divorce. The album was little more than a vehicle to book Turner on Dinah! and The Midnight Special, where she emphasized that she was no longer “Ikeandtina”. Though live renditions of songs like “Root, Toot Undisputable Rock ‘N Roller” and “The Bitch Is Back” were dazzling, their studio counterparts sounded raucous and screechy on vinyl. She could make introspective songs like “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Sometimes When We Touch” her own but since Tina Turner was not known as a balladeer, United Artists refrained from working that angle of the album.
Disco auteur Alec R. Costandinos produced Turner’s follow-up, Love Explosion (1979) but the album made even less of an impact than Rough, despite decent recordings of “Music Keeps Me Dancin'” and “Backstabbers” by The O’Jays. The au currant pop-disco landscape was clearly an awkward place for Tina Turner. Worse, United Artists folded and the artist found herself without a record deal in the US (However, she remained under contract to EMI in the UK since the company owned United Artists and Turner had enough of a following in England to retain a record deal.)
Poor album sales notwithstanding, Tina Turner still packed houses. Adorned in Bob Mackie costumes and flanked by four back-up dancers with gravity-defying choreography, Tina Turner produced a more thrilling show than artists who were selling millions of records. Continuing to appear in the most unpredictable of places, Turner starred in Olivia Newton-John’s Hollywood Nights television special in 1979. It marked a crucial turning point.
Tina Turner needed new direction for her career. Lee Kramer, who managed Olivia Newton-John, took an interest in Turner and agreed to add her to his client roster under the care of manager Roger Davies. With an infusion of fresh perspective, Davies methodically revamped Turner’s act, firing everyone except pianist Kenny Moore, and hiring young rock musicians, who dressed in stylish black karate suits. Only two dancers — Annie Behringer and former Ikette, Edna LeJeune Richardson — accompanied Turner onstage.
By 1981, Tina Turner had a passport out of the Las Vegas musical desert. The artist who once shouted “Burn, baby, burn” and “Freak out!” to pay the bills surfaced with a strictly rock and roll show. A typical concert in 1982 opened with a wicked rendition of Rod Stewart’s “Kill His Wife” (featuring a noose as a prop), included numbers by the Rolling Stones and Bob Seger, and, of course, a trio of high voltage Ike & Tina Turner hits — “Proud Mary”, “Nutbush City Limits”, and “River-Deep, Mountain High” — without the faux-disco trappings of her previous Vegas show.
With true managerial instinct, Davies knew that buzz was the key to re-establishing Tina Turner’s credibility among rock’s cognoscenti. He booked Turner at Jerry Brandt’s club, The Ritz (currently home to Webster Hall), then the hippest concert venue in Manhattan. Celebrities like Diana Ross, Susan Sarandon, David Johansen, Iman, Grace Jones, Mary Tyler Moore, and John McEnroe attended Turner’s run of shows while she made headlines with uniformly excellent reviews in the New York press. The Village Voice heralded Tina Turner “the finest female rock singer today. That Tina Turner doesn’t currently have a record deal smacks of ageism”.
Friends in the right places were paying attention, though. Just days after attending one of her shows at the Ritz, Rod Stewart invited Turner to guest with him on Saturday Night Live and extended another offer to perform with him at the Forum in Los Angeles, where they playfully cavorted on a duet of Stewart’s “Hot Legs” and a cover of “Get Back” by the Beatles. Thanks to Keith Richards, Turner added another high profile gig to her calendar that very autumn opening three nights for the Rolling Stones on the New York-area leg of their tour. Tina Turner now had the attention of rock audiences in the largest concert arenas across the US.
National media suddenly took interest. Profiles in both People and Rolling Stone discussed the artist’s Buddhist faith, her raunchy image, and why she left Ike Turner. An interview on 20/20 included footage of the singer in the studio with hit producer Richard Perry. They recorded a cover of Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary” for the Summer Lovers (1982) soundtrack and attempted to capture Turner’s gospel-tinged reading of “Help” by the Beatles. However, what worked so well on stage did not translate to the particular kind of pop-rock that Perry specialized in. (Though Turner subsequently recorded “Help” with The Crusaders, it still lacked the vitality of the live version. When integrated into the European track sequence of Private Dancer, it sounded completely out of place amidst the edgier European-based productions.)
A more successful partnership arrived when Martyn Ware of Heaven 17 asked Turner to record “Ball of Confusion” for his Music of Quality and Distinction (1982) project with Ian Craig Marsh. Under the British Electric Foundation moniker, Turner’s interpretation magnified the severe realism of the lyrics, especially when set against the UK producers’ futuristic soundscape. Not since Tina Turner appeared as “The Acid Queen” in Tommy (1975) had a song captured the filmic qualities of her voice and made her musically relevant. To promote the song, director David Mallet shot a video at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Michael Jackson might have popularized videos by black artists on MTV, but Tina Turner was among the first ever to appear on the channel when the “Ball of Confusion” video debuted in 1982.
While Roger Davies continued to seek creative ways of positioning Tina Turner, someone at a major US record label finally noticed the unique premise of signing the label-less artist — a man named Carter. Initially hired as an A&R executive at Capitol Records, Carter’s success with acts like Bob Seger, The Motels, and Missing Persons landed him another role at the label, Staff Producer. He remembers the moment when fate sparked what would become his greatest career achievement. “A journalist wanted to interview me,” Carter explains, “and one of the questions he asked was, ‘Name three artists you’d like to produce.’
