Simply The Best: Remembering Tina Turner
Looking back on the career of the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll
I was having dinner in Boston’s Four Seasons with Tina Turner and her Capitol Records friends in 1989 and, while the basic idea was to promote her upcoming album, she told me she was ready to leave the road behind.
“If this album is not really successful,” she said, “I’m not going back out there. People think because you’re dynamic, you want to stay on stage forever. Maybe some people do; maybe that’s what they love. What I truly love is acting. I prefer that to the stage [but] this is the best music I’ve ever put out in my life. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have promoted it this way.”
“I’m not saying I don’t want [to play concerts],” she added, “but I would like to be on my way out. This is a transition. I want to go from my work performing to acting. I want to continue to record and promote my work, but instead of traveling and touring live, I want to do my music and go on to the screen. I want to just do it from the screen.”
Most notably, Turner played the wild Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s Tommy and the wicked, chain-mail clothed Aunty Entity in George Miller’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. She also sang my favorite Tina solo song, the movie’s theme, “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome).” It was about trying to escape the dystopia of a post-nuclear world, but also a big booming DIY anthem if there ever was one, replete with backing vocals from a London choral group. You don’t need another hero; be your own hero. It hit No. 2 on the Billboard’s U.S. singles chart.
VIDEO: Tina Turner “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)”
“So, it’s a challenge,” Turner said, about where she might want to venture next. “I would like to go on to the next stage.”
Well, the album was Foreign Affair – an album that sold six million copies worldwide and gave us “The Best,” a song you’ve probably been hearing a lot today – and Turner was back on the road the following year on what she called optimistically called The Farewell Tour.
But no – like David Bowie, The Who and Elton John before her – that farewell was not permanent. In 1993, rock ‘n’ roll’s most dynamic female singer was back with the What’s Love? Tour and she didn’t ultimately give it up until the 2008-2009 Tina! The 50th Anniversary Tour.
Turner, finally, was done with the road. I’m not sure what the cliché about “resting on laurels” means in the real world, but Turner had them to rest upon should she choose. In 1991, she was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with her abusive ex, Ike, the bandleader who bestowed with that name, and inducted again as a solo artist in 2021. She was named the seventeenth best rock singer of all time by Rolling Stone in 2010.
In 2018, she published a second memoir, Tina Turner: My Love Story. There was the theatrical production she was highly involved in, the jukebox musical Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, which played in London’s West End and on Broadway.
She was retired and living with her husband of many years Erwin Bach, near Lake Zurich, Switzerland. I was about to say living a “life of ease,” but I don’t think that was it. She certainly had – had earned – her creature comforts. But she’d had a stroke and a kidney transplant, supplied by Bach, whom she’d married in 2013 after more than two decades together. She’d had a stroke, had battled intestinal cancer.
She participated in a terrific 2021 HBO documentary, Tina, by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, but the Emmy-nominated film was the last time any of us saw her in public.
News of her death May 24th was shocking in a way, but then again, not. Shocking as in the all-too-familiar blow we baby boomers on the outside react when a favorite artist, ever youthful in our minds, dies. No! It’s never-ending, but every time we’re taken aback. But not shocking in that, we knew she was in ill health for some time, albeit out of public view. No particular case of death was given, just that ubiquitous “long illness” thing.
Turner, born Anna Mae Bullock and had a tough early life – it’s been well-documented, all coming to light with I, Tina: My Life Story in 1986, co-written with Kurt Loder. And then again in the 1993 movie, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, starring Angela Bassett as Turner.
When I first saw her live in 1981, I can assure you there was no one betting that at 42 Turner would ascend the pop ladder one more time. She’d been on the casino circuit – y’know, showbiz glitz – and was now on a comeback tour of the rock clubs. Comeback tours by older rock stars could often discomforting events. You approach them with trepidation. You hope they don’t turn out to be parodies of their earlier selves.
But here she was, at a venue that not long before had hosted the Buzzcocks and the Slits. And when she growled, “Are you ready for me? I’m ready for you,” near the beginning of her set, she meant it. It was hot stuff all the way. Sultry, sexy and commanding in a fringed silver mini-dress, Turner demanded reaction and, by the end of the evening, she had it. Everyone was in her clutches. Turner laced her songs with sly innuendo; she talked in breathy rasps; if she didn’t melt hearts, she fired libidos. As my friend and photographer Susan Wilson put it: “Multi-orgasmic.”
Turner, of course, reportedly taught the Stones’ Mick Jagger how to dance; the Stones turned the Turners onto a mass audience on their 1969 tour. The interplay continued. The Stones had the post-Ike Tina open several dates on their 1981 and at the Boston club she played four Stones songs — “Out of Time,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” She was not just repaying a debt. Backed by a muscular, yet subtle, five-piece band she made the songs fresh, bringing to them sassy sensuality.
