The last time I saw Ike Turner he had just turned 70, but he looked great, played piano and guitar with phenomenal power, and took his listeners from Delta blues through classic R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and the golden age of soul.
Turner not only knew all of that music first-hand, he helped invent a lot of it. He grew up in the Mississippi Delta and got his first hit in 1951, when at age 19 he brought his Kings of Rhythm to Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service (soon to become Sun Records) and cut “Rocket 88.” A rollicking blues driven by his jet-propelled piano, it had a fresh, new rhythm and energy and today is widely considered the first rock ‘n’ roll record.
Meanwhile, Turner was learning his trade, scouting talent for Phillips and playing on the early recordings of blues legends, including Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby Blue Bland and B.B. King, who would later call him “the best bandleader I’ve ever seen.”
In 1956, Turner moved to St. Louis, and in 1960 he had his next breakthrough, writing, arranging and playing on one of the defining masterpieces of early soul. “A Fool In Love” featured a young woman named Anna Mae Bullock, whom he renamed Tina, and the combination of her fiery lead vocal and his churning, gospel-inflected backing chart helped form the template for an era.
The pop world remembers Ike and Tina Turner best for their transcendent fusion of mainstream rock songwriting and Southern soul on hits such as “Come Together” and “Proud Mary.”
But they made their defining mark in 1961-62, when they topped the R&B charts and crossed over to a young white audience with the raw gospel-blues of “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” and “I’m Blue (The Gong-Gong Song)” and other tracks. Between those discs, Ike also made one of the great twangy guitar instrumentals, “Prancing,” but the vocal discs were so hot that this almost counts as an afterthought.
Given that history, it is disturbing that most of Turner’s early obituaries are giving as much space to his abuse of Tina as to his and their music. Just as Turner, Chuck Berry and James Brown all went to prison for crimes for which comparable white stars have been punished with slaps on the wrist, it is hard to imagine an equally important white musician receiving similar deathbed testimonials.
Most modern pop fans probably wouldn’t know Ike’s name if he hadn’t discovered, developed and showcased Tina, so his treatment of her is necessarily part of his story. But by the same token, the reason we care so much about that treatment is that Tina is a superstar — that is, in a world where other abusive male stars treated women as groupies and playthings, Ike also had the vision to recognize and musically nurture one of rock’s few true female icons.
And more than 30 years after Tina went on to a solo career, he was still working the clubs and playing some of the finest music around. Whatever Ike Turner’s sins, music was always at the center of his life, and when all the rest is forgotten, that will remain.
ELIJAH WALD is a musician and writer whose books include Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.
This column originally appeared in the LA Times.