When I was a teenager listening to rock ‘n roll in the 1960s, I followed all the artists one would expect of a white, southern boy being introduced to things beyond his imagining. No artist from that period — and I mean NO ARTIST — came close to taking me into new worlds where I came out “all shook up” more than Tina Turner, who passed away on Wednesday at age 83.
Turner, as described by New York Times music critic Ben Sisaro in his article on her 11 Essential Songs,
…started off as an R&B shouter and inexhaustible dancer who, alongside her husband Ike, put on the most exhilarating live show this side of James Brown. Then she was a rock heroine who toured with the Rolling Stones and served as the Who’s Acid Queen. And finally she became the ultimate survivor — the abused woman who left her man in the dust and, without apologies, claimed a crown all her own.
For me, nothing says Tina Turner better than her amazing remake of the Creedence Clearwater Revival hit Proud Mary. In the original with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, you get to see not only Tina but the Ikettes (formidable singers/dancers in their own right); the abusive and controlling Ike, who arranged their material; and that amazing horn section. As one commentator noted, it was akin to having the whole Stax-Volt Revue in one band.
And then, this live version — at the amazing age of 69 (a year older than I am now!) — from the Netherlands. Oh. My. God.
As you might expect, the cartoonists have had a field day saluting the Queen.
But seriously, I can’t do Tina justice. However, I can point to a writer who probably captures her impact as well as anyone. Even though she came to know Turner’s music after I had left rock behind, MSNBC nightly news host Joy-Ann Reid wrote about the impact of the 1960s Tina, and how Tina Turner taught Black women like me to be fearless.
“When I was a little girl, I had a rag doll … the only doll I’ve ever owned…”
That line, from the song “River Deep — Mountain High,” is how I came to love Tina Turner. But it was my mom who was obsessed with her. In the 1980s, Tina was a megastar — churning out pop-rock hits that had Miss Philomena (my music-loving single mom) dancing across our kitchen floor and cranking it up in the car. But it was ‘60s Tina Turner that captivated me, in old videos from before I was even born that played on an eclectic local music video show that aired on Saturdays in Denver, where I grew up.
“River Deep” was not a hit in 1966. The music industry didn’t get the Phil Spector-produced song (written by Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich for the Ike and Tina Turner ensemble. Nor did it get her once she separated from Ike, her abusive husband and musical Svengali, and sought to enter the world of “white” rock ‘n’ roll (which of course, was merely a permutation of Black rock and blues.)
Still, I was fascinated by the Tina Turner who existed in black and white video, scampering across the stage in short skirts, with her voluminous hair and long legs dangling, and some wild combination of rock and R&B belting out of her scratchy throat. I thought she was one of the most beautiful women alive. And she stayed that way, right through her 70s and 80s when she appeared in color — with that lineless skin and spiky hair that got bigger and wilder with time. Tina was, in every way, an icon. …
In the 2021 documentary “Tina,” we learned even more: about the pain of abandonment she suffered as a child, and the seemingly unsurvivable abuse not just from Ike, but from a music industry that found her, at various times, to be too Black, too white, too rock ‘n’ roll, too sexy for her age, and too ambitious for a woman. And we learned of Tina the mom, who struggled to balance the responsibilities of being a working, traveling musician and nurturing children when so few had bothered to emotionally nourish her.
Yet this is the diva who taught Mick Jagger how to move; David Bowie how to do rhythm and blues, and the industry how to respect an artist who could throw on a miniskirt in her 50s and 60s, sing her heart out or act her behind off, and be whoever the hell she wanted to be, unapologetically.
For all of those reasons, Tina shone. She showed Black women — really, all women — what we can be when we stop being afraid. And my mom was right. She was pretty damn cool.
Simply put, there was nobody like Tina Turner.
Rest in peace.
More to come…
Photo from Tina Turner online