Rebirth of the Cool

The man who has became a synonym — Ike Turner = Wife Beater — is practiced in the art of answering certain interview queries without really answering them. Vilified in Tina Turner's autobiography, I, Tina, then hammered even worse in the 1993 biopic What's Love Got to Do with It, Turner knows his stormy past is question No. 1 on everyone's mind. But you'll get no introspective confessionals from Ike, no mea culpas. Neither will you get defiance or curt "no comments" either. Instead, Ike ladles on the finesse and charm as he gregariously ... talks around that shit. It's hard not to like Ike. He serves up platitudes about being a new man — saying he's been drug-free for a dozen years — he gives glory to God, portrays no hint of bitterness toward Tina. It only gets as revealing as this: "Even if I did do all that shit, I wouldn't owe you an apology," he says, matter-of-factly. "I would owe it to Tina. I didn't hurt anybody but her."

Discussion closed.

Can you blame the guy? Ike Turner, at 70, is trying damn hard to move on. He has resuscitated his career in the last year, dusting off the music in which he was a pivotal player a half-century ago: straight-up blues, R&B and nascent rock 'n' roll. He was the main man behind the 1951 hit "Rocket 88," hailed in some corners as the very first rock 'n' roll record. Little Richard was listening and took up piano. Bill Haley was seduced as well, a few years before "Rock Around the Clock."

These days, Turner is back slinging an electric guitar and playing an absolutely mean boogie piano. And he's taken on a new role: frontman. Decade after decade, he was the organizer, the talent scout, the songwriter, the orchestrator, the bandleader. Now, reborn as a bluesman, Turner's confronting the glare of the spotlight head on.

It hasn't been easy. "All my life I was afraid to come out front," he says. "I don't know whether it was afraid or bashful. I liked it better in the background."

At first, Ike wasn't buying the whole back-to-basics bit. People were tugging on his coat about it, trying to get him back in the game, but he thought it'd just be a major leap backward. Then bluesman Joe Louis Walker came knocking. ""Ike, I'll pay you 5,000 a night and you don't have to do but six songs,'" Turner recounts him saying. "Well that money sounded pretty good."

Cilla Huggins, editor of Juke Blues magazine, offered further encouragement. Rob Johnson, owner of Bottled Majic Music, stepped up with a record deal.

Turner knew that in order to reinvent himself as a roots artist, he'd no longer have the luxury of reticence. He'd have to put his bad, bad self on full display. It started at last year's South by Southwest music confab. "I was so scared, if you looked close you coulda seen water runnin' down my pant leg," he says with a hearty guffaw.

The crowd ate him up. Nowadays, the shows are fun for him. "Before, I didn't have the guts to play an original song on stage unless it was a hit," he says. "Now I've go the nerve to go on stage and play everything that comes outta my head."

A fair amount of Turner's repertoire comes from his 2001 CD, Here and Now, which combines new original songs and old classics like "Catfish Blues," blends instrumentals and vocal tracks that showcase Ike's lusty shout. While his string-strangling guitar work has plenty of juice, it's Turner's wizardry on piano that's the true revelation — the effervescent instrumental "Baby's Got It" runs through a veritable history of blues/boogie ivory ticklin'.

Here and Now bagged a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album and four W.C. Handy nods — including Comeback Blues Album of the Year — which will be awarded in May.

At first, I couldn't even play my (old) styles," he says. "I got what I wanted but I lost what I had. I woodshedded hard, and the more I started hearing it, I began to love it again. My new record is definitely from my gut."

He was born in 1931 in the epicenter of the blues, Clarksdale, Miss. Fresh out of high school, Ike formed a band called the Kings of Rhythm, who in '51 sojourned north to Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in Memphis. There they cut Turner's raw romp "Rocket 88." Phillips didn't care much for Ike's vocals, so he put saxophonist Jackie Brenston on the microphone (and credited him on the record label). But Ike was the architect. Turner says of Phillips, who three years later discovered Elvis Presley: "Back in them days, he was just a white guy that was all right with black folks. I did most of the producing. There was another guy, Dewey Phillips, who had a radio show. He had all the white listeners, the teenagers. He and Sam were good buddies, and this guy had the nerve to put "Rocket 88,' which was race music in those days, on his show. Boy, wow, the white kids and the black kids went crazy."

"Rocket 88" reached No. 1 on the R&B charts. It wasn't until years later that pundits began hailing it as the first ever rock record. Asked to explain why the revved-up boogie song would earn such a distinction, Turner replies, "I can't. To me, it was like R&B. I wasn't thinkin' about no rock 'n' roll. It did have a moving bass pattern that was kinda different at the time. But I don't really know why they say that. It doesn't really matter to me."

Like Little Richard, Bo Diddley et. al, Turner was the victim of early rock 'n' roll economics. "You how much money we made on that song, to this day?" he says, more bemused than bitter. "Twenty two dollar apiece."

There was more dough on the business end, so Turner became the Deep South talent scout and field producer for L.A.'s Modern Records. During his tenure, he produced and played on records by such early electric blues titans as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Elmore James. In 1956, he moved to St. Louis and reformed the Rhythm Kings as a lean-and-mean soul revue. It was there, in '58, that he met a young country gal named Anna Mae Bullock, whom he christened Tina Turner and molded into one of the true wild women of rock. The Ike and Tina Revue was regarded for years as among the most incendiary stage acts in popular music. Ike masterminded it all: the songs, the musicians, the arrangements. And he often did so with a heavy hand.

Ike and Tina toured the world with The Rolling Stones and other mega-rock acts; charted six Top 40 hits — including "Proud Mary," which ascended to No. 4 in 1971 — and scads more on the R&B charts.

The act split acrimoniously in the mid '70s and Ike went through what he calls his "rejection period." Cocaine-addled and broke, he was approached by Disney with a deal: "They offered me $40,000 to sign a contract that if they did a movie on Tina that I wouldn't sue them if someone played me in the movie. Well, 40 grand, and doin' dope in them days, it sounded good to me. I didn't realize I had given them permission to portray me in any way they wanted."

Turner was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. He couldn't attend because he was doing two years at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo for drug trafficking. It wasn't until his release that he came to understand the license he'd given Disney to wreck his image.

Nowadays, Turner looks at his ongoing ignominy with a little glint in his eye. "I ain't nothin' like how they showed me in the movie," he says. "But it's kinda workin' against them now."

Here he pauses, chuckles and again adopts a secretive tone. "When they show the movie somewhere I'm playin', the young white kids and black kids are like, "Who is this dude?'" Ike lets out a mischievous laugh. "It ain't like when the movie first come out. It's like "Oh, man, I got to go out and see him."

Contact Associate Editor Eric Snider at 813-248-8888, ext. 114, or [email protected]

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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