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Tina Turner, rock and roll icon, dead at 83

Brian Rasic
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Getty Images

Tina Turner, a soul and rock powerhouse known for her octave-defying voice and mesmerizing stage moves, has died at the age of 83.

She died Wednesday in her home in Switzerland after a long period of illness, according to a statement from her publicist. In her 2018 memoir, Tina Turner: My Love Story, Turner detailed a litany of health issues she had dealt with since 2013, including a stroke, intestinal cancer and kidney failure. Her second husband, Erwin Bach, donated a kidney to her in 2017, saving her life.

In a recording career that spanned six decades, Turner found fame both as a solo artist and in a duo with her first husband, Ike Turner. With the latter, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and became a staple of the U.S. pop and R&B charts in the 1960s and '70s. The duo's high-energy soul and rock was informed by Tina's disparate vocal influences. She grew up listening to country music, but had many idols: '50s R&B singers LaVern Baker and Faye Adams; gospel great Mahalia Jackson and rock pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe; blues legend B.B. King; and soul greats Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. Accordingly, she had a malleable and versatile voice, and could unleash a scalding rock growl, or dip into her lower register and sing the smoky blues or velvety R&B numbers. One of Ike & Tina's most well-known songs, "River Deep, Mountain High," was even a Phil Spector-produced, orchestral-gospel triumph.

An agile vocal interpreter, Turner also made other people's iconic songs her own — adding a tone of yearning and desperation to The Beatles' already-pleading "Come Together," and layering on more of a country twang to The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women." Her signature tune, a fiery transformation of Creedence Clearwater Revival's laid-back "Proud Mary," became a showcase for her sultry soul drawl and raspy rock 'n' roll yelp. The latter song won Turner her first Grammy Award, for best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocal. She would win eight Grammys overall — including best female rock vocal performance for three years in a row during the '80s.

In addition to her vocal prowess, Turner had a commanding stage presence that was often characterized as "electrifying." This descriptor somehow always seemed like an understatement: At the microphone, Turner vibrated with energy, like a simmering pot about to boil over, and she possessed natural athleticism that translated to lithe but powerful onstage dancing. "Someone once called Tina 'the female Mick Jagger,'" Rolling Stone's Ben Fong-Torres wrote in 1971. "In fact, to be more accurate, one should call Mick 'the male Tina Turner.'" (This is no mere critical hyperbole: In the same Rolling Stone feature, Turner herself insinuated that Jagger studied her moves rather closely when she and Ike toured with the Rolling Stones in 1969.) Naturally, when the pair teamed up for a barnburning cover of the Jacksons' "State of Shock" at Live Aid in 1985, the combination was incendiary.

"I'm so saddened by the passing of my wonderful friend Tina Turner," Jagger said in a statement on Instagram. "She was truly an enormously talented performer and singer. She was inspiring, warm, funny and generous. She helped me so much when I was young and I will never forget her."

Born Anna Mae Bullock on Nov. 26, 1939, Turner grew up in rural Nutbush, Tenn., but also spent time in Knoxville, as her parents moved there for work. Growing up, she had a distant relationship with both her father, who abandoned the family when she was 13, and mother. But performing came naturally, and became her solace. In Tina Turner: My Love Story, she describes music-filled shopping excursions — being 4 or 5 years old and being paid by salesgirls to sing radio hits she had memorized — and the exhilaration of leading her cousins, half-sister Evelyn, and sister Alline in pretend stage shows. Later, she honed her performing presence further by singing at picnics with a regionally famous trombonist named Mr. Bootsy Whitelaw.

Turner moved to St. Louis at age 16 to live with Alline and her mother, and began going to the famed East St. Louis venue Club Manhattan, where she first saw Ike Turner & The Kings of Rhythm. In 1957, she ended up joining the group after her impromptu performance of B.B. King's "You Know I Love You" wowed the bandleader. The troupe was eventually rechristened the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, highlighting her elevated role.

