Remembering Tina Turner
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
A warning - this episode contains discussion of intimate partner violence.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HARRIS: The word icon is thrown around a lot these days, but Tina Turner was the epitome of that and more. The legendary pop star died today, leaving behind an indelible legacy that spanned decades across the music world, the stage, and the screen. Though she largely retired from public life years ago, you can still see her influence in a number of contemporary artists like Beyonce and Megan Thee Stallion. I'm Aisha Harris. And on this episode of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we're remembering the life and legacy of Tina Turner.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HARRIS: Joining me today is NPR Music's Ann Powers.
Welcome back, Ann. It's so great to have you here.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: I'm happy to be with you, Aisha, on a sad and kind of unbelievable day. Like, a world without Tina Turner. Will we go on?
HARRIS: I know. It's really, really hard to think about, but I'm just so glad to have you here and have you help me parse through her legacy with me. So Tina Turner was born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939 and grew up in Tennessee. She rose to prominence in the '60s as the lead singer of the duo Ike and Tina Turner. Let's actually hear a little bit of their first hit, "A Fool In Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A FOOL IN LOVE")
IKE AND TINA TURNER: (Singing) Tell me one more time.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) You've got to face it to live in this world.
IKE AND TINA TURNER: (Vocalizing).
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) You take the good along with bad.
IKE AND TINA TURNER: (Vocalizing).
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Sometimes you're happy, and sometimes you're sad.
IKE AND TINA TURNER: (Singing) One more time.
HARRIS: Ann, can you take us back and sort of give us a sense of what Tina's emergence back in the 1960s really meant for rock and the landscape of the music industry?
POWERS: Yeah, Aisha. I feel confident in saying that Tina Turner was really the first voice of the classic rock era. I mean the '60s. I mean usually, we're going to talk about Mick Jagger. We're going to talk about eventually Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin, maybe Janis Joplin. But Tina was such a huge influence on all of those singers. And I think you can hear in that single, "A Fool in Love," Ike and Tina's first big hit, how she modernized rock, took it beyond the '50s in a way, by going back, by connecting with the sound of blues and gospel music, and bringing that real downhome Southern sound into this fairly modern contemporary arrangement. And that became what rock ’n’ roll was in the 1960s.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, like many, especially Black artists of her generation, they were steeped in the Deep South. They were steeped in the church and gospel and the blues. And you can definitely, like you said, hear that rasp and how people like Mick Jagger would later take that on.
POWERS: Exactly. Exactly. And I think Tina, as a performer, too, you know, she was very androgynous. She really occupied a kind of a two-spirit space where she was both, you know, very assertive in a way we associate with masculinity, with maleness, and yet also very sexy and very womanly at the same time. And that also is so key to what rock ’n’ roll is in the 1960s. And I think we can thank Tina for a lot of that, too.
HARRIS: Yeah. Well, another song that I know you wanted to talk about, which is one of my - probably my favorite Tina song, to be honest, is the iconic song, "River Deep, Mountain High." It was released in 1966 and co-written and produced by Phil Spector. Ike might have been in the room, even though it's credited to both of them. But like, it was really - this was really a Phil Spector production. And Tina's voice, her howl, is all over it.
HARRIS: Can you talk a bit about, like, what that song meant for Tina and also just how it sits within that entire wall of sound era?
POWERS: First, you know, we've got to give Tina credit for her courage and strength to be in a room where both Ike Turner and Phil Spector are two of, like, the most violent and problematic men in the history of popular music.
POWERS: But, you know, Phil Spector heard in Tina the potential to make a truly majestic song that would do just what we were talking about, you know, that would connect with the foundations of rock ’n’ roll, but also in this setting would feel completely contemporary and of the moment. You know, here's Phil Spector, this guy who's, like, building this technically complicated wall of sound. And Tina is like Samson. I mean, she's like, yeah. That's your wall. I'm going to knock that down.
HARRIS: Let's actually listen to a little bit of that song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIVER DEEP, MOUNTAIN HIGH")
IKE AND TINA TURNER: (Singing) If I lost you would I cry. Oh, how I love you baby. Baby, baby, baby.