Turner was, at that point, a covers girl — and she was primarily a traditionalist, not a progressive. Aside from the Stones she embraced superstar warhorses — the Beatles (“Help!’,” “Get Back”), Rod Stewart (“Tonight’s The Night”), Bob Seger (“Hollywood Nights”) and the Who (“The Acid Queen”). Her version of Sly Stone’s “I Wanna Take You Higher” was incendiary. Turner still burned. She took those covers and makes them her own — no one else could be the seducing Acid Queen.
Eight years later, Turner was back in Boston. It was a near-final stop on a whirlwind promo tour a month before Foreign Affair came out, a disc that encompassed both commercial, hook-laden pop-rock and more R&B-driven roots.
“I’ve got something here even I enjoy!” is the way Turner put it, and, thus, she wanted to chat it up across the land, to meet with music retailers, radio executives and, well, people like me in the news media.
VIDEO: Tina Turner “The Best”
So, we supped at the Four Seasons. One day recently, this radiant, slim 49-year-old singer and longtime sex symbol told me, she looked in a mirror and felt… ugly.
“I started to get this rash on the lower part of my face,” she said, candid as can be, tracing with her hand the path of the rash along the side of her left cheekbone. “I became a homeopathic about 10 years ago. I cleanse my body and don’t put aspirin or medicine in, so I don’t really have many blemishes. That’s why this little fungus was standing out. It was really awful, all white. It was really ugly and you could really see it when I’d add powder.”
Turner had just started the promotional tour and, given the nature of these things, had been drinking champagne. She ascertained champagne might be the cause of the breakout and cut out the bubbly. The rash cleared up. Alas, after taking only one small champagne sip Wednesday, Turner sighs, “The rash was gone, but so was my champagne. Oh, poo! Now, I’ve got to find another drink.”
Obviously, Turner was a woman at home with herself, and her self-image on the road. Dressed in a stylish, but demure, beige pantsuit — “People expect me to walk in with leather in my funky image, but this is how I basically dress when I’m not on stage” — Turner came across as the most personable and approachable of major stars.
Me, I did what I thought was the right thing by not digging into the Ike & Tina dirt; it had been done before, copiously. And Tina Turner was much more into the present and future than the past.
And why not?
Turner attributed her astounding comeback — from domestic abuse, an attempted suicide, no record contract and deep debt — to Buddhism, a positive mental attitude, and a professional link with Australian manager Roger Davies. She has been a Buddhist for 13 years — starting two years before she fled Ike — and she had been managed by Davies for eight. She won four Grammys in 1985, including Record of the Year for “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Her Private Dancer album sold more than 11 million copies worldwide.
I asked her about that Tina Turner I’d seen in 1981.
“I had a great show,” she said, “and I was pleased at that stage of my life. But I’d forgotten about the rock world. Then, I realized that in order to be more successful — that came with touring with the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart — I decided if you’re going to be in this business this long, you need to make a mark and I decided I’d like to fill a stadium and would love to have a hit record. Then, you take actions.”
Buddhism, said Turner, was the key. “Self-confidence,” she says, of its prime benefit. “The practice promises change; you’re able to manifest what you want in your life. You need a tool to help you make decisions. It’s thinking from within. It’s also rhythm and sound, which is connected with the universe. Saying the words — with the same tone, sound and rhythm — that is the connection to the universe; that helps you get what you want.
“I’m a changed person in the sense that I’m more calm, I’m less frustrated, I’m more in control. I have become happier, and that’s something that’s very hard to accomplish in a lifetime for some people. In 13 years, I’ve gotten my career back and am an independent woman.”
VIDEO: Ike & Tina Turner Revue performs “Proud Mary” on The Ed Sullivan Show
I’ll leave it here. I remember, as a kid, in 1969, hearing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” blaring out of my folks’ car radio on my local AM rock station. Liked it lots.
Then, two years later came Ike & Tina’s version with that famous spoken-word intro from Tina: “You know, every now and then I think you might like to hear something from us nice and easy. But there’s just one thing. You see, we never, ever do nothing nice and easy. We always do it nice and rough. So, we’re gonna take the beginning of this song and do it easy. Then we’re gonna do the finish rough. This is the way we do ‘Proud Mary.’”
About four years ago I was on the phone with the songwriter, John Fogerty. I couldn’t help myself: “I have to ask: Do you love Ike & Tina’s version, too?”
“Absolutely,” Fogerty said. “I first heard it in the car. I believe it was in the wintertime and it was probably supper time and I just thought it was the coolest thing and I still do. It was a wonderful divergence from the original.”
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