(May 30, 2023). Tina Turner’s story wouldn’t have been so triumphant if it hadn’t first been so tragic.
Her reign as rock royalty wouldn’t be so compelling if she hadn’t been hitless as a solo artist before the age of 44.
Nor would it have been so unfathomable if not for the series of unlikely European rock music heroes whose talents and combined efforts helped put Tina on an unprecedented path to success in the 1980s…one she never would have known had she not escaped a harrowing set of circumstances nearly a decade earlier.
As we all now know, Tina Turner—largely viewed as the Queen of Rock and Roll because, well, she earned that crown—died at her home in Switzerland last Wednesday, May 24. She was 83.
Tina’s unlikely ‘80s comeback was launched by her pairing with, of all people, synth-pop progenitors Greg Marsh and Martyn Ware—the latter a founder of the 1980s cutting-edge British group Heaven 17–for her mid-tempo remake of Al Green’s 1972 pop-soul classic “Let’s Stay Together.” Arguably no sharper left turn had been made in popular music collaborations up to that point.
Turner, a soulful, blues-slinging, rock music maven, hadn’t had a hit in years—in any country—while Heaven 17 were Britain’s synth-pop upstarts, and the furthest thing from anything Tina had previously done musically.
Turns out it was the right turn for Tina, who also enlisted the talents of other famous British rockers for songs from her now-legendary, ten-million-selling Private Dancer album: David Bowie for the sublime Orwellian tune “1984” (sadly never released as a single); Mark Knopfler (of the band Dire Straits) for the title track, Cy Curnin of the group The Fixx for “Better Be Good To Me”; and Britain’s Terry Britten and Scotland’s Graham Lyle for the song that would become her signature hit, “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”
What’s more, Tina’s bid for an American comeback (with an album she’d recorded in London) came during the height of MTV’s popularity in the same year that 20-something-year-olds like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper were emerging as future pop superstars (while pop’s preeminent Black female superstar—a 40-year-old Diana Ross—was about to be put out to pop music’s pasture following the success of her last big hit—and ironically titled album—that year, Swept Away).
So, what made Capitol Records—the label to which Tina was signed thanks to her friend David Bowie’s career-shifting advocacy—think that the soon-to-be 44-year-old “Proud Mary” singer—who hadn’t had a top-40 hit in eleven years—even stood a chance against that pop music backdrop?
Except Tina more than stood a chance.
She defied all odds when, first, her version of “Let’s Stay Together” made the top 40 and then a couple months later the softer, reggae-tinged “What’s Love Got To Do With It” followed suit before climbing all the way to No. 1.
Tina was the proverbial underdog we were all cheering for in 1984. The single sold a million copies and wound up ranked as the second-biggest hit of 1984 (behind only Prince’s “When Doves Cry”), according to Billboard. It helped propel the album Private Dancer to No. 3 on the weekly charts, shielded from the top only by the Purple Rain soundtrack and Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA LP.
Yet, didn’t it seem like some of the joy of “What’s Love” hitting No. 1 was sapped right out of us by the fact that Tina Turner herself didn’t like the song?
In interviews she referred to it as boring and “wimpy” (it wasn’t really, even if owed solely to the singer’s amazing vocal performance).
But none of that mattered (an artist’s opinion about the songs he or she records for a major record label rarely matters to the label, especially when that artist was in the position Tina was at the time of its release).
Besides, she may not have liked “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” but she certainly deserved what it did for her fledgling career, one where she had been relegated to has-been status before she even turned 35.
So we (those of us who were around then) enjoyed watching the song’s four-month climb to the top (from May to September 1984), while it hopscotched in the top ten over hits by far more successful and consistent hitmakers at the time like Rod Stewart, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, the Jacksons (that raucous duet between Michael and guest vocalist Mick Jagger of the Stones), and ultimately the title song from the biggest movie of the year, “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker, Jr., which it knocked out of No. 1.
Even the most daring of gamblers would have bet against the long odds of Tina Turner accomplishing that feat had they been given the chance.
It might have all seemed plausible had a woman above the age of 40 ever achieved a No. 1 hit single previously. As it turned out, only one female in that age demo had even hit the top ten: Dionne Warwick nearly two years earlier (“Heartbreaker,” No. 10 in 1983).
