Los Angeles, 1983: EMI Records has ordered single artwork for “Let’s Stay Together.” Photo stylists and make-up artists hover around Tina Turner inside Norman Seeff’s studio. Minutes before the official session begins, Seeff focuses the camera lens on Tina, who wears a brown leather miniskirt with gold hoop earrings dangling between strands of gravity-defying hair. He furiously trips the shutter on his camera. Tina holds a small, round mirror at arms’ length, carefully eyeing the final blend of make-up. Afterwards, while reviewing the proofs, Seeff spies a particular image from that “pre-session” session. It is an image that captures a woman on the cusp of her greatest success as a solo artist after seven years of virtually being neglected by the music industry. It is an image depicting a 43 year old Tina Turner appearing completely confident and in control on one hand but also somewhat unsure about the road ahead. Of course, in retrospect, we know that the road is paved with gold....records, that is. “Let’s Stay Together” becomes a monumental club hit whose success crosses over to both the pop and R&B charts. An entire album is requested (cue opening keyboard riff to “Private Dancer”) and Tina becomes the “comeback queen of the 1980’s.” Not bad for a girl born Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee.
The transformation of Anna Mae into “Tina,” the years of physical abuse she suffered during her personal and professional relationship with Ike Turner, and her courageous decision to leave Ike in 1976 with a mere 36 cents, has been well-documented both in print and onscreen. Further, the body of music Tina created together with Ike deserves an examination in its own right because it reflects the multi-faceted permutation of rhythm and blues through the 1960’s and early 1970’s. A whole book could be penned about Ike and Tina’s progression from St. Louis soul (“A Fool in Love”) to their sizzling hybrid of funk and rock (“I Want to Take You Higher”). As one-half of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue though, a pair of key moments were pivotal towards effecting Tina’s emancipation. “River Deep- Mountain High” (1966) may have been credited to “Ike and Tina Turner,” but it’s unmistakably a Phil Spector production fronted solely by Tina’s voice. Nary a note did Ike play on this landmark recording, which, in essence, was Tina’s first solo effort. The next such opportunity arrived in the film version of The Who’s Tommy (1975) where Tina gave a critically-lauded performance as the “Acid Queen”. Capitalizing on the accolades Tina received for her screen debut, Ike produced an album for Tina entitled Acid Queen (1975), which featured a lackluster reworking of the title track. A year later, Tina left Ike for good to further prove her talent as a solo artist...and to save her life.
Marital problems notwithstanding, Tina eventually explained that she tired of singing “depressing” R&B for nearly two decades, especially because of the parallels between the songs’ content and her private life (“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “I Smell Trouble,” for example). Tina, in turn, refashioned herself with a style that had its roots in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, to be sure, but incorporated decidedly rock and roll ingredients, both musically and in her performative stance. No more Ike, no more Ikettes, no more cascading auburn hair swooping around, no more horn section or flourishes of funk; rather a muscular rock sound meant to usher Tina into the 1980’s. Witness a 1982 concert at Hammersmith Odeon: Tina glides out from stage left in a silver, “angel-winged” Bob Mackie ensemble through a pink cloud of dry ice to the axe-grind of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” She grabs the microphone stand and growls through the lyrics as her two back-up dancers (Annie Behringer and LeJeune Richardson) leap to her side. The three whip and whirl through a frenzy of angular choreography and the band segue into another Stones’ staple, “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll.” With a crop of short, tamed, blond-streaked hair, Tina asserted her right to rock.
Before selling out the Odeon, though, Tina endured a couple of missteps in establishing her solo career. In tandem with a lively, glittery Las Vegas show, Tina released two albums on United Artists – Rough (1978) and Love Explosion (1979). Each release attempted to transplant the fireworks engendered by Tina’s Vegas show onto record. Instead, both efforts were over-wrought with busy arrangements and Tina screeching above the cacophony. Fortuitously, Tina met Roger Davies while appearing on an Olivia Newton- John special in 1980. He became her manager later that year and those albums became but a footnote in Tina Turner’s discography.