“I quickly off the top of my head said, ‘John Fogerty, Van Morrison, Tina Turner.’ I’m sure that I was probably half-glib about the whole thing. Later that day, or the next day, I’m at Tower Records. For anyone in the industry, when you are in a record store, your radar is always on. You’re seeing what’s being displayed, what’s selling, watching other people shop. I’m checking out my records and the guy in front of me in line says, ‘You’re out of Ike and Tina Turner!’ The guy behind the counter says, ‘Really? Again? Unbelievable!’ That was interesting enough that I go back to my office and phone another record chain, Music Plus. I said, ‘You got any Ike and Tina Turner?’ The guy on the phone says, ‘Will you stop driving me fucking crazy with Ike and Tina Turner!’ Well this is really interesting! I do a little research, I find out that she’s got a substantial manager. I go home that night. There she is on 20/20 as a battered wife, kind of nothing to do with her music career. It was like, ‘OK! I hear you, music Gods! You are talking to me!'”
Intrigued by the synchronicity of events, Carter attended Tina Turner’s show at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco. The demographic in the 400-500 seated venue crossed all boundaries, from parents and their children to a solid contingent of gay men. “They certainly weren’t a bunch of old gay hippies,” Carter laughs. “They were young gay guys that were into her.” His fascination with the sold-out crowd, and the discovery that Tina Turner had somehow found a new audience even without a record deal, propelled Carter to Las Vegas for the next gig, which stirred a whole other profile into the mix. “Vegas was dead,” he says . :The room Tina was playing was probably in the thousand-seater range. Maybe it was just the show I went to but there was a ton of Japanese businessmen. I was fascinated by the fact that with a down economy in Vegas, Tina Turner, in her way, was still a strong attraction.”
Backstage in Vegas, Carter offered Tina Turner what had eluded her in the two years since Roger Davies became her manager — a record deal. “I discovered that Roger Davies had gone to 20 record labels and everybody had passed. My record company was like, ‘Who? What? Why?‘ I was like, ‘Trust me.’ I signed her to a modest, fundamental deal and set about working with Roger Davies and looking for songs.”
Carter collected a pile of tracks to play for Turner, including “I Wrote a Letter” by German artist Inga Rumpf. Its steely atmosphere sated Turner’s appetite for rock and set a stylistic foundation for the direction of the project. She recorded the song with Carter and turned in one of her most hair-raising vocal performances. Turner spat out the lyrics — “You can make a white girl sing the blues” — with absolute conviction and suspended anyone’s disbelief that she was the scorned white girl in the song.
“When I Was Young” also survived the cut from one of Carter’s initial listening sessions with Turner. She completely inhabited the character created by Eric Burdon on the 1967 hit by the Animals. The fearsome precision of her vocals was cold and cutting, foreshadowing her role as Aunty Entity in George Miller’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Just after the song’s suspenseful climax, the bitterness in Turner’s voice transformed into full-tilt wrath. Eric Burdon explains Turner’s appeal in his distinctly mercurial way, “The female Spartacus turned loose. The lion mother unleashed! Makes every man say out loud, ‘That’s what I want!’ And she gives it to me, she set’s me free and she takes me higher!” Hardly faint praise from the song’s writer.
“Lion mother” is also what Martha Davis of the Motels conjures when remembering Tina Turner’s version of her song “Total Control”, another of Carter’s productions and one that was intended to appear on what eventually became Private Dancer. “I was a big fan of my act, the Motels,” Carter explains. “Anything I was listening to, it was, ‘Could Tina do that?’ ‘Total Control’ was a white record that had the word ‘soul’ in it. I was always looking for that smart song that she could do, something that was very hip on the alternative side.” Tina Turner’s recording of “Total Control” represents one of her very best moments in the studio with Carter. New wave via a peculiar strain of blues-rock, the rhythm section generated a simmering atmosphere for Turner’s voice to stew. “I’d sell /my soul / For total control,” she sang with a gentle roar, maintaining the friction between the somewhat stuttering restraint of the verse and the forthright entreaty of the chorus.
“I was thrilled and honored,” says Martha Davis about Turner’s rendition of “Total Control”. A fan of ’60s R&B, especially Ike & Tina Turner records, Davis was moved to tears when Carter shared the recording with her. “It was one of the most vivid memories of the ’80s,” she says. “The day came when he called and asked if I’d like to come to the studio for a listen. I remember sitting down. The song began and Tina sang my words. I began to weep. This beautiful Icon, this tender Lioness, this graceful Survivor, was singing my song. I was so touched and moved.”
In the meantime, Carter approached another young songwriter with a burgeoning career to submit a song for consideration — Bryan Adams. “He had asked me to write a song,” recalls Adams, “which I did, but it didn’t make it past the post office. The lyric went something like, ‘Lock up your sons, cuz Tina’s in town!’ We never heard back about that one.” (Bryan Adams would be back, though.)
While recording sessions continued, a new regime of executives moved into Capitol. The new label president called Roger Davies and summarily dropped TIna Turner from the roster. Carter relays the ensuing showdown, which offers a truly disturbing glance into the racist, ageist, and sexist discourse of many music industry executives:
“Roger calls me. I flip out. I go downstairs to (the new president’s) office. I said, ‘This is my act. I’ve got all the action here. Pick up the phone and call Roger Davies. Say you made a mistake.’ The classic quote is, ‘Carter, you signed this old nigger douchebag?’ I said, ‘I’m making a record and I’m really happy about it now pick up the phone and call Roger Davies.’ He said, ‘No fucking way.’ I open the door, because on the outside they can hear that it’s heated. I go back. I get on my knees and say, ‘I’m now going to beg you. I’m not going to get up until you pick up the phone.’ There’s a long stare down. He blinks and he picks up the phone. He says, ‘Okay. She’s back on the roster. You finish your record but you understand that we’re going to do nothing for this record. Zero. We’re just going to put it out.’ I said, ‘Fine that’s all I ask. We put out that record.’ Now, I almost have to get out of town to make it.”