HARRIS: I just get chills every time.
POWERS: I know. Tina Turner was known for, you know, her rawness and her power in her voice, but let's just admire her precision as well. You know, she is belting it out. She is going all the way. She is still able to hit all those points that then Phil Spector can build that production around. And you know the drama in that song, right? It's kind of almost like Streisand-esque. You know, she's telling...
HARRIS: Oh yeah.
POWERS: ...Her own story or a story that isn't necessarily her story, but she's selling it like a great actor, which she also was.
HARRIS: Yeah. I think that's something that can sometimes go overlooked, especially with certain pop stars where it's like it's not just about how great their sound is, how great their vocals are. It's also about what are they conveying. Even when she's wailing, you still feel it. It doesn't get lost in that wall of sound, to put it very bluntly.
POWERS: That is so true. And you know, back to her performances and her visual image during this era, same thing where she's dancing on stage in a way that we all know Mick Jagger completely stole. Let's just say it right out.
POWERS: And he would admit that, right? And, you know, she's dancing at this very what some people see as a primal way. But the precision, and the humor, and the awareness she brings to those performances, you know, as she is shaking it for all she's got, she is fully inhabiting then owning that role. She never lost it in any of those performances. She's a master of catharsis.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, that's especially true in yet another - I mean, there's so many songs that are just indelible when it comes to her legacy. But of course, there's the cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary," which...
HARRIS: ...Was released in 1971. Tell us about the importance of this song.
POWERS: Well, by this time, Ike and Tina are kind of mainstays on the classic rock circuit. You know, they've toured with the Stones. They're out there. They're kind of ambassadors of rock ’n’ roll, and they are recording a lot of covers of classic rock songs by artists like the Beatles or the Stones and Creedence. But what they do and what she does to these songs, it's really what Tina does in these songs, is reclaim them for Black America. I think "Proud Mary" is the most profound example of that because we all grew up with this version. Well, I don't know. Aisha, did you grow up with this version? I did.
HARRIS: That was definitely the first version I heard of this song for sure.
POWERS: When she says, you know, we're going to take it nice and easy, what she's really doing is opening a door, right? She's opening a door to this other scene that wasn't accessible in the Creedence version.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROUD MARY")
IKE AND TINA TURNER: But there's just one thing. You see, we never, ever do nothing nice and easy. We always do it nice and rough.
POWERS: All respect to John Fogerty and everything he's done. And Creedence is a great band. But she's like, oh, hey. You know what this riverboat is riding on? It is on a river of Black American music, of spirituals, of blues, of soul. And that's what she gives us in this version.
HARRIS: Let's hear a little bit of "Proud Mary" here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROUD MARY")
IKE AND TINA TURNER: (Singing) Big wheel keep on turning, turning. Proud Mary keep on burning, burning. Rolling, yeah. Rolling, all right. Rolling on the river. Go ahead now. Rolling. We're rolling, yeah. Rolling on the river. (Vocalizing).
HARRIS: Oh, man. I mean, I'm sorry, but this has just become the definitive version, you know.
POWERS: Oh, 100%.
POWERS: You know, we're in church. We're in the gambling house and all those different places at once. It's the ultimate mobility, you know, of her voice and of that version that I love so much.
HARRIS: Yeah. So after "Proud Mary," by the mid-1970s, her and Ike Turner, who were actually married, they ultimately broke up. And famously, Ike Turner was very abusive towards her throughout their relationship, mentally and physically. And, you know, they disbanded in the mid-1970s. And then Tina kind of moves into another phase of her career, considered a pretty low-low. She was doing reviews and then also, like, a few music releases that didn't really find an audience. But she was also...
HARRIS: ...Appearing in films in the 1970s. And I understand that you remember her very vividly in "Tommy" - The Who's 1975 movie.