Cementing her long-standing influence among British musicians, Heaven 17 members Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory invited Tina to collaborate on a special recording project under the duo’s B.E.F. (British Electronic Foundation) moniker. An album called Music of Quality and Distinction (1982) featured an eclectic group of artists singing some of Ware and Gregory’s favorite songs. Tina’s contribution to the album, a heavily synthesized cover of The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” generated enough interest that a video was filmed and even rotated on MTV. Its success catalyzed Ware and Gregory to produce another cover for Tina the following year, a song that eventually became associated with her just as much as its progenitor: Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” Marshalling the talents of other U. K.-based songwriters and producers in early 1984, Tina released what is considered by many to be her defining solo work – Private Dancer.
Boasting three Top 10 singles, Private Dancer (1984) was rightly heralded as Tina’s triumphant return to popular music. Remarkably, Tina was singing at McDonald’s corporate functions just as Private Dancer hit record store shelves in the autumn of 1984. However, because of a ubiquitous #1 single (“What’s Love Got to Do With It”) she soon stood before packed crowds in major concert halls across the continents. Between endless touring, appearances on talk shows, award shows, magazine covers, duets with David Bowie (“Tonight”) and Bryan Adams (“It’s Only Love”), a scenery-chewing role in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), not to mention a steady stream of hit singles on the radio, Tina saturated the public consciousness. In an industry that, historically, has marginalized women and confined artists of color to an inflexible set of genres, Tina’s success was all the more awe-inspiring.
I was five years old the year Private Dancer was released, with its alluring Brian Aris cover photo of Tina (barely) dressed in a long black shirt, legs encased with fishnet stockings. After discovering the breathy coo’s of Miss Ross and Donna Summer’s bell-clear belt, my young ears were captivated by Tina’s voice, a sound that I could only liken to, at that time, the gravel on our driveway. I realize now that the defining quality of Tina Turner’s singing voice is its texture, like an exquisite stone roughed around the edges but shimmering with iridescent light through the grain.
Of Tina’s latter-day solo LP’s, Private Dancer is a vital collection of songs that best reflect the strengths of her voice and how successfully she adapts to the direction of producers with markedly different styles. Listening to the album more than twenty years later, it’s impressive to hear the range of Tina’s voice and how well she molds it to suit the shade of a lyric. Take the anguished enunciation of “dance-ah” in the second chorus of “Private Dancer” versus the menacing, staccato-spat phrasing in “Steel Claw.” The plethora of awards and accolades bestowed upon Tina in 1984 and 1985 were more than warranted for her performances on Private Dancer.
Indeed, the seemingly overnight success of Private Dancer was a hard act to follow. Any album that Tina subsequently recorded has lived in the shadow of that breakthrough record. Its follow-up, Break Every Rule (1986), was unfairly tagged as a formulaic repeat. Though many of the same producers and songwriters appear, the songs themselves are sonically removed from its predecessor. The country rock twang of “Overnight Sensation” and “What You Get Is What You See” (never favorites of mine), the bombastic rock of “Back Where You Started,” the epic thrill of “Girls” and “I’ll Be Thunder,” and the pleasant pop of “Typical Male” and “Till the Right Man Comes Along” were all songs written for Tina for that particular moment. If anything, Break Every Rule was an expansion of Tina’s sound, not a repeat.
While critics may have dipped their pens in cynicism, fans flocked in droves to catch the Break Every Rule tour. Tina’s stop in Rio de Janeiro at Macarana Stadium broke a record, at the time, for the largest attendance gathered for a solo performer. 180,000 fans sang along to “What’s Love Got to Do With It” in Rio’s blistering heat. Tina simply observed, “It’s hot” and held an enraptured audience in the palm of her hand for more than two hours.
After a brief hiatus, Tina returned in 1989 with Foreign Affair, a satisfying set of sophisticated pop-R&B made all the more enjoyable by a gatefold sleeve featuring an iconic Herb Ritts photo of Tina dressed in a miniskirt, head tilted up, smiling with eyes closed and arms arched overhead. The music itself was a feast for the ears. Songwriter Tony Joe White contributed a few tunes that stand among the most enduring – and sensual – in Tina’ s catalog: “Steamy Windows,” “Foreign Affair,” and “Undercover Agent for the Blues.” “Look Me in the Heart” and “I Don’t Wanna Lose You” established Tina as an Adult Contemporary mainstay. Needing no introduction, “The Best” is the crowning anthem in Tina’s catalog.