London Calling… Again
In 1966, Tina Turner recorded “River-Deep, Mountain High”. Though the song is credited to Ike and Tina Turner, it essentially marked the singer’s first solo outing. Producer Phil Spector wanted only one-half of the duo to front the 75-piece orchestra, the biggest production he’d ever assembled. It was meant to be the producer’s finest hour and a guaranteed hit. Striking, evocative, and larger-than-life, “River-Deep, Mountain High” hit the airwaves in May 1966… and flopped. US disc jockeys couldn’t find a home for the song. The prevailing reason: “Too black for pop radio, too pop for black radio.” Across the Atlantic, however, the song hit #3 on the UK charts. The Rolling Stones invited the duo to open for them on tour, planting the seeds for Tina Turner’s undying connection with audiences in the UK.
Martyn Ware was a fan of “River-Deep, Mountain High”. Explaining its durability, he says, “The DNA is a kind of timelessness that I think Tina had when she sang, ‘When I was a little girl I had a rag doll.’ You can hear it on the radio and it’s not necessarily about nostalgia, it’s about an immediacy.” With co-producer Greg Walsh, Ware would create another timeless production for Tina Turner.
Ware’s previous success with Turner on “Ball of Confusion” had impressed Roger Davies, who knew that working with young, hip producers was essential to making Turner a credible artist. Approached by Davies, the producer agreed to craft another production for Turner. “I believed that Tina was a totally underrated and under-appreciated artist,” he emphasizes. “She’d do one-off shows and people loved them but there was no kind of recording career at that point. I was a young lad. Roger, God bless him, took risks. It was a brave thing to do.”
Hired for the job, Ware embarked on a mission to prove that electronic-based music was not “cold and detached”, which many naysayers believed. “I wanted to maintain that tension between electronic music and soul,” he says, “rather than electronic music and rock, which is a bit of a less interesting combination. I perceived in Tina that she philosophically kind of turned her back on soul music and, to me, that was a tragedy. When I saw her perform live, I thought, this is the greatest soul vocalist I’d ever seen. Not rock, not rock-soul, but soul.” Indeed, many of the songs Ware suggested to Turner were classic R&B songs that she was not compelled to revisit after years of singing — and living — the blues with Ike. The two finally settled on “Let’s Stay Together”, Al Green’s chart-topping hit from 1972.
“You can’t get much more soulful than the original version of ‘Let’s Stay Together’,” says Ware. “On one level, a lot of people would be going, ‘You must be mad trying to improve on that.’ I just knew. Tina probably thought that it was going to be faithful to the original. It was faithful to the original from a spirit viewpoint, not obviously faithful at all from a sonic viewpoint. That was the innovative part of it — taking similar components and creating them in an entirely different way.”
Fading up like a moonbeam peering from behind a cloud, the opening of “Let’s Stay Together” established an aural space that was light years removed from the song’s Memphis birthplace. “That frozen chord was quite an innovation at the time,” Ware explains, “and created a sense of a slightly futuristic atmosphere from the outset”. Greg Walsh, who worked with Ware on Heaven 17 productions, painted the sonic landscape. “He grew up as a kind of old-school engineer and was trained by Geoff Emerick, who worked with the Beatles. His ability to manifest what our ideas were was very important to the process,” says Ware. Walsh also brought guitarist Ray Russell into the fold, who played on The Luxury Gap (1983) by Heaven 17. His understated guitar work is a key ingredient to Ware’s vision of combining electronic and soul elements. “I have an enormous admiration for his talent,” he says. “He’s played on some fantastic records.” Once Tina Turner began singing, however, the producer just rolled the tape.
“I would never in a thousand years tell Tina Turner how to sing a soul song,” Ware exclaims. “It’s in her blood. She knows how to do it intuitively. She obviously planned how to sell the song because there’s an enormous range of conceptual dynamic. I’m not talking about soft and loud, I’m talking about intimate and thoughtful (as the original record is) versus strident. She piles into it as if her life depends on this passion. In that sense, it reminds me a little bit of Jennifer Holliday doing ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’. To me, it sounded like a great actor doing the role of their life, a soliloquy. She absolutely nailed it. That’s what it is to me, it’s a soliloquy. You listen to it, I listen to it — and I made the record — and it’s like she’s making a direct connection to you. All the great soul records do that.”
That conceptual dynamic is what made Tina Turner’s performance nothing less than riveting. She embroidered every note on “Let’s Stay Together” with a combination of sweetness, soul, and sweat. Her delivery was unfiltered and spontaneous, with fervent phrasing that intensified throughout the five-minute, sixteen-second duration of the track. “Loving you wheth-ah,” she wailed, and planted ad-libs where words ceased to express her emotions.
She recorded her vocal in one take. “That performance is completely attached from beginning to end,” Ware remarks, still astounded by what he heard.
