‘WHAT’S LOVE GOT
TO DO WITH IT…?’
Book Review of:
‘TAKIN’ BACK MY NAME:
THE CONFESSIONS OF IKE TURNER’
by IKE TURNER (with NIGEL CAWTHORNE)
(Virgin Books, 1999 - £16.99 - ISBN 1-85227-850-1)
Izear Luster ‘Ike’ Turner Jr,
5 November 1931 – 12 December 2007
Music industry rumours that Ike Turner was about to cover Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” are probably apocryphal. Largely because I just started them. Stories of him hanging out around the ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ (1993) movie-set signing autographs and grabbing some peripheral celebrity – even from a totally one-sided biopic that vilifies him, are more grounded in reality.
This book-review was originally slated to be an interview. Ike Turner was due to fly into the UK for a tie-in book-promo schedule, complete with my own eagerly anticipated face-to-face. After all, this was the man who cut what respected authorities consider to be the first ever Rock ‘n’ Roll record – “Rocket 88” in March 1951. Little Richard cheerfully admits stealing the piano intro for “Good Golly Miss Molly” from “Rocket 88” – ‘the exact same, ain’t nothing been changed’. Ike then went on to fire Jimi Hendrix for messing up the band’s sound-balance with his effect-pedals, he cut chart R&B hits which crossed-over to white audiences, co-produced the quintessential 1960’s black-Pop ‘River Deep Mountain High’ (1966) album with Phil Spector... then got himself demonised as serial adulterer, drug addict and wife-beater in Tina’s Feminist Survival-through-Strength bible ‘I, Tina’ (1986).
Now ‘I want the record to be put straight’ protests Ike, ‘the real story has never been told…’ So there’s much potential here, but he starts out the Book-promotion tour with a Breakfast-TV slot where the talking heads begin poking Research-Dept questions at him about smacking Bitches. Predictably he throws a wobbler. Blows all further media assignations – self included, and hops the next plane home. Similar scenes kill the launch of his most recent solo album (‘Without Love… I Have Nothing’, C-Ya Records, 1997), when his notoriously short fuse similarly aborts promotion. Which is tough.
I had my questions ready – ‘was creating this book a personally difficult project, re-living painful memories?’ ‘In Brian Gibson’s slanted 1993 movie what did Larry Fishburne and Angela Bassett’s version of the Ike & Tina story get right, and what did they get wrong?’ ‘In the book you talk of the separation between black and white music in 1950’s America. Yet weren’t there valuable connections too? Elvis was just one of many white kids tuning into black radio stations. He lived in a one-room shack. Carl Perkins came from the only white family in a share-cropping town. Even the Everly Brothers learned guitar from a black blues man. In what way was their white-trash poverty different from yours?’ And, more daring ‘did they treat you as a celebrity when you were in prison?’
In fact, it was on his way to the Memphis Recording Service when a tyre blow-out provided on-route writing time, which resulted in “Rocket 88”. It debuted on Dewey Phillips ‘Red Hot & Blue’ radio-show on W-HBQ, and – leased to Chess records as a big 78rpm single, it charted. By 12 June 1951 it was no.1 on the R&B and the jukebox charts. Three years later Dewey would break another local artist’s debut hit, Elvis’ “That’s Alright Mama”! So there’s some legitimate bragging to do, but you sense there’s insecurity and the genuine need for emotional and ego-reassurance too.
Ike was born on 5 November 1931, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, on the black side of strictly segregated Clarksdale, Mississippi, deep in the Delta cotton belt. He was raised by his Mother, Beatrice Cushenberry, his early life shaped by strong and respected female figures. And sociologically – in a Southland where they still chained blacks to pick-ups and dragged them to death, a five-year-old Ike was traumatically witness to a Redneck lynch-mob smashing into his home, hauling his father away for an unprovoked beating – ‘he had holes in his stomach where he’d been kicked’. The white hospital turned him away, and he subsequently died from the long-term effects of the wounds. Later, thinking he’d murdered his stepfather, young Ike ran away to big-city racially segregated Memphis, where he lived out of trashcans while sleeping in alleys. This is not to excuse his later misogynist violence. But perhaps it goes some way to explaining it.
Ike would go on to have numerous wives – eight or nine he says. Ghost-writer Nigel Cawthorne puts the figure closer to ten, maybe twelve. But he was never, they both agree, legally married to Tina. Meanwhile, Momma B had ambitions for her small-town fatherless black boy, with an eye to every hustle, and already, while still at school he’d graduated to DJ-ing at W-ROX. The school band called itself the Dukes of Swing, so Ike went one better, his own band became the Kings of Rhythm, and he was soon playing twelve-hour sets backing-up legendary Blues star Robert Nighthawk at local roadside joints. Playing West Memphis clubs a young Elvis came around to watch, and learn. Then, while writing, playing sessions and producing, Ike contributed piano to BB King’s first hit “Three O’ Clock Blues”, talent-scouted and produced Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s debut studio-sessions, and worked on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ At Midnight” – all for one-off no-royalty fees!
