WHEN TINA TURNER walked out of her abusive marriage, it is said, she feared her career would end with it. You couldn’t fault her for thinking that. Turner, who died recently at the age of 83, was a respected name in the rock circuit by then but her entire career had been controlled by her then husband Ike Turner, with whom she had spent two decades singing in the band Kings of Rhythm (later renamed the Ike and Tina Turner Revue). Now, out on her own, her worst fears were coming true. Her solo career was going nowhere. Two back-to-back albums bombed. She was staying with friends, doing TV guest appearances to make some cash, and at one point, it is said, was surviving on food stamps.
But then came Private Dancer in 1984. Her most distinctive feature, that big, gravelly voice—which the music critic Kurt Loder once described as one that combined “the emotional force of the great blues singers with a sheer, wallpaper-peeling power that seemed made to order for the age of amplification”—was very much there. But it had acquired, it seemed, a certain sad timbre. When she sang her hit single ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’, the story of a woman with a broken heart who’s afraid to try again with love, “a second-hand emotion”, it seemed as though she was singing about herself. It struck an instant chord. The album became a phenomenon, selling over 10 million copies, turning the career of a middle-aged singer overnight into one of the industry’s biggest superstars. “I don’t consider it [the album] a comeback. Tina had never arrived,” she said in the 2021 documentary Tina.
It is this second break—her career as a solo artist—that most of us today remember her by. Her image also changed. Out went the old one of the shimmying rock ‘n’ roll star; in came the mullet-sporting, big-haired, leather-wearing pop icon. As she belted out one hit after another—from originals like ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’, ‘One of the Living’, ‘The Best’ and many more, to new versions of old songs like Marvin Gaye’s ‘It Takes Two’, in subsequent albums, films, and concerts—and combined her vocals with her explosive onstage energy and swagger, Turner went on to craft one of the most celebrated careers in music history.
Turner wasn’t always Turner. She was Anna Mae Bullock first, born to a farming family in Brownsville, Tennessee, and had spent her early life living with a grandmother, singing in the local church choir. It was when she moved to St Louis in Missouri as a teenager, to live with her mother, that Turner, who had become acquainted with Ike and his band, acquired her new name. She had caught Ike’s attention in a club where he played when one night during a break, she belted out BB King’s ‘You Know I Love You’, which Ike had incidentally produced. This was the late- 1950s. Not too long after, Turner was singing for the band, had in fact become its main attraction, and was married to Ike. Her vocals and electric performance were beginning to catch everyone’s attention, and the band was soon doing opening acts for performers like the Rolling Stones. Its biggest success came with its version of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song ‘Proud Mary’ in 1971, which won a Grammy. Privately, however, Turner was suffering. Ike was physically abusive and unfaithful, and their marriage would provide much of the material for the hit 1993 film What’s Love Got To Do With It.
Given her triumph over her personal struggles, it is easy to overlook Turner’s inventiveness as an artist. She was one of those rare musicians who crossed genre lines. At an age when many musicians get relegated to the oldies circuit, Turner remade herself and went on to dominate an industry that frequently marginalised the contributions of African-American women in the past.
She was a big influence on everyone around her. Mick Jagger has admitted to taking her as an inspiration for his high-wire acts on stage. Today when you look at the music landscape, you can see her impact everywhere, from Janet Jackson not too long back, to Rihanna and Beyonce now. She will, no doubt, continue to inspire many more.