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How Tina Turner escaped Ike Turner’s abuse and reclaimed her name

Rock star Tina Turner, who died Wednesday at age 83, performs in London in 1975, the year before she would leave her husband, Ike. (David Redfern)
7 min

Night was falling on July 1, 1976, and Tina Turner was supposed to be onstage, launching another cross-country tour. Instead, she was hiding among trash cans in an alley behind a hotel. She knew people would be looking for her soon, if they weren’t already, so after a few minutes, she sprung from her hiding place and ran down the alley.

“I wound up on a freeway,” Turner, who died Wednesday at age 83, remembered later. “[A]nd I ran across that and into this Ramada Inn.”

She was wearing a white Yves Saint Laurent suit, but it was spattered with dried blood. One of her eyes was swollen shut, and she had intentionally left her trademark wig behind. She asked to speak to a manager and, as she recalled later, told him, “I’m Tina Turner. I have had a fight with my husband, as you can see. Will you give me a room? I can’t pay you right now, but I promise that I will.”

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This moment — when she would finally escape her abusive husband, the musician and band leader Ike Turner, who had built an act around her and in his mind had “made” her a star — had been building for years. But such was the control that Ike had over her life, that there was almost nothing she could do to prepare. When the moment finally came, she had 36 cents and a Mobil credit card in her pocket.

When Tina met Ike in 1957, she was still Anna Mae Bullock, a 16-year-old country girl from Nutbush, Tenn., who had been in the big city of St. Louis for a few months. Ike, then in his mid-20s, was a polished band leader whose star was rising. She impressed him enough with her unique singing voice that he added her to his band as “Little Ann.”

There was no romance between them those first few years; he was like “a brother,” she said in her 1986 memoir “I, Tina.” She thought he was “ugly” and marveled at the way women flocked around him. She began a relationship with the band’s saxophonist and soon became pregnant, giving birth to her first son in 1958, a few months after she graduated from high school.

Ike reorganized the band around her and, in 1960, renamed them the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. They had begun a romance by then and had a son together that same year, but they weren’t legally married, as the band name implied, until a quickie Tijuana wedding in 1962.

“I knew that I didn’t want to marry him, didn’t want to be a part of his life, didn’t want to be another of the 500 women he had around him by then,” she wrote later. “But I was … well, I was scared. And by now, this was my life — where else could I go?”

For a decade, Tina’s life was a blur of fame, performance, abuse and drug use, all revolving around Ike. Onstage, she was energetic, strong, sexy and earthy. Her low voice commanded attention. Offstage, she was an exhausted mom of four boys — Ike had brought two sons from a previous relationship — struggling to control her husband’s/boss’s rages and trying to meet his demands.

He broke her jaw and her ribs, choked her and sexually assaulted her. Trapped and hopeless, in 1968 she tried to take her own life with an overdose of Valium. Her stomach was pumped at a nearby hospital, and Ike had her back onstage while she was still vomiting, she wrote.

Years later, Ike would deny the extent of the abuse, telling a biographer, “Sure, I slapped Tina. We had fights, and there had been times when I punched her without thinking. But I never beat her.”

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In 1972, a few things happened that started Tina on a pathway out. She talked back to him for the first time, she wrote. By then she was raising the kids, writing the songs, paying the bills.

She also found Buddhism and began chanting a mantra regularly. The more she chanted, the more she noticed her life getting easier, things working out better. She was offered an acting role in the rock musical “Tommy” and filmed a TV special with Ann-Margret. Being on-set gave her time away from Ike and glimpses of her capabilities as a performer without him.

Finally, on July 1, 1976, she saw her chance. On a flight to Dallas to begin their next tour, the two began to fight. In a car on the way to their Hilton hotel, he began slapping her, and, she remembered later, she hit him back, kicked, cursed. “I knew I was gone,” she wrote.

At the hotel, Tina massaged Ike’s back until he fell asleep. The band and crew were still hauling in their luggage and equipment, leaving a brief window when she wouldn’t be observed. She grabbed a small bag of toiletries and ran down the hall, out the door and into the alley with the trash cans.

At the Ramada Inn, the manager put Tina up in their best suite without charging her, put a guard at the door, and brought her soup and crackers, because her face was too beaten up to eat solid food, while she tried to figure out whom to call. She couldn’t go to her mother or her sister, who both lived in houses Ike owned. If she used the credit card, he would be able to find out where she was.

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She called Ike’s lawyer, Nate Tabor, who she had sensed was sympathetic to her situation, and he secretly got her back to Los Angeles the next day. She stayed at Tabor’s house, until Ike found out and threatened his family, she wrote. From there, she contacted a friend she knew through her Buddhist practice, ending up at the woman’s sister’s house up in the mountains. For two months, she hid, moved around, cleaned her friend’s houses and chanted for hours a day.

Tina’s sons and stepsons were in their late-teens by then, but not all of them were out of the house, and to keep herself away from Ike, they couldn’t know where she was either. She eventually reunited with them, but the months of her disappearance had a lasting impact, she wrote: Her relationships with her sons would never be close again, and from some of them she became estranged.

Another problem arose: As she freed herself from an abusive relationship, the planned Revue tour failed, and the promoters and advertisers wanted her to pay up. She began booking appearances on game shows such as “Hollywood Squares,” anything that would generate cash flow. Ike wasn’t giving an inch in divorce proceedings, and because he had copyrighted her name, he wanted to take that, too. Eventually, she decided, against her lawyer’s advice, to let him have just about everything — the house, the cars, the recording studio — in exchange for her professional name, Tina Turner.

The divorce was finalized in 1978. Tina had no money, no band and no record label. She couldn’t have known it would be six years before she would release the album “Private Dancer,” the biggest hit of her career. The Grammys, the Kennedy Center Honors, the induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist — all that lay in the future. But she had already proved to herself that Ike hadn’t “made” her a star, and whatever lay ahead, they would be her best days.