POWERS: Oh, yeah. I don't even know how this happened, but I remember very well being at the house of a childhood friend, and somehow "Tommy" was playing on the television. I don't even know how that was. But, you know, I was, like, a very young teen. And here is this deity. I mean, there's no other way to talk about Tina Turner in this film. She's playing the role of the Acid Queen. She's embodying the spirit of rock ’n’ roll. She is the spirit of the absolute, you know, edge of rock ’n’ roll. And it is a wild, frantic moment in a film that is full of those moments. I mean, we're talking about a movie that also features Ann-Margaret bathing in baked beans.
POWERS: Elton John as a pinball wizard. But Tina owns it because she takes us to that mythic place with her performance of Acid Queen and with her presence on the screen. I have to say, casting Tina in that role was completely brilliant because the film is saying, OK, rock ’n’ roll is a Black woman.
POWERS: Let's accept that.
HARRIS: Yeah. Here's a little moment of that movie and Tina's role in it.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOMMY")
TINA TURNER: (As Acid Queen, singing) I'm the gypsy, the Acid Queen. Pay me before I start. I'm the gypsy, and I guarantee to mend his aching heart.
HARRIS: We're coming into the '80s now, and this is kind of her resurgence period. And...
HARRIS: I can't actually think of any other female pop star who has had this kind of moment where, in her 40s, she's able to reach peaks that she hadn't even been able to reach before. It just seems unprecedented.
HARRIS: Because I think it all can get lost in the movie - the biopic version and that sort of thing. But, like, what was it like in the '80s when this 40-something-year-old Black woman was, like, in her prime yet again?
POWERS: I know. The strange thing, Aisha, is that felt completely right. You know, it felt completely natural and appropriate that, suddenly, on our television screens then - because of course MTV had happened. Here was Tina Turner performing songs like "What's Love Got To Do With It" that fit in completely musically with the moment. Behind the scenes, actually, it was quite well planned by her and her manager, Roger Davies, who together realize, you know what? Tina Turner is a rock star. She's not, like, a soul nostalgia circuit has-been. She's not, you know, an elder who should be relegated to the past. She is a rock star, and she is completely meant for the 1980s, the moment of blockbuster stardom. This is exactly the moment when we have Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna claiming massive stages and million-selling records.
And Tina, working with her team, figured out how she could tell the story of rock ’n’ roll again and tell her own story on this grand scale, and she became that rock star. I have to refer people. Here's my book club recommendation. Please read Maureen Mahon's book, "Black Diamond Queens," which has a great account of this period, really arguing that this space had opened up for her. And she just walked in and claimed it. And you know what? Much to the kind of delight of people like Mick Jagger who realized, you know, sorry, Tina, my ascent and, frankly, racism kept you from this position in the past.
POWERS: But girl, you own it.
HARRIS: Yeah. The image of her in the video of her "What's Love Got To Do With It" in that, like, jean jacket with the giant hair, and the - her - like, her legs. I mean, come on. Just so burned into my mind. And I love it so much. It still, like, gives me chills.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT")
TURNER: (Singing) Oh, what's love got to do, got to do with it? What's love but a secondhand emotion? What's love got to do, got to do with it?
POWERS: She figured out how to, like, make that image so instantly iconic, elaborating on it, for example, in the "Mad Max" film that she was in.
POWERS: You know, her costuming, her self-presentation is very similar in a way. But, you know, the other interesting thing about that video and about the songs on "Private Dancer" is that while they were perfect for the rock ’n’ roll arenas, they're also perfect for adult contemporary music.
POWERS: You know, that's how they became huge pop hits as well, and especially her ballads. And I think her own story, which she published in a memoir in, I think, 1986 - right? "I, Tina," right around that time. Her story as a survivor of domestic abuse and as someone who had escaped her situation with Ike Turner in this incredibly dramatic way in which she fled with nothing and had to rebuild herself, that story also resonated as powerfully as her presence in the rock world resonated. And it was the '80s. It was a time when the strong woman survivor was kind of at the center of a lot of narratives in popular culture, whether it was movies like "Aliens," you know, or even "9 to 5," you know, Dolly Parton in "9 To 5."
