Thursday, 24 March 2016



 Book Review of: 
(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?’

The questions stay unanswered, or find partial resolution in his book. For Ike Turner deserves, at the very least, recognition for his ground-breaking musical achievements. His Kings of Rhythm were touring and recording successfully long before late-comer Annie Mae Bullock appears. He had other protégés too, the Ikettes – for example, who scored a respectable run of delicious chart hits under his auspices, while Betty (“Shoop Shoop”) Everett and Fontella (“Rescue Me”) Bass both sang with Turner bands too. And even earlier than that – between 1951 and 1959, he A&R’d black or ‘Race’ artists from the same Memphis Sun studios that Sam Philips prospected white talent, playing as often-uncredited sideman for the likes of BB King, Johnny Ace, Elmore James, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy.

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.

Always sexually precocious, it was a Miss Boozie Owens who provided Ike’s initiation into rota-rooting before he’d even hit first grade. ‘Sex’ he explains, ‘that’s the dog in a man,’ and he was always voraciously drawn to what he terms ‘the cat’. He was not yet twelve years old when middle-aged Miss Reeny became his third sexual partner! In such an erotically-charged atmosphere he was soon sharing girlfriends with pal Ernest, who’s Daddy played ragtime piano and was a ‘real whoring man’. When Ike heard Pinetop Perkins play boogie-woogie on his way home from school, ‘it put a burn in my mind,’ and the connection was obvious. Musicians attract sex.

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.

“A Fool In Love”, issued on Sue records, was an instant hit, reaching no.2 on the R&B chart and no.27 on the Pop chart in August 1960. He then set about remoulding ‘Tina’ to become the raw visual focus of the band, modelling her style on movie jungle-girl Nyoka, and the Ikettes on the short-skirt majorettes who’d excited his prurient interest in Clarksdale parades. Inevitably, Ike and Tina became an item. For songwriting purposes, ‘Tina was my Little Richard’ – and for sex, Tina made ‘my dick as hard as Chinese arithmetic.’ How could they fail?

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
es ‘n’ Cream” for the Ikettes (no.36 for Modern, 1965), but no significant cross-over sales into the white demographic until Ike bribed DJ’s on K-FWB and K-RLA, white stations boasting twice the watt-output of their nearest black rival stations. They also got to play Jack Good’s ‘Shindig’ TV show where, due to the swaggering thrust of Tina and the Ikettes choreography, they were advised never to ‘bump to the front… it was considered vulgar.’ Nevertheless, their increasingly sexualised burlesque provoked network protests, and there was no return booking.

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.’

The association with Phil Spector propelled the cavernous reverberating “River Deep Mountain High” into the European chart, but it was their throw-away cover of John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary” that finally gave the Turners their breakthrough American hit (no.4 for Liberty in 1971). A track that even mistakenly includes Ike’s voice prompting Tina, which was meant to be erased! But with success, fame – and occasional infamy, came coke. Initially it was a ‘false energy’ performance aid, something to help him stay awake and enable extended creative sessions at his own custom-built high-tech ‘Bolic’ studios. Then cocaine became an essential part of touring, hidden in the back of speakers, in wah-wah pedals, and even in the false heels of his platform shoes. The studio, which was ‘like something out of a James Bond movie,’ had its own ‘orgy quarters’, and ‘sometimes I would be sitting mixing at the board and two girls would be under the console sucking my dick.’

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)

1 comment:

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