As she approaches 81, Jim Sullivan reflects on an enlightening 1989 interview with the Soul Queen of Rock & Roll
Tina Turner turns 81 this Thanksgiving.
Happily retired in 2009, shes living her best life with husband Erwin Bach in Switzerland near Lake Zurich. Asked last year by the New York Times about any return to performance, Turner said, no: “I was just tired of singing and making everybody happy. That’s all I’d ever done in my life.”
She did have this theatrical production Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, that played in London and was going to Broadway until, well, you know.
Back in the summer of 1989, I was having dinner at Boston’s Four Seasons with Turner and some people from her record label, Capitol. Quite obviously, she was a woman at home with herself, and her self-image. 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 comes across as the most personable and approachable of major stars.
Buddhism, says Turner, was the key. “Self-confidence,” she said, 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.”
Turner was on a near-final stop on a whirlwind, 10-city tour to promote her Foreign Affair album, due the following month. I had an advance copy and I liked it a lot: It had 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 why she wanted to chat it, meet with music retailers, radio executives and some of us rock scribes.
Even then, though, the woman who taught Mick Jagger his moves, was weighing retirement. “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.
“I’ve been singing and dancing all my life, but I haven’t been acting all my life. If I could have started out as an actress, I would have. But there were no parts for women, especially black women. I had to develop something.
“I’m not saying I don’t want [music], 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 Aunty Entity in George Miller’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. “So, it’s a challenge,” she says. “I would like to go on to the next stage.”
Well, Foreign Affair was a hit and Turner toured from April to November, 1990. Though it was dubbed her “farewell tour,” well, David Bowie, Elton John and The Who could tell you all about those. Turner’s actual final tour was her 50th Anniversary affair in 2008-2009.
But in 1989, Turner had been dining with music biz folk on this jaunt and, given the nature of these things, she had been drinking champagne. And she broke out in rashes. 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 at our dinner Turner sighed, “The rash was gone, but so was my champagne. Oh, poo! Now, I’ve got to find another drink.”
“She’s different every night,” said Capitol Records vice president of sales Lou Mann, who has accompanied her throughout this tour. “She doesn’t come and do the robotic thing.” Only one bad night, said Mann. An interviewer tried to pry into the past, digging for dirt on the strife-filled Ike & Tina Turner days. Tina, much more into the present and future than the past, hit the roof.
And why not?
Her fallout from former mentor/collaborator/husband Ike was well-documented in I, Tina, the autobiography she cowrote with Kurt Loder. Turner attributes her astounding comeback — from domestic abuse, an attempted suicide, no record contract and deep debt — to the aforementioned Buddhism, a positive mental attitude, and a professional link with Australian manager Roger Davies. 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.
This was a far cry from the early ’80s, when the contract-less singer was on the club/small theater circuit, an oldie before her time. Still, even then, the sets sparkled; in Boston in 1981, she tore through two Beatles’ songs, four Stones’ songs (including the could-be-but-wasn’t ironic “Out of Time”), Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night,” and Ike & Tina’s “Proud Mary” and “Nutbush City Limits.” She was no has-been.
“I had a great show,” she says, “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.”
VIDEO: Tina Turner Live in Prague 1981
She credited manager Davies, saying, “He was young, needing to organize his life, needing financial security and he knew more than I did. He had more contacts in terms of the business. If you split it down the table, I’m the performer-singer and Roger is the contacts. And then we come together and make decisions on the whole thing.” Davies had a keen ear for commercial pop and solicited top songwriters (Holly Knight, Albert Hammond, Mike Chapman, Graham Lye, Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg) and producers. Turner penned Foreign Affair’s first single, “The Best,” a soaring, sweeping major-chord romp with “hit” written all over it. “This is the best music I’ve ever put out in my life,” said Turner. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have promoted it this way.”
Turner and Davies enlisted Tony Joe White, author of the sleazy-swampy, cool hit “Polk Salad Annie,” for four selections. He lent an R&B touch. Said Turner, of White: “His connection was like a dream come true. He’s really Southern, really wonderful. He looks younger. Something happens when something changes inside of you. The difference is: when you want it.”
VIDEO: Tina Turner Live In Barcelona 1990