It was during a band residency in East St Louis that he ‘became real, real whorish’, with corrupt cop harassment, knife-fights, shoot-outs, and a roadie who got castrated and bled to death. But it was here that Ike met drummer Eugene Washington’s girl Alline Bullock, and her sister ‘Little Annie Mae’, who was destined to become ‘Tina Turner’. ‘Tina’ got pregnant by the tenor saxist Raymond Hill, and Ike wrote “A Fool In Love”. He originally intended it for vocalist Art Lassiter who ‘sounded like the Ink Spots,’ but when Art ran out owing Ike $80, Tina stepped in. Ike claims to have never been a natural performer, ‘I built my career on standing in the background’ he protests. ‘I am an organiser. I ain’t no goddamn artist.’ Even “Rocket 88” – a celebration of a convertible Oldsmobile coupè, had been credited to ‘Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats’. But ‘I wasn’t going to have people running off with my shit again…!’ And, learning from that name-theft, he deliberately issued “A Fool In Love” under his own name – allowing space for alternate ‘Tina’s as required, and patented it so that if Hill ran off with ‘Little Annie’ he could find himself another Tina, ‘and keep on going’. No such problem arose.
Soon there were more R&B hits, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (no.14 for Sue, 1961) and “Poor Fool” (no.38 for Sue, 1962) for Tina, and “I’m Blue” (no.19 for Atco, 1962) and “Peach
The primitive up-front theatrics of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue ‘invented’ strobe and fire-extinguisher ‘dry ice’, while their screaming was wilder and the Ikettes dynamic boogaloos more uninhibited than any other outfit on the touring circuit. Even Tina’s subsequent solo career was based around what he termed ‘the wedding’ stage-routine he designed to gain sympathetic acceptance from female audiences. But oddly it was ‘England that woke America up to the Blues.’ The Turner Revue toured with the Rolling Stones – at the Stones invitation, playing the Albert Hall and even the infamous Altamont festival with them. With ‘people like Janis (Joplin), the Rolling Stones, Clapton, and other groups, things changed. You had a younger generation that was not hooked on race.’
Not surprisingly, his relationship with Tina was in trouble. ‘She was attractive, but not really sensuous in bed… to be honest, I felt that having sex with her was almost a duty.’ Were there beatings? Yes. But it was cocaine, and Ike’s sexually voracious promiscuity that Tina couldn’t take. For years EMI’s Ronald Bell toured Europe holding Tina’s gown as she came offstage but – Cawthorne adds, ‘despite the recent repeated allegations that Ike beat Tina, Bell says, he never saw a mark on her.’ And the final physical spat – in a limo on their way to dates in Dallas, was – according to Ike, deliberately provoked by her to supply the pretext for a split on the eve of signing a five-year record deal. Whatever the motives, the rift proved to be a major tipping point, and ‘my life ain’t been right since then.’
His career had concentrated on assembling the Revue around Tina, not around himself, ‘so I wasted my whole life building something, and then it got taken away from me.’ Without its visual focus the Revue was ‘a car with no motor.’ Ike was stranded in a mess of sixties sexual liberation, left in the slipstream as Tina became an icon for seventies Feminism. As he relates here, ‘while I was hitting rock-bottom, Tina was becoming a star.’ He was reduced to stealing silverware from hotels, while there were legal threats and counter-threats, but he insists that ‘the movie confrontation at her comeback concert where I’m supposed to have threatened her with a gun – that never happened. I never went there.’
Throughout these years Ike Turner was living in a coke-blur, he developed a nasal coke-hole he could ‘put a pen through.’ ‘I don’t give a damn who you are’ he protests, ‘cocaine is stronger than you.’ It took a two-year two-month incarceration in California Men’s Colony in St Luis Obispo – as convict No.E48678, to get him off dependency, ‘the greatest thing that ever happened to me.’
Nowadays – of course, there are no real stories. Only news management, spin and media manipulation. And sure, the cheap Bitch-Smacking jibes come easy. But one thing’s for sure, Ike Turner was no Mike Tyson. He’s more spinned-against that spun. And he has a real story to tell. ‘Takin’ Back My Name’ is that story, ‘the real truth from the horse’s mouth.’ As the title says, it’s both an exercise in redressing the balance, and in damage limitation. It shares its dedication to his mother’s memory, with one to Tina. Perhaps it’s a generous act of conciliation or, more cynically, a marketing strategy. For the dust-jacket is split equally between them both. Ike, and Tina. At first, it was always Annie, or ‘Little Annie’. Until – after their separation, he calls her Tina. He was still musing about the possibilities of a one-off reunion tour, while pointing out ‘she says she don’t like the image I portrayed on her. But what is she doing now? When you look at it, she’s doing the same damn thing.’ And she is. She is.
Much Expanded from a version published in:
‘ROCK ‘N’ REEL no.34 Spring 2000’ (UK - June 2000)