Tina Turner: The life and times of the unstoppable superstar
Tina Turner, the unstoppable singer and stage performer who teamed with husband Ike Turner for a dynamic run of hit records and live shows in the 1960s and ‘70s and survived her horrifying marriage to triumph in middle age with the chart-topping What's Love Got to Do With It, has died at 83.
Turner died Wednesday after a long illness in her home in Küsnacht near Zurich, Switzerland, according to her manager. She became a Swiss citizen a decade ago.
Few stars travelled so far — she was born Anna Mae Bullock in a segregated Tennessee hospital and spent her latter years on a 260,000 square foot estate on Lake Zurich — and overcame so much.
Physically battered, emotionally devastated and financially ruined by her 20-year relationship with Ike Turner, she became a superstar on her own in her 40s, at a time when most of her peers were on their way down, and remained a top concert draw for years after.
With admirers ranging from Beyoncé to Mick Jagger, Turner was one of the world's most successful entertainers, known for a core of pop, rock and rhythm and blues favourites: Proud Mary, Nutbush City Limits, River Deep, Mountain High, and the hits she had in the '80s, among them What's Love Got to Do with It, We Don't Need Another Hero and a cover of Al Green's Let's Stay Together.
Her trademarks were her growling contralto, her bold smile and strong cheekbones, her palette of wigs and the muscular, quick-stepping legs she did not shy from showing off.
She sold more than 150 million records worldwide, won 12 Grammys, was voted along with Ike into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 (and on her own in 2021) and was honoured at the Kennedy Center in 2005, with Beyoncé and Oprah Winfrey among those praising her. Her life became the basis for a film, a Broadway musical and an HBO documentary in 2021 that she called her public farewell.
Until she left her husband and revealed their back story, she was known as the voracious on-stage foil of the steady-going Ike, the leading lady of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.
Ike was billed first and ran the show, choosing the material, the arrangements, the backing singers. They toured constantly for years, in part because Ike was often short on money and unwilling to miss a concert. Tina Turner was forced to go on with bronchitis, with pneumonia, with a collapsed right lung.
Other times, the cause of her misfortunes was Ike himself.
As she recounted in her memoir, “I, Tina,” Ike began hitting her not long after they met, in the mid-1950s, and only grew more vicious. Provoked by anything and anyone, he would throw hot coffee in her face, choke her, or beat her until her eyes were swollen shut, then rape her. Before one show, he broke her jaw and she went on stage with her mouth full of blood.
Terrified both of being with Ike and of being without him, she credited her emerging Buddhist faith in the mid-1970s with giving her a sense of strength and self-worth and she finally left in early July, 1976.
The Ike and Tina Turner Revue was scheduled to open a tour marking the country’s bicentennial when Tina snuck out of their Dallas hotel room, with just a Mobil credit card and 36 cents, while Ike slept. She hurried across a nearby highway, narrowly avoiding a speeding truck, and found another hotel to stay.
“I looked at him (Ike) and thought, ‘You just beat me for the last time, you sucker,’” she recalled in her memoir.
Turner was among the first celebrities to speak candidly about domestic abuse, becoming a heroine to battered women and a symbol of resilience to all. Ike Turner did not deny mistreating her, although he tried to blame Tina for their troubles. When he died, in 2007, a representative for his ex-wife said simply: “Tina is aware that Ike passed away.”
Little of this was apparent to the many Ike and Tina fans. The Turners were a hot act for much of the 1960s and into the ’70s, evolving from bluesy ballads such as A Fool in Love and It’s Going to Work Out Fine to flashy covers of Proud Mary and Come Together and other rock songs that brought them crossover success.
They opened for the Rolling Stones in 1966 and 1969, and were seen performing a lustful version of Otis Redding’s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long in the 1970 Stones documentary Gimme Shelter.
Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett gave Oscar-nominated performances as Ike and Tina in the 1993 movie What’s Love Got to Do with It, based on “I, Tina,” but she would say that reliving her years with Ike was so painful she couldn’t bring herself to watch the movie.
Ike and Tina’s reworking of Proud Mary, originally a tight, mid-tempo hit for Creedence Clearwater Revival, helped define their assertive, sexual image. Against a background of funky guitar and Ike’s crooning baritone, Tina began with a few spoken words about how some people wanted to hear songs that were “nice and easy.”