But it was made plausible by the fact that Turner and her merry band of British hitmakers managed to put together a collection of well-produced, contemporary sounding, yet maturely themed songs that didn’t compromise her age or her singing style.
Instead, they brought her inimitable vocals to the forefront, rarely allowing the music to have center stage, and thereby reminding us all what we had been missing the previous ten or more years.
But Tina’s comeback story was only just beginning.
The singles from Private Dancer kept coming; five would reach the top 40 here in America—three of them top-10 hits: “What’s Love,” “Better Be Good To Me” and the title track. She’d eventually win Grammy awards for her performances on “What’s Love” and “Better Be.”
In 1985 Turner would continue the momentum with an acting turn in the motion picture Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, where she starred as Auntie Entity, the ruler of the evil, post-apocalyptic town into which main character and action hero Max (Mel Gibson) unwittingly drifts. Turner also contributed two songs to the film, which would become big hits: “We Don’t Need Another Hero” and “One of the Living.”
The acting stint wouldn’t have been so believable if Turner, by then 45, hadn’t also starred as the drug peddling seductress “Acid Queen” in the 1975 fantasy drama Tommy, based on the 1969 rock opera by The Who.
When the two roles are added together, along with Turner’s melodramatic reading of the Orwellian David Bowie tune “1984” from Private Dancer, the Rock and Roll Queen’s versatility shouldn’t have surprised any of us.
It was in fact that versatility that led to her very first solo album, 1974’s Tina Turns The Country On!, where the “Nutbush City Limits” singer instantly gave us the answer to the following riddle: “What do you get when you take a rock and roll queen and make her sing country songs?
Answer: her first solo Grammy nomination—in the R&B category.
Her nod for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female that year for an album that was clearly targeting the country music audience (even if only by virtue of the twangy steel guitar used to accompany Turner’s all-too-soulful vocals) was further proof of the irony of Tina, one of the earliest indications that any attempts to confine the electrifying singer by lame genre categorizations would be futile.
Indeed, during the 1970s, Tina had tried everything from country music (the 1974 album included tracks written by Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton) to hard rock (the aforementioned Acid Queen, in which she covered songs by The Who, The Stones and Led Zeppelin), to soul and disco with her 1978 and ‘79 albums, Rough and Love Explosion, respectively.
It was reminiscent of that time during the 1960s when famed producer Phil Spector plucked Tina, temporarily at least, from Ike Turner’s ironclad blues-and-soul-music grip to create the then-dud, now-iconic “River Deep-Mountain High,” a wall-of-sound tour de force that should’ve been a much bigger hit in America than its No. 88 Billboard Hot 100 peak suggested.
Another irony? Ike later dismissed the low chart performance of “River Deep—Mountain High,” which was credited to both him and Tina although it was really a solo effort on her part, as being the result of the song being too Black for pop audiences and too pop for Black stations.
What a slap in the face it must have been when, five years later, a Diana Ross-less Supremes teamed up with the Four Tops and made a very Motown-sounding cover of “River Deep,” promptly taking it to the top 20 on both the pop and soul charts.
But I digress.
While all four of Tina’s solo albums from the 1970s were critically acclaimed, like “River Deep,” none of them achieved commercial success in the U.S. (they faired better in Europe, but not by much).
Two of those solo releases came while she was still married to Ike, the paternalistic, domineering husband to whom Tina had been inextricably linked…until finally she wasn’t anymore.
That part of her story is also well documented, about how she finally escaped Ike’s clutches in 1976–after nearly two decades of physical and mental abuse—with only 36 cents to her name and, well, that name—the one she had worked so hard to build in all those years with her husband, the one that was now rightfully hers.
From the time she left Ike in 1976 (and officially divorced him in 1978) until 1983, and as pop music went through a number of musical phases none of which included the bluesy, gritty, soulful rock sound that Tina had been known for, she did the proverbial legacy circuit: guesting on other stars’ TV variety shows and touring in Europe, all while failing to get a hit song here in America.