POWERS: Her story kind of fit in with this mainstream feminist idea of what it meant to be a true, strong woman.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I have to say, I don't know what came first for me as a millennial, you know, growing up in the '90s, whether I heard her first or if I saw the movie, "What's Love Got To Do With It" on TV first. Like, if that was my introduction to Tina, because I remember that being on TV all the time. Angela Bassett, of course, played her in that biopic, and Laurence Fishburne was Ike Turner. There's a world where this could have - and I think she might have felt for a while - that it overshadowed her musical career.
When I think about how many references have been made to it in popular culture, especially in rap and music, with people rhyming things with Ike and making kind of light of the fact that he was abusive, there's a world where that could have overshadowed it. But it seems like towards the end of her life, she was really able to reclaim her story and sort of move past that, despite the fact that it was such a large part of her career. What do you make of the fact that she was able to move past this albatross of Ike Turner and...
HARRIS: ...Really reclaim the story for herself.
HARRIS: And also just reclaim her name because that was a huge part of it as well.
POWERS: Yeah. This is a great question because on the one hand, telling her story was a huge gift. Aisha, I know that you've written a lot about "The Color Purple." It's back in the news again and kind of the necessity to tell very painful stories about Black women and Black men. And she did that by telling her own story. And I think that was a gift to the world. It was a gift beyond race, but it was also a gift as a Black woman telling that story.
At the same time, ultimately, what matters about Tina Turner is her voice, and at least within rock 'n' roll history, it's the mark she left on that history. Luckily, she lived long enough to receive justice in that she was inducted as a solo artist into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021. Scholars like Maureen Mahon have written great work on how musically, she helped create rock 'n' roll. She was fundamental in that way. And we're living in a moment when the canon has been challenged - you know, the idea that rock 'n' roll is a thing that men and ultimately white men own. I think that myth is falling apart.
HARRIS: Oh, yeah.
POWERS: I hope. I hope.
HARRIS: Well, you did do Turning The Tables for NPR...
POWERS: That's right.
HARRIS: ...The very amazing and massive sort of look at the greatest albums by women in pop music. And Tina was on there.
POWERS: Absolutely. And your generation and Generation Z, I think, are making different demands as far as how we understand this history. And so all it takes is a shift in perspective to notice the centrality of Tina Turner in this story. And I'm very happy that she, through being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame through the musical of her life that you saw and that premiered before she passed, that she got to enjoy this moment where, yes, her story of survival remained important, but also her music was fully celebrated. I'm glad she got those flowers. I'm so glad.
HARRIS: You couldn't think of a better ending for such a, you know, tumultuous but ultimately beautiful life. And so it's great to see that and know that and also see all of the outpouring of love that she's getting right now in the wake of her death. So...
POWERS: Just think about that body that Tina Turner owned, possessed, moved, shared with the world, that completely strong, powerful body that wasn't going to fit into a mold of whiteness, wasn't going to fit into a mold of girlish femininity that many pop artists were forced into at that time. She was just like, you know what? No. I'm not going to just stand here at this microphone and wear gloves and, you know, do pretty choreography. I'm going to show you what I've got.
POWERS: And it's still something that women are constantly having to reclaim as the culture tries to contain us. And so maybe that's another profound lesson we have from Tina. It's like, you know what? If somebody tries to hold you down, just move.
HARRIS: Yeah. Perfect, perfect way to end that. And, yes, thank you, Tina.
POWERS: Thank you, Tina.
HARRIS: We want to know what your favorite Tina Turner songs and performances are. Find us at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. And thank you so much for being here and helping us recognize Tina Turner.
POWERS: Always a joy.
HARRIS: We want to take a moment to thank our POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR Plus subscribers. We appreciate you so much for showing your support of NPR. If you haven't signed up yet and want to show your support, listen to the show without any sponsor breaks, maybe, head over to plus.npr.org/happyhour or visit the link in our show notes.
This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and Hafsa Fathima and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all on Friday.
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