“But there’s this one thing,” she warned, “you see, we never ever do nothing nice and easy.
“We always do it nice — and rough.”
But by the end of the 1970s, Turner’s career seemed finished. She was 40 years old, her first solo album had flopped and her live shows were mostly confined to the cabaret circuit. Desperate for work, and money, she even agreed to tour in South Africa when the country was widely boycotted because of its racist apartheid regime.
Rock stars helped bring her back. Rod Stewart convinced her to sing Hot Legs with him on Saturday Night Live and Jagger, who had openly borrowed some of Turner’s on-stage moves, sang Honky Tonk Women with her during the Stones’ 1981-82 tour. At a listening party for his 1983 album Let’s Dance, David Bowie told guests that Turner was his favourite female singer.
More popular in England at the time than in the US, she recorded a raspy version of Let’s Stay Together at EMI’s Abbey Road studios in London.
By the end of 1983, Let’s Stay Together was a hit throughout Europe and on the verge of breaking in the states. An A&R man at Capitol Records, John Carter, urged the label to sign her up and make an album. Among the material presented to her was a reflective pop-reggae ballad co-written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle and initially dismissed by Tina as “wimpy.”
“I just thought it was some old pop song, and I didn’t like it,” she later said of What’s Love Got To Do With It.
Turner’s Private Dancer album came out in May 1984, sold more than eight million copies and featured several hit singles, including the title song and Better Be Good To Me. It won four Grammys, among them record of the year for What’s Love Got to Do With It, the song that came to define the clear-eyed image of her post-Ike years.
“People look at me now and think what a hot life I must have lived — ha!” she wrote in her memoir.
Even with Ike, it was hard to mistake her for a romantic. Her voice was never “pretty,” and love songs were never her speciality, in part because she had little experience to draw from. She was born in Nutbush, Tennessee in 1939 and would say she received “no love” from either her mother or father. After her parents separated, she moved often around Tennessee and Missouri, living with various relatives. She was outgoing, loved to sing and as a teenager would check out the blues clubs in St. Louis, where one of the top draws was Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm. Tina didn’t care much for his looks the first time she saw him, at the Club Manhattan.
“Then he got up onstage and picked up his guitar,” she wrote in her memoir. “He hit one note, and I thought, ‘Jesus, listen to this guy play.’”
Tina soon made her move. During intermission at an Ike Turner show at the nearby Club D’Lisa, Ike was alone on stage, playing a blues melody on the keyboards. Tina recognised the song, B.B. King’s You Know I Love You, grabbed a microphone and sang along. As Tina remembered, a stunned Ike called out “Giirrlll!!” and demanded to know what else she could perform.
Over her mother’s objections, she agreed to join his group. He changed her first name to Tina, inspired by the comic book heroine Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and changed her last name by marrying her, in 1962.
In rare moments of leniency from Ike, Tina did enjoy success on her own. She added an explosive lead vocal to Phil Spector’s titanic production of River Deep, Mountain High, a flop in the US when released in 1966, but a hit overseas and eventually a standard.
She was also featured as the Acid Queen in the 1975 film version of the Who’s rock opera Tommy. More recent film work included Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and a cameo in What’s Love Got to Do with It.
Turner had two sons: Craig, with saxophonist Raymond Hill; and Ronald, with Ike Turner. (Craig Turner was found dead in 2018 of an apparent suicide). In a memoir published later in 2018, Tina Turner: My Love Story, she revealed that she had received a kidney transplant from her second husband, former EMI record executive Erwin Bach.
Turner’s life seemed an argument against marriage, but her life with Bach was a love story the younger Tina would not have believed possible. They met in the mid-1980s, when she flew to Germany for record promotion and he picked her up at the airport. He was more than a decade younger than her — “the prettiest face,” she said of him in the HBO documentary — and the attraction was mutual. She wed Bach in 2013, exchanging vows at a civil ceremony in Switzerland.
“It’s that happiness that people talk about,” Turner told the press at the time, “when you wish for nothing, when you can finally take a deep breath and say, ‘Everything is good.’”