From the January, 1978 issue of High Times comes Harry Wasserman’s tribute to cultural hero Tina Turner. On the occasion of Ms. Turner’s birthday on November 26, 1939, we’re republishing it below.
During its heyday, the Ike and Tina Turner Revue was the raunchiest show on the rock ’n’ roll circuit. Veteran bluesman Ike Turner, goateed and glum, methodically pumped the neck of his electric axe while raspy-voiced wife Tina clawed at the air, snarled licentious come-ons, caressed her mike with two extended fingers and writhed in convulsions of raw, surging ecstasy. Meanwhile, the vivacious Ikettes would be singing backup, their three sets of hips pounding like jackhammers in unison. The show would inevitably climax with Ike and Tina exchanging hot spurts of lust on Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.’’ They obviously had been loving each other too long, or too hard, because their marriage ended in threats of violence and the sound of gunshots from their home in Laurel Canyon, California.
Ike isn’t dead—he’s merely been divorced, taking a back seat to Tina’s career while sitting in the front row at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, watching his partner of 17 years finally make a go of her own. In the old act Tina seemed to be performing just for Ike, but now she makes her sexual challenge directly to the audience, with no middleman involved. Tina struts on stage in a cream-colored suit, cocks her fedora and does a slow, low-down “Goodtime Lady’s Rag.” Then four racially and sexually integrated dancers tear off her clothing to reveal a black corset with a huge slice missing in the midriff, but with a lavender valentine in a strategic place. A single black stocking is held up by a garter belt. To prove she bumps, her right shoulder’s got a black and blue lump; to prove she grinds, she’s wearing spiked heels the length of stilettos.
She glares at the audience and breaks into a fast and furious “Honky Tonk Woman.” She still does other lightning-paced rockers like “Hold On, I’m Coming,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “I Wanna Take You Higher” and “Proud Mary,” with a new eight-piece rock band cooking behind her. But the scorchers are broken up by an occasional blues tune like Willie Nelson’s “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away” or a ballad like Barbra Streisand’s “Watch Closely Now.” “I like to try songs like that, that take a lot of control,” says Tina. “And besides, the ears get a chance to rest a bit.” The whole act is classier, with a slew of costume changes for Tina provided by Bob Mackie (couturier for Marie Osmond and Cher), including a sheer body suit edged in strings of sequins and backed by a cape of silver and gold.
“I hate too much form in a show,” says Tina. “That’s why I like street dancing. I have to feel that free, good sensation. I know sex is important to my performance. But the sex is almost like being schizophrenic. When you think of Tina Turner, you think action, you think dancing, you think wild. But all of my stage presence is an act. I’m very domestic—I have four sons, I’m a mother. I do a lot of reading. I’m especially interested in the occult, life after death and the spiritual side of life. I chant, and that keeps me in balance and I just keep going.” She attributes her stamina to a low 56-count pulse and eating a lot of protein.
“I’m a Southern girl,” says Tina. “I wasn’t brought up in dancing schools. I was just taught that when you have something to do, you go out and do it.” There was nothing to do in her hometown of Nutbush, Tennessee (a small town just outside of Memphis), where the main attractions were “cathouse, ginhouse, schoolhouse, outhouse.” Tina was born there in 1939 as Annie Mae Bullock. She sang in the choir of the Baptist church until she had “the hurt put on her” by her parents’ marital troubles and was sent to toil as a fieldworker for various relatives. “I always wanted to leave the fields,” says Tina. “I loved sitting under a tree at the end of the day, but I knew there was more. That’s why I joined my mother in St. Louis. To me, that was the big city.”
Then at 18 she got into astrology, and the planet waves led her to a nightclub where rhythm and blues piano-man Ike Turner and his Rhythm Kings were playing. Ike had started the band in the delta blues country of Mississippi, where they recorded the classic “Rocket 88,” claimed by some to be the first rock ’n’ roll record. He also tickled the ivories for such blues greats as Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker and, using the moniker J. Taub, wrote blues songs like B. B. King’s legendary “Sweet Little Angel.”
When Annie Mae started hanging around Ike in St. Louis, he already had a revue-type show featuring various vocalists. He handed her the mike one night, and when he saw she knew what to do with it he decided she could lick and fondle it for keeps. In 1957 they recorded “Do You Mean It” and “You Made My Blood Run Cold” together, and the next year they were married. Annie Mae Bullock became Tina Turner and immediately had an accidental birth—not a bouncing baby, but a million-selling single called “A Fool in Love,” which Ike had reluctantly let her sing when Art Lassiter didn’t show up at the recording session.
The Ike and Tina Turner Revue was formed when Ike switched from piano to electric guitar, and Tina hired a trio of female singers dubbed the Ikettes, who at different times have included P. P. Arnold, Bonnie Bramlett and Merry Clayton. Phil Spector saw the revue perform on the set for the film The TNT Show. He was so impressed with Tina that he later produced her rendition of ‘‘River Deep, Mountain High” in 1966, with Tina’s voice ascending into a sensual crescendo while the complex background orchestration builds into Spector’s famous “wall of sound.”
Ike and Tina followed with a number of hits, including “The Hunter” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” the latter becoming the centerpiece of the show when they toured with the Rolling Stones in 1969. Stones fans discovered that a ferocious black wildcat named Tina Turner could be every bit as sexually exciting as their primping white demigod Jagger, and their orgiastic approval assured the revue new-found fame.
Their act changed little for the next five years, and Tina yearned to go on her own. Called “the hardest-working woman in show business,” she quickly followed her divorce with a new solo act she broke in at dates in Vancouver, Denver and Washington, D.C., before a successful run in Las Vegas. “I’ve always felt I was kind of solo,” says Tina. “On stage I’ve always been out front, and Ike was directing things in the back. Now I’ll say ‘give me this’ or ‘let’s do that,’ and before, Ike did that. I’ve evolved one step higher, and I plan to go even further. I plan to always keep what I’m known for, but I’d like to let the people know that I’m capable of doing other things.”
One thing she’s capable of doing well is movies. Millions can hear her deep throat on record, but if you can’t catch a live performance you miss most of her animal magnetism. Like other rock stars, it took the movies to capture her essence and to fashion her myth. The Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter, besides depicting the apocalypse of Altamont, transmitted the orgasmic delight of Tina at her beastly best. But her first real character role was in Ken Russell’s Who-inspired Tommy, in which she brought the Acid Queen to quivering, pulsating, electrifying life. Her first scenes in the film were as a streetwalker, and unfortunately she hasn’t been able to shake the stereotype since. “I’ve had several scripts sent to me, but they have all been for hookers. And it’s okay to do a good hooker part once to leave a lasting impression, but I don’t want to be typecast. I don’t want to always be portraying a woman who walks the streets, but I’d love to be an actress. I really can’t go much further in what I’m doing now. I could make hit record after hit record, but then I’d probably just draw bigger houses—I’d be doing the same thing. It’s time for another step.”