“There is no way you could improve it. She turned up at the studio, totally prepared, which goes back to the old-school approach about doing your homework and coming in to give the performance of a lifetime. When we were recording the vocal, even in my limited experience at the time, I just knew that this was an exceptional moment. How often do you get that in today’s world, let alone the world of Auto-tune? Can you imagine saying to the artist today, ‘Right, we’re going to record this and the band live and we’re going to use the entire take. We may do two takes if you’re lucky’. They’d just go, ‘You got to be kidding’. I still believe that ‘Let’s Stay Together’ is probably the best piece of production I’ve ever done.”
No one could deny the song’s might. Paula Cole, then an aspiring artist, remembers how the song made an immediate impression. “When I heard Tina’s version of ‘Let’s Stay Together’,” she says, “I needed to go find the music and do the Vulcan mind-meld.” Perhaps one of the greatest compliments about Turner’s version comes from the song’s original co-writer and producer, Willie Mitchell. “Tina really captured the magic of the song and sang it like it was her song,” says Mitchell. “That’s the way to cover a tune.”
Released in late-1983 to coincide with a spate of appearances in the UK, the “Let’s Stay Together” single, featuring “I Wrote a Letter” as the B-side, quickly reignited Turner’s devoted British audience. She appeared on the popular music program The Tube with Martyn Ware and his Heaven 17 partner Glenn Gregory. Turner induced such a wildly enthusiastic response that the show’s producer booked her for a second appearance only weeks later.
Stateside, an import of the “Let’s Stay Together” 12-inch found a home in clubs. While Carter continued on his quest to convince Capitol Records that TIna Turner was still a viable artist on the roster, the label’s Head of Promotion suddenly grasped the appeal Turner’s latest release could have in the pop marketplace. At Capitol’s weekly marketing meeting, the promotion executive shared the epiphany he experienced at a club in Palm Springs. Carter recalls the story, “He said, ‘They play this record and the whole crowd jumps on the dancefloor, to the point that I ask them what record it is. It’s this import of ‘Let’s Stay Together’ by Tina Turner that Carter’s been ranting about.’ Literally, it came down to some disco club that this guy happened to walk into and saw that it wasn’t just the insane A&R guy, but that there was really something to this record.”
Capitol released “Let’s Stay Together” in late January 1984 for the US market. The song climbed to #26 on the pop chart after topping the Disco/Club play chart and lodging a Top Five R&B hit. In a dramatic reversal of their priorities, Capitol now demanded a full album be delivered to capitalize on the success of the single. Since tour dates were already scheduled across England, Roger Davies insisted that the remainder of the album be recorded in the country that never abandoned Tina Turner. Capitol agreed but with one caveat — she had less than a month to complete it.
Some of the most cutting edge artists on American radio playlists, circa 1984, hailed from the UK (think Eurythmics, Culture Club, Duran Duran). To build on the kind of sonic sophistication that Martyn Ware manifested in his recordings with Turner, Roger Davies sought Rupert Hine, a producer known for exporting hits by the Fixx, who had just scored a huge hit in the US with “One Thing Leads to Another”. The producer involved Jamie West-Oram, the lead guitarist of the Fixx, in the process of writing and recording “I Might Have Been Queen”, the one original song on Private Dancer written expressly for Tina Turner.
“When Rupert Hine invited me to play on Tina’s album”, Jamie West-Oram recalls, “I nearly fell over! Then he asked me to co-write one of the songs with him and Jeanette Obstoj and I did fall over. Jeanette had already written the lyric to ‘Queen’ having talked to Tina to look for a theme. Rupert is a genius. I probably had something to do with the guitar riff and the chord structure of the bridge.”
The lyrics Obstoj penned for “I Might Have Been Queen” poignantly and poetically reflected Turner’s belief in reincarnation. When sung by the vocalist, the lyrics, “I remember the girl in the field with no name”, had a profound resonance, signifying Turner’s childhood in Tennessee working in the cotton fields. “I’m a soul survivor,” she declared at the song’s climax, and in just three seconds, encapsulated the quasi-mythological spirit of her life.
It came as little surprise to Jamie West-Oram that Obstoj brilliantly extrapolated such depth from her conversation with Tina Turner. “Jeanette is an inspired lyricist,” he says. “She wrote the words to ‘Secret Separation’ and ‘Woman on a Train’ for the Fixx. Anyone who can get Cy to sing his or her words has got to be good because Cy is such an exceptional lyricist himself.” Cy Curnin even contributed background vocals to “I Might Have Been Queen”. “I can remember standing in front of the microphone next to Tina,” says the front man of the Fixx. “I had to pinch myself. When we started to sing I knew things would never be the same again. The power of her voice is only matched by the emotion within it.”
“Better Be Good to Me”, the second track Rupert Hine produced for the project, transferred the combination of power and emotion in Turner’s voice to a song penned by Holly Knight, Mike Chapman, and Nicky Chinn. Sassy with attitude to spare, her performance revivified a song Knight recorded with her group Spider some years earlier. The songwriter shares the “urban legend” about how “Better Be Good to Me” came to live a second life, “Tina was in an A&R meeting to go over possible tunes to cut when she heard ‘Better Be Good to Me’ (Spider’s version). She jumped out of her seat and said this was what she had been looking for — a rock and roll tune with empowering lyrics.”
Tina Turner tore into the song every bit the rock goddess. “Oh yes I’m touched by this show of emotion / Should I be fractured by your lack of devotion,” she enunciated with spiky, staccato inflections. “Tina has always had the good sense and respect to sing the vocals very close to the demos I turned in,” says Knight, who’d pen a total of 11 songs for Turner over the years, including the Grammy-winning “One of the Living” (1985). Hine’s thunderous production was the perfect conduit to illustrate Turner’s innate love of rock music. She delivered the song with as much authority and authenticity as anything she ever recorded with Ike Turner.