By all accounts, Ike was excessively cruel toward Tina, both personally and professionally. "Looking back, I realize that my relationship with Ike was doomed the day he figured out that I was going to be his meal ticket, his moneymaker," Turner wrote in My Love Story. She then described how she was a last-minute replacement to sing on "A Fool In Love" — which became the duo's first hit, reaching No. 2 on the R&B charts in 1960 — and was impressive enough that a label head told Ike to make Tina the group's centerpiece. "What went through Ike's head when he heard that advice?" she continued. "He had to find a way to protect his interests, and that's when the trouble began."

Over the years, Turner has been open about certain aspects of their time together, although she told the New York Times in 2019 that she's never divulged all: "I think I'm ashamed. I feel I told enough." But Ike was mentally controlling — for example, he rechristened her "Tina Turner" and then trademarked the name, both without her consent — and physically abusive. She was nearly penniless when she left him in 1976, while the pair were on tour in Dallas. "I walked out without anything and had to make it on my own for my family and everyone so I just went back to work for myself," she said during a 2017 appearance on The Jonathan Ross Show.

Turner had released two solo albums while still performing with Ike, 1974's Tina Turns the Country On! — a stripped-down LP featuring her take on songs by Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson — and 1975's rock-oriented covers album Acid Queen. Her first entertainment forays post-split geared toward mainstream fare — the game show Hollywood Squares and Cher's variety TV series — and cabaret-style live concerts, as well as two albums that didn't chart. She also recorded a sleek, electro-pop take on the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion" on Music Of Quality & Distinction, Volume One, an album released by Heaven 17 members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh under the name B.E.F.

The year 1984 would be pivotal for Turner. She dueted with David Bowie on the reggae-influenced title track of his Tonight LP, and finally achieved widespread mainstream success on her own thanks to the blockbuster Private Dancer. As with "Ball of Confusion," the album embraced the decade's slicker, cutting-edge production values — in fact, two songs were co-produced by Ware — while still highlighting Turner's muscular voice and eclectic influences.

The album's tracklisting included the Mark Knopfler-penned title track, as well as covers of tunes by David Bowie ("1984"), the Beatles ("Help!"), and Ann Peebles ("I Can't Stand the Rain"). Private Dancer also featured her first and only solo No. 1 hit, the vulnerable and luxurious "What's Love Got to Do With It." The single, which also won Grammy Awards for record of the year and best female pop vocal performance, boasted a cathartic, lived-in vocal performance that ushered in her sophisticated second act and cemented her reputation as a survivor, a tag and aesthetic she embraced.

Turner's commercial renaissance continued as the decade progressed. She co-starred in the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which spawned the dramatic power ballad "We Don't Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)" and the Grammy-winning "One of the Living," and racked up more hits with the Bryan Adams duet "It's Only Love," breezy seduction "Typical Male," and the empowerment anthem "The Best." With her spiky wig and power miniskirts that showed off her legendary legs, Turner also became an early MTV icon: She performed at the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, and won best female video the following year for "What's Love Got to Do With It."

Turner continued to be a commercial force into the '90s, notably thanks to the 1993 biopic, What's Love Got to Do With It. Based on her 1986 autobiography, I, Tina, the movie starred Laurence Fishburne as Ike and Angela Bassett as Tina. Both actors were nominated for Oscars, while Bassett won a Golden Globe for best performance by an actress in a comedy or musical. Turner herself also received a career boost, as the soundtrack song "I Don't Wanna Fight" became a worldwide hit, cracking the top 10 in the U.S. In 1995, she landed another prestigious honor, singing the slinky, elegant James Bond theme song "GoldenEye" for the titular film.

Turner, who moved to Switzerland in 1995, started easing up on her workload in the late '90s and '00s, and ended up retiring after a 50th anniversary tour in 2009. However, she was still an active steward of her own legacy; in fact she also worked closely on the development of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, which opened on Broadway in fall 2019. And at the 2008 Grammy Awards, she performed a showstopping version of "Proud Mary" with Beyoncé. With hindsight, it's easy to interpret the moment as Turner passing the torch to a younger musician. However, the performance also once again reaffirmed that she was squarely in control of her rich musical legacy.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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