Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ike Turner

Ike Turner, the legendary R&B and rock musician, performer, talent scout and producer, passed away Wednesday at age 76. Despite his numerous musical accomplishments, Turner's career will forever be overshadowed by his abusive treatment of his ex-wife, Tina, who was also Ike's performing partner for nearly 20 years before going on to her hugely successful solo career.

Ike Turner was right there at the beginning of rock 'n' roll. In the late 40's he put together a group, The Kings Of Rhythm, that specialized in the jump blues and hard R&B sounds that were emerging in the postwar years. In 1951, Ike and his band, featuring Jackie Brenston on lead vocals and saxophone, came to Sam Phillips' Sun Recording Studios in Memphis to record a fresh batch of songs. One of the tunes Ike Turner wrote for those sessions was "Rocket 88", on which Turner played piano while Brenston sang lead. Nick Tosches described the glory of this early rock classic:

While the song itself may or may not have been original, its performance surely was. The overcharged amplification of Willie Kizart's electric guitar, the careening glissandi and manic triplets issuing from Ike Turner's piano (it is not improbable that six years later, when he came upon Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips, whose Christian capitalist eyes had seen in Elvis a white boy who sang like a black, saw in Jerry Lee a white boy who played piano like the odd, intense colored fellow, Ike Turner, whom he had witnessed this cold March day), Raymond Hill's post-melodic saxophone shriekings, Willie Sims's trash-can drumming, and the raw, heartfelt degeneracy of Jackie Brenston's singing, shouting, and yelping - the whole of these parts was a sound so loudly and luridly shocking, so preposterous in its celebration of booze, broads, and repossessed cars, that it was difficult to perceive where its brilliance ended and its lunacy began.

All you youngsters out there need to click the link and listen to "Rocket 88", and perhaps even bookmark it so you have something to refer to whenever I show indifference to whatever modern acts you're knocked out by at the moment.

Sam Phillips sold the recordings to Chess Records in Chicago. While the sides Turner sang lead on were credited to Ike Turner And His Rhythm Kings, Chess credited "Rocket 88" to Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats, one of the many perceived career slights that made Turner furious. Ike's anger only rose further when audiences and radio favored "Rocket 88" over his own vocal performances. As the song rose to #1 in the R&B charts, tensions grew between Turner and Brenston to the point that Brenston eventually left the group. Turner would end up re-hiring a down-on-his-luck Brenston a few years later, under the condition that Brenston was forbidden from performing "Rocket 88".

Ike Turner moved his base of operations to St. Louis in the mid-50's, and began concentrating more on his electric guitar playing as amplified blues and R&B became more popular. Turner contributed his guitar work to blues classics such as Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Times" and Otis Rush's "Double Trouble". But Turner's career really began to soar after Annie Mae Bullock, a teenager recently arrived from the West Tennessee cotton fields, got up on stage with Ike during an East St. Louis nightclub gig and started belting out the blues in a unique raspy style. Ike gave her a job with his band, changed her name to Tina, and together they began one of the most tempestuous partnerships in entertainment history.

Ike was still married to his first wife when he began his relationship with Tina. She would quickly learn that she was not the only woman in Ike's life; it seemed as though Ike had girlfriends in nearly every town they played, and he would often flaunt these women in front of Tina. Tina was also often subject to physical abuse, dramatized years later in the biopic What's Love Got To Do With It. Ike's anger problems were increasingly fueled by cocaine abuse, which by the end of the 60's was spiraling out of control. For his part, Ike always claimed that he was unfairly portrayed in the movie, yet in his autobiography offered this admission of guilt: "Sure, I've slapped Tina. We had fights and there have been times when I punched her without thinking," he wrote. "But I never beat her. ... I did no more to Tina than I would mind somebody doing to my mother in the same circumstances." Ike says the producers of What's Love Got To Do With It offered him $40,000 not to sue, which he accepted in order to pay some of his cocaine debts.

Despite their now-legendary status, the recording career of Ike & Tina Turner was for the most part hit-and-miss. Ike's approach to recording was mostly slapdash, as he was unwilling to spend a penny more than absolutely necessary in the studio. Tina wouldn't realize her full potential as a vocalist until the 80's, when she was out from under Ike. After a couple of early hits, "A Fool In Love" and "It's Gonna Work Out Fine", the duo's chart success would be sporadic. They paid the bills with grueling tours on the southern R&B circuit. By the end of the decade, their live reputation had grown to where they earned a slot opening for the Rolling Stones. With that momentum driving their career, their cover of "Proud Mary" became their biggest hit. But as the 70's wore on, Ike's drug use, womanizing, and abuse of Tina only became worse, and after one last hit, "Nutbush City Limits", the pair split up for good.

Ike Turner would spend the rest of his life chasing the limelight he enjoyed in the 60's and early 70's. His reputation now damaged, he stayed on the road, married a couple of more times (in an interview he claimed to have been married 14 times, but this has never been substantiated), and continued to do coke. I seem to recall him returning to St. Louis a few times during the 80's, where he would give interviews boasting that he was coming back bigger than ever. One time he announced plans to build a luxury hotel and casino along the depressed East St. Louis riverfront, bigger and better than anything in Las Vegas. Always there were big plans, and always there was something keeping Ike Turner from realizing his dreams, always someone blocking Ike Turner from taking his rightful place next to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and the rest of the great 50's rockers. He seemed incapable of accepting the possibility that many of the problems he faced could have been caused by himself.

Eventually Turner's drug problems caught up with him, as he found himself convicted in 1989 of drug and weapons charges. Inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame in 1991, he was unable to attend due to his imprisonment. Released in 1993, he returned to recording, performing, and boasting. He recorded a string of well-regarded blues albums, culminating in the Grammy-winning Risin' With The Blues early in 2007. Yet his reputation continued to dog him to the end. In September, St. Louis musicians wanted to honor him with an "Ike Turner Day", but the mayor turned down their request.

Ike Turner leaves behind a string of accomplishments matched by few in the music field. Yet above all, Turner's life stands as a lesson in how one should be careful in how they treat others, for you never know how it will come back to haunt you.