The process of acquiring “Better Be Good to Me” loosely blueprinted how Carter procured more cuts for Turner to record, a process that initially frustrated the producer until he realized that Turner didn’t need a songwriter’s latest, greatest creation to turn in a remarkable performance. “As I would go out to the publishers and look for a song, they’d say, ‘Tina Turner? No. We’re saving that for Pat Benatar. We’re hoping that Heart’s got that on hold. Fuck Tina Turner. Fuck you!‘ It’s absolutely true.”
“When we then got this old Holly Knight song, I said, ‘Oh, I get it.’ I went back to all the publishers and said, ‘Okay, I don’t want your great new song. I want that song you thought was great five years ago that you never got cut. Give me your fucking garbage, man.'”
That same kind of methodology landed something called “What’s Love Got to Do with It”.
Written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, “What’s Love Got to Do with It” had been sitting around for a few years, trading hands among some of pop’s hottest female artists, but never materialized into a recording. Turner’s lukewarm response to the demo changed when she met Terry Britten in person. With just his guitar in hand, he reshaped the architecture of the song to fit the feel of her voice. At the actual recording session, Carter knew Turner not only had a hit but an award-winning anthem. “Tina came in and recorded a Grammy in 20 minutes. I go back to my hotel. I call the new head of A&R and I say, ‘I haven’t just made a record here. We’re going to win a Grammy.'”
Turner’s raspy voice marinated with the rough lacquer of Terry Britten’s sleek production. Her vocal attack embodied the friction between physical attraction and the illusion of love. Describing Turner as “Fearless Fire”, vocal powerhouse Ledisi observes, “This song gave women strength to say what was considered taboo at the time.” When she punctuated “Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?” with a guttural growl, Turner didn’t so much ask a question but assert a world-weariness informed by years of life experience.
“What’s Love Got to Do with It” resonated with many of Turner’s peers who felt a kinship with the artist after hearing the song. “I knew we were sisters in the hood,” says Melba Moore. Having watched Tina Turner perform with Ike years before, Ruth Pointer saw parallels between her life and Turner’s.
“The song says it,” Pointer explains. “At that point in my life I was older and I had a little more experience with relationships under my belt and that song made sense. I always felt like I had some kind of spiritual connection to her in some way. I know her relationship with Ike was very tumultuous, violent, and crazy, and during that same time, I was in a very similar relationship that I had to get away from. I think that probably has something to do with why I connect with her on that level and in that spirit — the freedom that comes with pulling yourself out of a situation like that is unbelievable. When I went to see her perform, it was just a joyous feeling of watching this wonderful, beautiful woman just feeling and being herself. I was so proud. It was like she was another one of my sisters.”
“Show Some Respect”, another song Britten wrote and produced for the the project, also reflected the tautness of Turner’s self-possession. The textures of her voice bounced full-throttle above Britten’s punchy synth-rock arrangement. “It’s funky!”, enthuses Ledisi. “I love Ms. Tina’s voice on it, especially towards the end of the song. Awesome.” When Turner used “Show Some Respect” as the opening number on her Private Dancer tour, explosions and smoke bombs amplified the song’s power.
Of the three productions Terry Britten produced, “I Can’t Stand the Rain” was the lone cover. Like Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, it scored a major hit for the Hi Records label when Ann Peebles recorded it in 1974. After a succession of covers by Graham Central Station and the disco outfit Eruption, Tina Turner merged the soul and synthesized versions with a sui generis style of her own. The recording stands as one of Janelle Monáe’s favorite songs from Private Dancer. “It has a really funky groove and vocal approach,” she says. “I instantly connect with the emotion in her voice. I love when she performs it live. She is so raw, but yet so polished at the same time. I have always admired the attention she gives to her performances.”
The range of covers expanded with Martyn Ware’s production of David Bowie’s “1984”. Since striking out on her own in the mid-’70s, Turner had become a fan of Bowie’s, incorporating a smoldering version of his “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” into her 1983-1984 concert sets. “I knew she liked Bowie, because she mentioned it before,” Ware explains, “and I had always been a big fan of (Bowie’s) Diamond Dogs (1974) album. In Britain, his concept was appreciated and the live show was appreciated but the songs weren’t fully appreciated. I loved that song and I liked the challenge of creating an electronic and interesting version of it because it really was 1984. It was something that was both topical and unexpected to hear from Tina. I think she’s just a great storyteller. She does that with the attitude in her voice. She’s showing you the idea of the lyrics in every line of the songs that she sings.”
With the same kind of theatricality that dressed “Cat People”, Tina Turner heightened the drama of “1984” and turned Bowie’s song into a mini-acting piece through Ware’s panoramic production. The piano trills by Nick Plytas and string arrangements by Dave Cullen augmented the ominous atmosphere of Bowie’s lyrics. Just three minutes long, Turner wrung an epic performance out of each note while the foreboding backing vocals by Heaven 17 approximated the drone of Gregorian chants. The dynamic production contrasted in every which way with Ware’s “Let’s Stay Together” and further underscored Turner’s versatility.
Carter witnessed how Turner effortlessly navigated the range of repertoire as the corresponding number of producers grew exponentially. In both his productions and in the sessions with other producers, Carter saw first-take recordings transpire before his eyes onto the tape. “She’d sing the song perfectly,” he remembers.
