Ike Turner: Rock'n'roll pioneer better known for his violent partnership with Tina

Ike Wister Turner, guitarist, bandleader, singer, songwriter and producer: born Clarksdale, Mississipi 5 November 1931; married; died San Marcos, California 12 December 2007

Friday 14 December 2007 01:00

The guitarist, singer, songwriter and bandleader Ike Turner was in at the birth of rock'n'roll with the 1951 hit "Rocket 88". In the 1960s he made the transition from the R&B charts to worldwide concert attraction with his partner Tina Turner.

Recorded at Sam Phillips's Sun Studio in Memphis, and issued on Chess Records, "Rocket 88" topped the R&B charts in the summer of 1951 and sold half a million copies in the United States. It was credited to Jackie Brenston (the saxophone player who sang lead and inspired the lyrics) with the Delta Cats, rather than the Kings of Rhythm, the name Turner's group was using at the time. Driven by Ike Turner's infectious piano and distorted guitar, the track influenced the likes of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and is acknowledged as the first rock'n'roll record.

Turner worked as a session guitarist and talent scout while playing the chitlin' circuit with the Kings of Rhythm. In 1956, he met Anna Mae Bullock and renamed her Tina Turner. With the addition of the Ikettes, a trio of sexy, slinky female backing vocalists, the Ike and Tina Turner Revue developed a formidable reputation for its blend of rock and soul, and opened for the Rolling Stones on a UK tour in 1966 and in the US in 1969.

But the success of singles like "River Deep Mountain High" (1966) produced by Phil Spector and "Nutbush City Limits" (1973) was eventually overshadowed by the guitarist's increasingly abusive and violent behaviour towards his partner. Tina Turner walked out on him in 1976, with 35 cents in her pocket, rebuilt her career and became a solo superstar in the 1980s and 1990s. Her autobiography I, Tina: my life story (1986) was turned into the biopic What's Love Got To Do With It? in 1993, with Angela Bassett portraying the singer and Laurence Fishburne recreating Ike Turner's menacing persona.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the bandleader refused to admit how cruel he had been to her. In his 2001 autobiography, Taking Back My Name, he bizarrely wrote: "Sure, I've slapped Tina. There have been times when I punched her to the ground without thinking. But I never beat her."

Turner's reputation suffered and he sank further into drugs, spending millions on cocaine. "I didn't feel I could go on without Tina so I went on a 15-year party," he admitted. Indeed, he was in prison at the time of their induction into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. However, he did enjoy a resurgence and re-established himself on the live circuit, appearing at jazz and blues festivals around the world with a group he still called the Kings of Rhythm. Earlier this year, he won a Grammy in the traditional blues album category with Risin' With The Blues.

Ike Wister Turner was born in 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the son of a Baptist minister who died a long, lingering death after being beaten by a white man whose wife he had been having an affair with. Ike's mother Beatrice, a seamstress, and his older sister Lee Ethel doted on the young Ike. His mother even scraped enough money together to buy him a piano after he heard the boogie-woogie pianist "Pinetop" Perkins play at a friend's house. Rather than practise scales, Turner got Perkins to teach him the instrument.

As an eight year old, he hung around WROX, the local radio station in Clarksdale, while working as an elevator boy in the building. Growing up in that part of Mississippi, Turner became steeped in the blues of local and visiting musicians including Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Little Walter. By the late 1940s, he was leading the Kings of Rhythm. "We played juke joints," he recalled.

We'd start playing at 8pm and wouldn't get off till 8am. No intermission, no breaks. If you had to go to the restroom, well, that's how I learned to play drums and guitar! When one had to go, someone had to take his place.

After meeting and jamming with B.B. King, Turner and his group travelled to Memphis where they recorded "Rocket 88". "The song was Jackie Brenston's idea. He was always talking stupid stuff like that," said Turner. "I don't think that "Rocket 88" is rock'n'roll," he later insisted. "It's boogie-woogie with an up feeling. It was the cause of rock'n'roll being started, because they played 'Rocket 88' on the white stations."

Back in 1951, the musicians received $20 apiece for their work while Brenston, credited as sole composer, sold all rights to Sam Phillips for the grand sum of $910, and went solo, taking several members of the group with him. Undeterred, Turner played on sessions for B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf and worked as a talent scout for Modern Records before taking his Kings of Rhythm to East St Louis, Missouri.

One night in 1956 at the Club Manhattan, Anna Mae Bullock grabbed the microphone her sister Alline had refused to sing into and began wailing "You Know I Love You" by B.B. King. Turner's ears perked up and he asked her to join the band. At first, she took up with the sax player Raymond Hill and had a child by him but, by 1958, she and Ike were an item. Her recording dbut came on a track called "Box Top".

In 1960, she graduated to lead vocalist when Art Lassiter didn't show up at a session to record "A Fool in Love". Ike Turner shopped the tape around and secured a deal with Sue, the New York label run by Henry "Juggy" Murray, who suggested making Anna the star attraction and giving her appropriate billing. Thinking back to the jungle screen goddesses of his childhood, Ike came up with the name Tina and his protge's transformation was complete.

"A Fool in Love" crossed over from the R&B to the pop charts in the US, as did "I Idolize You" and "It's Gonna Work Out Fine" in 1961, but, after leaving Sue the following year, the duo struggled to match their growing popularity as a live act with one-off releases on a succession of labels.

Spector's involvement and his Wall of Sound production propelled "River Deep Mountain High" to No 3 in the UK in 1966, though it barely registered on the US charts. Ike and Tina Turner only became steady sellers when they concentrated on covers of The Beatles' "Come Together", Sly & The Family Stone's "I Want To Take You Higher" in 1970 and, most famously, Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary" in 1971, the year the double album Live at Carnegie Hall/What You Hear Is What You Get went gold in the US.

The stomping "Nutbush City Limits", a rare Tina Turner composition, charted on both sides of the Atlantic in 1973, but after the release of "Baby Get It On" in 1975, Ike's increasingly erratic, cocaine-fuelled behaviour towards his partner led her to finally leave after years of abuse. At his most crazed, in the 1970s, Turner used to carry a gun all the time, and kept one in the UK too, just in case a drug deal went wrong.

He went to jail for possession and transportation of cocaine in 1989. When he came out three years later, he was seen as the ultimate bad guy. "You know, you've got to have somebody squeaky clean and somebody squeaky dirty, so they made it dirty for me," he claimed.

In 1993 the rap group Salt-N-Pepa sampled one of Turner's songs, "I'm Blue (the Gong Gong Song)", on their hit "Shoop". He further exploited his infamy, duetting with Rick James, on a salacious track, "Love Gravy", in an episode of the TV series South Park.

After writing Taking Back My Name (1999), Turner seemed to have put the woman-beating, drug-crazed days behind him, but the braggadocio was still there in interviews. "You can go ask Snoop Dogg or Eminem," he said, "you can ask the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton, you can ask anybody, they all know my contribution to music."

In 2005 he played piano on the Gorillaz album Demon Days. "People think I'm this mean guy and that I don't talk to people," he said last year. "That's not true. Music is my life and I love people. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't do anything any different. Except maybe for all the girlfriends."

Turner said he couldn't remember how many times he'd been married, and also claimed that he and Tina had never legally wed. "It wasn't really no marriage. We went down to Mexico, down to Tijuana. This guy came up to us. He had a camera and he said, 'You wanna get married?' We said sure, so he 'married' us, if you call that getting married. Hell, I was still married to some other woman."

Pierre Perrone

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