That’s what made her 1984 turnaround all the more remarkable. Five years had passed since her last album (which wasn’t even released in this country), and ten years had gone by since Tina Turner was a semi-regular chart fixture, at least in this country, before Private Dancer changed everything.
Fairytale ending to a rough beginning?
By now, everyone knows that Tina spent her last 28 years living a fairytale life in Switzerland with her happily-ever-after husband, German music producer Erwin Bach—the last ten of those years as a Swiss citizen.
That storybook ending, deemed improbable given Tina Turner’s humble beginnings as Anna Mae Bullock in the Jim Crow town of Brownsville, TN (with a predominantly Black population of 4,000 in 1939), would’ve seemed even more fairytale-like had it not been plagued by Tina’s multiple illnesses for much of the last decade. She was said to have battled a stroke, kidney failure and intestinal cancer all during the last several years of her life.
So it was even more ironic that, despite all of those maladies, Tina was said to have died of “natural causes,” implying that none of the aforementioned three illnesses are what ultimately took her out. It’s a sad irony exacerbated by the fact that she lived to see both her biological sons precede her in death.
But Tina was indeed Queen, living out the hypothetical existence she pondered on the first track from that Private Dancer LP, fresh off that five-year album hiatus and years removed from the abusive relationship that nearly doomed her for good.
The humblest of beginnings suggested this was not supposed to happen.
Before earning her crown, Tina had been the textbook case on what makes the American Black woman arguably the most marginalized demographic of all.
From birth, she had checked the boxes of being Black, female and poor, which presented the perfect trifecta of “-isms”—racism, sexism, and classism—that she’d have to overcome to earn even a fraction of the living that her natural talents so richly deserved (and her counterparts no doubt received with greater ease).
In her abusive first marriage and musical partnership—with Ike—she would add to those elements of oppression, not shedding them until she was well into her 30s, by which time another societal “-ism,” that of age, threatened to ruin any real chances or her getting a fair shot in an industry that notoriously purges its young before they become “too old.”
Is it any wonder then that Tina’s triumphant story of victory and vindication was such an inspiration to so many, regardless of race or gender.
Tina was indeed a comet, a once-in-a-lifetime superstar that rock and roll had to catch up to not once but twice: first in the 1980s during that amazing comeback, and again nearly 40 years later.
That was in 2021 when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally inducted her as a solo artist (after she had been previously recognized with Ike in 1991).
She is the first and only Black female to be inducted into the music industry’s most hallowed halls twice.
Tina’s double-induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame might have been less astounding had the second entry not been so late in coming—some 22 years after she was first eligible (her first eligibility was in 1999, 25 years after that first solo album, Tina Turns The Country On! in 1974).
Which presents perhaps the greatest of Tina Turner ironies, and the strongest indication yet that she wasn’t as appreciated here as she should’ve been…and which begs the following question:
Why would the Queen of any music genre have to wait more than two decades before voters decided she—on her own merits—was worthy of that genre’s Hall of Fame?
But that kind of rhetorical question was left for fans and critics like us to ponder.
None of that daunted Tina, whose life had gone from rags to riches, from recording even more hit records throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, notably big hits like “Typical Male,” “The Best” (her other signature hit), and “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” the latter from the 1993 biographical motion picture What’s Love Got To Do With It, to performing record-breaking tours until she was in her 70s.
Her story would be told in film, on stage, and in a TV documentary. Her life had become her own—finally—right up to her retirement in that Swiss villa where she’d spend her last years.
Yes, Tina was loved by millions of us here at home, but even a woman of her stature realized that this American love had parameters and boundaries. She instead felt she belonged to the world, a world where she had been loved and appreciated even more. She denounced her American citizenship accordingly.
She had manifested the not-so-uncommon mantra of a time-weary people: “if I could leave this place, I would.”
Tina could and she did…choosing to spend her final years in a land where she felt she was appreciated…with a man she knew loved and appreciated her.
And who could fault her for it?
R.I.P. Anna Mae Bullock, a/k/a Tina Turner (November 26, 1939 – May 24, 2023).
DJRob (he/him/his), who, upon hearing of Tina Turner’s death, received calls and texts from friends recalling the Queen of Rock and Roll’s impact on all of us, is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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