“I’d say, ‘Can we do it again?’ She’d say, ‘What did I do wrong?’ I’d say, ‘Nothing but I just automatically think that we got to get another take.’ She’d say, ‘You just want to see me dance!’ She would do the second take as good as the first but do the choreography. She’d say, ‘Don’t you want me to do the background part? I’ve already rehearsed the background parts. Roll it.’ She’d do the harmonies. I’d say, ‘Man that is fantastic. Let me play that for you.’ She said, ‘I know what I did. I don’t need to hear that. That’s why I have you. I’m going shopping.’ She never wanted to hear it. She was prepared. She did it perfectly and she was gone.”
Despite the ease of producing Tina Turner, the deadline for submitting an album to Capitol was imminent and only three-fourths of an album had been recorded. The two tracks by Rupert Hine and Terry Britten’s three productions wrapped over a ten-day period while the Martyn Ware cuts, of course, were completed months before. Still short a full-length album, Roger Davies scurried to find additional material. He contacted Ed Bicknell, who managed Dire Straits and UK-based singer-songwriter Paul Brady at the time. Bicknell delivered the final pair of songs, “Steel Claw” and “Private Dancer”.
The latter tune consisted of an instrumental track leftover from Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold (1982) album. Mark Knopfler, the group’s frontman and primary writer, hadn’t recorded a vocal for the song, thinking it didn’t suit a male vocalist. Due to legal clearance issues, the instrumental track needed to be re-recorded if the song was to appear on Turner’s album. According to Carter, Knopfler was reluctant to play on the session for the track, though the rest of the band readily agreed to record “Private Dancer”. “The band wanted to do it,” he says. “Knopfler refused to be on the session. He left town. Once it was a big hit and everybody said, ‘Congratulations, Mark’, then he decided it was cool.” Whatever reservations Knopfler had did not detract from the stellar performances his band mates recorded.
Tina Turner lucidly personified the hopes and dreams versus the tortured reality of a taxi dancer. Her voice was alternately cool and contemplative in the verses, then transmitted ache and yearning in the chorus and bridge. Billy Porter, who first heard “Private Dancer” in his high school Jazz Dance Class, remains an ardent admirer of the song. His interpretation is incisive. He says, “The song is about a woman who owns her ideological and moral contradictions, moving through the imperfect with hope and grace.” Joan Armatrading was also struck by “Private Dancer”, specifically the melding of a great vocalist and songwriter. “One of the songs Tina made an instant classic with her incredible vocal range,” she says, “Tina and Mark, what a combination.”
Carter, who produced both “Private Dancer” and “Steel Claw” in Knopfler’s absence, brought another factor into the song’s amalgam of creative forces. At one of Turner’s London shows, he spotted Jeff Beck standing in the audience. He immediately offered the renowned guitarist a spot to play on the album. Beck’s only stipulation was to spend 30 minutes in the studio with the singer. His nuanced guitar solo on “Private Dancer” perfectly conveyed the emotional complexity of Knopfler’s lyrics.
Jeff Beck also cut a solo for “Steel Claw”, which featured Dire Straits (sans Mark Knopfler) as the backing band. Fueled by a furiously energetic performance, “Steel Claw” proved that Tina Turner could even hold her own in a heavy metal context. The ferocity in her rendering of Paul Brady’s tune, originally from his True for You (1983) album, was spellbinding. When reviewing Private Dancer for his Consumer Guide in The Village Voice, Robert Christgau remarked how Turner adapted the printed lyrics of “Steel Claw” to “her own spoken idiom”. Indeed, her stream-of-consciousness phrasing defied the words on the page. By the time she announced Jeff Beck’s guitar solo with a shriek — “Jeff Beck. Ow!”– the door to Ike and TIna Turner had been slammed and bolted once and for all.
Against almost every odd imaginable, Private Dancer was finally complete.
The Triumphant Return
“This is quite a cover,” David Letterman quips to Tina Turner. It’s her first appearance on the young late-night television host’s program. Letterman is having a difficult time remembering the album title as he examines the cover.
It’s hard not to take your eyes off Private Dancer. Walk into a record store in June 1984, just after the album hits the shelves, and you cannot escape it: Tina Turner rests on a mound of silver canvas in a black, low-cut blouse with her legs wrapped in fishnet stockings. Her eyes stare defiantly at the camera. Her lips pout with a brush of crimson. It’s a provocative pose without being overly salacious. It’s sexy but not tawdry. It’s the perfect image to greet listeners before they tear the shrink wrap off the cover and discover two sides worth of contemporary pop, rock, and soul with a glossy European sheen.
By the time Tina Turner appeared on Letterman’s show, two major events conspired to add extra mileage to the promotion of Private Dancer: Turner’s opening slot on Lionel Richie’s spring-summer tour and the May release of “What’s Love Got to Do with It”. The video filmed for the single was just as irresistible as the song. Whether she climbed the steps of the Christopher St. subway station in Greenwich Village or stood overlooking the East River from Brooklyn’s Fulton Ferry, Tina Turner was a magnetizing presence in every frame. Her denim jacket, black mini-skirt, high heels, and explosion of hair created an instantly iconic look. She exuded confidence in close-up shots while the camera tracked her stiletto-heeled sashay, transferring the song’s thematic elements to the screen with the singer’s every movement. The video slipped into heavy rotation on MTV during the summer of 1984 and broadcast Turner’s striking visage to a national, 24-hour-a-day audience, affording many younger viewers their first glimpse of Tina Turner.