A whole new generation of listeners discovered Tina Turner in the 1990’s. With the What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993) biopic starring Angela Bassett (who earned an Academy Award nomination for her stunning portrayal of Tina) and the accompanying soundtrack, Tina and her loyal band hit the road again and performed to sold-out crowds. The film’s theme, “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” soared to the summit of the Billboard Hot 100 charts in the summer of 1993. Hollywood beckoned again when Tina was selected to sing the title song for the James Bond film Goldeneye (1995). Written by Bono and The Edge in the tradition of Shirley Bassey’s legendary Bond themes, it features one of the most dramatic, evocative vocals Tina ever committed to disc. Dare not to be moved by its potency.
With a similar spirit of drama and adventure, Tina entered the studio to record her first full- length album of new material in seven years, Wildest Dreams (1996). The set was anchored by a musically-diverse group of contributors, including songs by Sheryl Crow, the Pet Shop Boys, Brenda Russell, Taylor Dayne and guest vocals from Sting, Barry White, and (on the U.K. release) Antonio Banderas. “On Silent Wings” and “Confidential” contained strident, emotionally-charged renderings by Tina and count among two of her finest performances. Wildest Dreams failed to make much of an impact in the U.S., however, its often dark and sensual timbre unable to find a home on radio with Jewel, The Wallflowers, and Hootie & the Blowfish dominating the airwaves. (Or perhaps radio didn’t know what to do with a 50+ year old black female singer?) The record-buying public was much more receptive to the very pop-oriented (and in ways, more pedestrian), Twenty-Four Seven (1999). VH-1 aired Tina’s 60th birthday concert to coincide with the album’s release and Tina embarked on her “last” worldwide concert tour.
What of Tina in the new millennium? After completing the Twenty-Four Seven tour, Tina further settled into Swiss country life with her partner, Erwin Bach. Aside from contributions to a few projects, including compelling recordings of “He Lives In You” for Disney’s The Lion King and “Easy As Life” for Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, Tina maintained a low profile for the first few years of the 00’s. Not until 2004 did Tina return with a new project – a two disc retrospective of her solo career entitled All the Best. The set debuted at #2 on the Billboard Top 200 and included three new songs tailor-made for her distinctive voice. “Open Arms” was essentially a by-the-numbers attempt at scoring a hit on the AC charts, “Complicated Disaster” was the requisite rock track, and the dreamy, atmospheric “Something Special” indicated the mellow direction that Tina stated she would like to take with future recordings. As of this writing, Tina is #1 on the Italian single charts with “Teach Me Again,” a duet with Italian songstress, Elisa, for the documentary All the Invisible Children.
Tina Turner’s longevity in the music industry has enabled audiences across generations to discover her at different times and in a variety of contexts. For me, she’s the world-weary, haystack-maned vixen in the “What’s Love Got to Do With It” video, for others she’s the gold fringed mini-skirted soul shouter on The Ed Sullivan Show rolling through “Proud Mary” with the Ikettes, and for others still, she’s the humble compatriot and best pal of no less a media phenomenon than Oprah Winfrey.
In her nearly fifty year career, however, one truth has remained constant and Tina herself sang it most poignantly on the biographical “I Might Have Been Queen”: I’m a soul survivor. Whether on reality television or as sung by Destiny’s Child, the hackneyed usage of “survivor” in popular culture has rendered its meaning futile. Tina Turner’s legacy, though, truly embodies the essence of survival and her ability to evolve as an artist without compromising her integrity. For the sheer singularity of that legacy, Tina is, quite simply, “the best.”
RECOMMENDED LISTENING (SOLO) Private Dancer (Capitol, 1984) Foreign Affair (Capitol, 1989) Wildest Dreams (Virgin, 1996) All the Best (Capitol, 2005)
RECOMMENDED VIEWING Nice ‘N Rough (1982) Rio ’88 (1988) Live From Barcelona: Do You Want Some Action (1990) Simply the Best: The Video Collection (1991) The Girl From Nutbush (documentary) (1993)
RECOMMENDED READING I TINA by Tina Turner, with Kurt Loder (Avon, 1987)