Ike Turner: 1931-2007

Ike Turner, whose role as a founding father of rock ‘n roll became overlaid with his image as all-time abusive husband to Tina Turner, died yesterday at age 76. Ike played piano on “Rocket 88,” recorded in Memphis by Sam Phillips and now deemed the first rock ‘n roll record. The New York Times has the best obit I’ve seen so far.

Turner was a great instrumentalist and music producer. His greatest production was Anna Mae Bullock of Nutbush, Tennessee, later immortalized in their song, “Nutbush City Limits.” They honed their act on the famous “chitlin circuit” of black nightclubs, then were chosen by the Rolling Stones as the opening act on a 1969 tour. Ike and Tina’s rendition of “Proud Mary” began with a slow version of the song, then kicked into a soulful romp that turned Tina loose.

“We never do anything nice and easy” was the line that segued the two parts of the song, and the phrase came back to haunt Ike when Tina revealed his drug use and physical abuse in her 1986 autobiography, I, Tina. The book was made into a movie in 1991 titled What’s Love Got to Do With it?, and whatever chance a cleaned-up Ike had of reviving his career went down the tubes.

I saw Ike and Tina perform at the Stokely Athletic Center on the UT campus in Knoxville in the late sixties, some time after the above YouTube clip. I remember Ike standing stage left, a tall, brooding presence who ran a very tight band but let Tina have the spotlight.

Some say we should only consider the work of an artist, and not his or her life, but it’s hard to separate the two. Ike Turner was an incredibly talented musician who helped create rock ‘n roll, but the meanness within him that fame and fortuned unleashed became, in the end, the most famous thing about him. Ironically enough, Ike and Tina worked with Phil Spector, who produced their “Mountain High, Valley Low” hit and who was himself a chronic abuser of women.

Ike did find some redemption in his final album, Risin’ With the Blues, which won a Grammy in 2006 as the best traditional blues album. On it, his voice sounds shot–to me he sounds like Sleepy John Estes with teeth–but the passion is still there.

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