When “What’s Love Got to Do with It” shot to number one in August — 24 years to the week that Ike and Tina Turner debuted on the charts with “A Fool in Love” — it was due in no small part to the powerful intersection of Turner’s strong visual presence and the song’s sophisticated sensibility. “I think ‘What’s Love Got to do with It’ was one of the best singles of its time”, says Ki Ki Dee, who saw Turner in London just before the release of Private Dancer. “The marriage of the song, the production, and Tina is one made in heaven. Love her. She is one of the all-time great singers and performers.”
The following month, Turner gave her first high-profile performance of “What’s Love Got to Do with It” at the debut of the MTV Video Music Awards. Introduced by a gushing Bette Midler, Tina Turner strutted out onstage and belted her chart-topping hit. The audience, comprised of industry heavyweights and young fans alike, responded with a standing ovation. Nona Hendryx sat in Radio City Music Hall that night and joined in the vociferous applause. She reflects on the significance Turner’s newfound success,
“I think it was a vindication for Tina after all the years of struggle, touring, singing and performing as a duo with Ike and then on her own to have that kind of success, artistically and financially. I’m sure many thought Tina didn’t stand a chance without Ike and that without him she would fail. The talent was always there, it just needed to be nurtured, supported, accepted and allowed to blossom into the one of a kind, amazing performer Tina is to this day. Unique and brilliant!”
Coinciding with both the MTV awards ceremony and a Rolling Stone cover story, Capitol released “Better Be Good to Me” to radio and further expanded Turner’s rock audience. Her tough, no-bullshit persona in the video added an even edgier dimension to the song. She sold the song’s assertiveness and playfully taunted Cy Curnin, who made a cameo in the video with Jamie West-Oram. Adorned in her black leather pants and jacket, Turner was the absolute embodiment of rock music.
Another release in the autumn of 1984 garnered Turner additional airplay on rock stations. Bryan Adams was just finishing up his Reckless album when he sent a song called “It’s Only Love” to Turner’s office in Los Angeles. He didn’t receive a response until the last week of recording the album. His final attempt to corral Turner for the session finally worked. He recalls, “Tina was on tour as the support act for Lionel Richie, and she was going to be in Vancouver where I was working, so I asked again. This time, she said yes. I was so excited. I was 24, working with one of my favourite singers. When she came into the studio, I explained to her what I thought would work, and about three takes later it was done”. Like Private Dancer, the Reckless album had no shortage of hits and “It’s Only Love” landed both singers a Top 20 hit as well as a subsequent MTV Video Music Award for the live version of the duet.
By the end of 1984, Private Dancer peaked at number three on the album charts. It was an amazing feat. Just a year before, Capitol Records was ready to drop Tina Turner from its roster and now she was the label’s hottest act. The media hyped Turner as the comeback of the decade, though many of her peers knew that she had never really been away. “This wasn’t a come back,” Joan Armatrading clarifies. “Tina was around, she was just biding time.” Kim Carnes, whose “I’ll Be Here Where the Heart Is” received a stirring rendition in Turner’s 1983 shows, concurs. “She was great before and after Private Dancer, but that record gave her the total acceptance she so deserved. There is no voice, no performer as gifted. I love Tina… as an amazing human being, and as a one of a kind talent.”
Millions of record buyers also loved Tina. As 1984 yielded to 1985, Tina Turner earned a fourth hit single when the title track climbed to number seven on the pop charts following the Top Five success of “Better Be Good to Me”. The album was certified triple platinum in the wake of Turner’s performance on the American Music Awards, where she performed “Private Dancer” and won “Favorite Soul/R&B Female Artist” and “Favorite Soul/R&B Female Video Artist”.
Young sets of eyes were watching closely and learning from Tina Turner. Dionne Farris says, “For me as a young black girl wanting to do that which I saw, which was to sing, she showed me yet another way to go about doing it. She’s a survivor and an innovator. Every time she has graced us with her presence, she never disappoints (that is something that I strive to achieve). We marvel at her fire and her talent (and her great legs). The woman is a Goddess.”
Nikka Costa, who was already a young star around the world when Private Dancer made its ascent on the album charts, recalls her discovery of Tina Turner. “I was too young to have really known her as a performer in the ’70s but once Private Dancer came out, I knew she had to be a force to be reckoned with. She was so hot and assured with that gravity defying hair (and skirt for that matter!) and that amazing voice. I started looking up her earlier stuff and was astounded at the footage I saw. Her performance, her sexuality, her toughness, just the original bad ass. She is a total inspiration to me and so many others. We owe her a lot for coming first on so many levels.”
“I don’t think there’s any way I could possibly thank her enough for what she’s given me,” says Paula Cole, echoing Costa’s sentiment. “For years I have carried a picture of Tina with me on the road to remind me to keep the fire and joy in my soul alive, even in the darkest of circumstances.”
The fire in Tina Turner’s soul was ablaze on 28 February 1985 — Grammy Night. Even with the flu, she summoned a show-stopping performance of “What’s Love Got to Do with It”. She invoked the song’s feisty attitude but could hardly contain her excitement about finally reaching that career pinnacle on her own. As the evening passed, Tina Turner picked up one award after another, “Best Rock Performance, Female” for “Better Be Good to Me”, “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female” for “What’s Love Got to Do with It”, and, of course, “Record of the Year” (Terry Britten and Graham Lyle won “Song of the Year” for “What’s Love Got to Do With It”). Standing next to Lionel Richie, who took home the “Album of the Year” trophy, Tina Tuner smiled radiantly for the throngs of press who gathered to interview the singer after the show.
