The Stinging Guitar
Ike Turner Helped Shape Rock but His Private Life Drowned Out the Music

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007

On the day I met Ike Turner, in 1997, the bad guy was wearing white. Of course he was.

Turner had a horrific problem. He was a pioneering musician who helped put the "R" in R&B -- a gifted bandleader and explosive performer on the piano and guitar whose fuzzed-out "Rocket 88" was (and forever will be) a proto-rock classic -- and who flat-out torched the soul circuit in the late 1960s and early '70s with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.

But his reputation had been bloodied and bruised, first by Tina's autobiography, "I, Tina," then by 1993's "What's Love Got to Do With It," the Hollywood biopic that depicted Ike as a domineering, wife-beating, womanizing, coke-snorting monster.

The image of Evil Ike will forever eclipse Turner's considerable contributions to the popular-music canon, tumult trumping talent. (Yesterday's news bulletin: "Ike Turner, whose role as one of rock's critical architects was overshadowed by his ogrelike image as the man who brutally abused former wife and icon Tina Turner, died Wednesday at his home in suburban San Diego.")

In 1997, Ike Turner was trying to scrape his way back -- to resuscitate his career and, just maybe, rehabilitate his image. He'd released a new album for the first time in two decades. He'd sobered up, he said. He'd gotten married again (to another singer, in fact). And now, he was putting himself -- his music -- back in front of the public: He'd come home to Clarksdale, Miss., down in the Delta, to perform at a blues festival, where he was wildly received.

Onstage, wearing all white and enveloped by approbation, Turner beamed, flashing a toothy grin as wide as the nearby Sunflower River. He triumphantly pumped his fist in the Deep South summer air, as if to celebrate a rare public victory.

But backstage and then at his hotel, Turner hardly seemed celebratory, staring blankly at a wall and swaying with nervous, angry energy. Though he told me he didn't want to discuss Tina or the movie (which, he said, he hadn't actually seen), he hardly talked about anything else.

" 'Ike Turner, known as the meanest man alive, the ugly woman-beater' or whatever; people always got to say some [expletive] like that," he said. "See, they put that movie out right during the time of that women's movement, and Tina fit right into that. That women's-lib thing, she was a good vehicle for them to get behind. It really hurt me a lot, but I'm getting over it, man."

Or not. Every time it appeared that the conversation was heading elsewhere, Turner somehow steered it back to his ex-wife and musical partner.

"You can't undo what's been done," he said. "And I have no regrets. . . . I did nothing that I'm ashamed of. I did nothing that I won't do again."

Ike Turner might be little more than a violent footnote in pop history if not for the fact that he was a ferocious talent who was among the fathers of rock-and-roll.

Born Nov. 5, 1931, in Clarksdale, he first played professionally at the age of 11, backing Robert Nighthawk on piano in the boogie-woogie style of his idol, Pinetop Perkins. Turner's first group, the Top Hatters, came together in high school and eventually evolved into the Kings of Rhythm. In 1951, they went to Sun Studio in Memphis to record "Rocket 88," with Turner playing piano and Jackie Brenston singing lead. The propulsive song (credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats) is widely cited as the first rock-and-roll record for its distorted guitar, the result of a broken amplifier.

Turner was also a noted session player, talent scout and producer who was instrumental in recording the likes of B.B. King and Elmore James. In 1956, he moved to St. Louis, where he met Anna Mae Bullock, whom Ike recast as Tina Turner.

They developed a raw, sexual soul revue with Tina serving as the vocal centerpiece and Ike working as the bandleader and playing stinging, distorted guitar. The group was a major hit, both live and in the studio, and Ike and Tina married in 1962. The abusive relationship lasted until July 4, 1976, when Tina sneaked away from their Dallas hotel room with just 36 cents and a Mobil card in her pocket.

Tina would go on to great heights in the 1980s, whereas Ike went into seclusion and, eventually, prison. (While he was locked up on drug charges, he missed their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Tina Turner became a symbol of survival.

Ike became one of the most infamous spouse abusers in the world.

But, he said in 1997: "I'm working to try to get a hit record, because that's what I need. That'll wash up everything."

And eventually, Turner did have another artistic success: His album "Risin' With the Blues" won a Grammy in February for best traditional blues.

Somebody asked him what the award meant. As recorded in the New York Daily News, he replied: "What does it mean? It means that I'm still living. I made the first rock 'n' roll record and now I made this record."

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