Within hours of the ceremony, Turner hopped a plane to continue the European leg of her Private Dancer world tour. Her show in Birmingham (UK) was filmed and released on video, a definitive document of how, within one year, Tina Turner went from playing conventions for executives at McDonald’s to selling out major arenas. When she uttered the words, “I’m gonna sing songs from my album Private Dancer for you,” the crowd responded with a deafening scream.
A whole new generation of fans, who knew nothing of Tina Turner’s musical past, clamored to see the 45-year-old singer while those who grew up listening to “Nutbush City Limits” and “I Wanna Take You Higher” watched, enthralled, as Private Dancer immersed Tina Turner in a completely different musical environment. Alison Moyet is one of those artists who first knew Turner as the sizzling centerpiece of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue before watching her take flight as a solo artist. “Tina Turner came to my attention in my mid-teens and left a deep impression,” she says.
“It was the first time I had heard aggression and power in a female voice. From her throat, I recognised a sound that made sense of me; the boy in the girl. Then, she was an exotic creature from another time and a distant place, howling out from my scratched records. With Private Dancer, Tina was here in your face. She skipped beautiful legs on impossibly high heels. A mouth itching, lips sketching every word and a voice that almost sang chords. Tina owned her own sex.”
“Only Tina could show women it’s okay to be bold, beautiful and uninhibited”, adds Ledisi. “Private Dancer as an entire album is a beautiful mixture of soul and rock. She creates her own definition of soul music that speaks to all genres, all generations, which is why she’s a legend.”
“The sheer will of a strong black woman.” That is what Billy Porter attributes to Tina Turner achieving such remarkable success when many artists at a similar point in their career had already peaked. She inspired groups like The Pointer Sisters, who had been through their own set of stylistic transformations. “To come into such great success at the age that she did was so fabulous for a lot of women,” says Ruth Pointer. “I know it was for me. We started thinking, ‘Oh, we’re getting near 40. Nobody wants us anymore’. Ms. Tina shut all that down to the point where there is no limit for women anymore. I don’t feel it.”
Donna Summer cites Turner as an inspiration for changing the paradigm about what’s expected of black female artists. “Tina has long been an inspiration to me, the first black female pioneeress of rock and roll. Private Dancer took her from Ike and Tina to Tina Turner — it was always Tina anyway — and with that album, she got her just due. There is only one Tina Turner: she’s simply the best!” Joan Amratrading, another artist who challenges conventional notions of black female singers, agrees. “Tina has one of the most amazing voices and can really turn any rock song into a masterpiece.”
Tina Turner’s advocates and co-conspirators, of course, were instrumental in making Private Dancer not just a noteworthy record but a career-defining masterpiece. Everyone from Roger Davies to Carter to photographer Brian Aris to the mixing and mastering technicians figured into the equation of the album’s appeal. Though Turner’s voice was the reason why all the components ultimately clicked, just imagine “Private Dancer” without the wailing sax solo by Mel Collins or the synthesized harmonica on “What’s Love Got to Do with It”.
The latter song has retained its allure 25 years on. The metallic sheen of the introduction still glistens from the sound design created by film composer Nick Glennie Smith. A breeziness wafts through the production and heightens the sensation of Turner’s crisp, impeccable performance. “It’s part of culture,” says Carter about the song, while Dionne Farris opines, “It’s great music that stands the test of time.” Those needing evidence of a perfect hit single needn’t look any further.
A quarter-century later, the songs on Private Dancer resonate with listeners as both timeless pieces of music and melodic parables. Turner’s legend has only multiplied since 1985, when the album sold millions of copies even a year after its initial release. The half-dozen world tours, a presence on movie screens (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) and off (Goldeneye), a towering number of awards and honors, two decades-worth of solo hits, an autobiography, and a critically acclaimed biopic have established Tina Turner in the pop cultural firmament while Private Dancer is a reminder that anyone can flourish in the face of adversity. Billy Porter shares, “The real impact of Private Dancer came many years later when I discovered what she had been through. I had no idea that she had been so abused by Ike. I revisited the album and would just weep for her. I was so happy that she had broken the chains!”
The only chain that remains unbroken is the connection Turner has with her audience. Martyn Ware explains how seeing Tina Turner perform “Let’s Stay Together” before thousands of people added a new layer to his understanding of the song’s impact,
“I went to see Tina perform at the O2 Center about six months ago,” he explains, “and I had never seen her perform ‘Let’s Stay Together’ live. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve performed it with her onstage but I’ve never sat in an audience and watched her sing it. I hadn’t seen the development of 20,000 people singing every lyric, every inflection of the original song. We perform all the time with Heaven 17 and you hear the audience singing back to you but that level of detail, with all those inflections that everybody is singing, just blew my mind completely. I think for a minute and a half Tina stopped singing. It became their song. It was so beautiful.”
Tina Turner’s show at the O2 arena in London — in the year of her 70th birthday, her 50th year of performing, and the 25th anniversary of an album that stands as her greatest work — exemplifies what makes an artist timeless. The key to her longevity? Ask David Bowie. “Still one of the greatest voices and performers out there. Unbeatable,” he proclaims, for the voice of Tina Turner is the sound of a soul survivor. She was, is, and forever will be queen.