Tina Turner is one of the most influential musicians and performers of the twentieth century. She revolutionized what it meant to a multi-talented and multi-faceted artist especially as a Black woman. She paid her due diligence as an R&B artist, a soul artist, a Rock and Roll artist, and even a pop artist. Turner successfully maneuvered transitions between these genres throughout her career, which paid off she is considered a living legend in the music business. She has many accolades that speak to her talents: Turner won eight (8) competitive Grammy Awards in addition to three (3) Grammy Hall of Fame Awards, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, three (3) of her most recognized songs, “River Deep – Mountain High”, “Proud Mary”, and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” were also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, along with her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. One of the main reasons why her music has endured throughout the years is because her professional work had strong ties to her personal life. Whether that be her early introduction to music through going to church with her grandparents or her abusive relationship with husband and business partner, Ike Turner, Tina Turner’s personal gains and setbacks often stemmed from what occurred off stage. Tina Turner’s personal struggles and gains were the main factors attributing to her success in the various genres she explored, along with the decisions to alter and develop her musical artistry.
Anna Mae Bullock was born on November 26, 1939 in Nutbush, Tennessee to parents Zelma (née Currie) and Floyd Bullock (Gulla, 170). Anna Mae also had an older sister named Aillene, but they were separated when their parents moved to Knoxville, forcing Anna Mae to live with her strict paternal grandparents, Alex and Roxanna Bullock (Norris, 107). Both her grandmother and grandfather were devout Christians, which exposed her to her early interest in music. While living with her grandparents, Anna Mae began to sing in the choir at her church, Woodlawn Missionary Baptist Church (Norris, 107). While living with her grandparents, Anne Mae’s grandmother was adamant about her granddaughter being active in the church. When Anna Mae lived with her parents, music was not an important aspect of their lives. There were no instruments in the home, the only time they sang and enjoyed music was during Church on Sundays (Gulla, 170). In her book, Breaking Every Rule, Turner recalled that her early idols were Mahalia Jackson and Rosetta Tharpe (Turner and Loder, 18). During this time, especially in the South, sacred gospel was important for African American communities. Thomas Dorsey, once an accomplished blues and jazz pianist-composer, was labeled as the “Father of Gospel Music” and credited with advancing the genre of gospel music (Burnim, 189). Turner’s gospel idols were lauded with transitioning from sacred gospel to a different form of gospel, which came to be known as secular music, which some African-Americans embraced, but others thought it to be disrespectful to early sacred gospel and spirituals.
As Anna Mae transitioned into young adulthood, her mother became more financially stable allowing both her and her sister to move to St. Louis, Missouri to live with their mother. Both Anna Mae and Aillene were young women at this time, early 1950s, naturally they wanted to explore their surroundings, which in turn led to the exploration of the music scene. This is how Anna Mae was exposed to not only blues and R&B, but to Ike Turner as well. Anna Mae met Ike at a club with his band, Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, and she realized that she admired his skills along with wanting her own chance to sing. Ike’s act is widely regarded as one of the earliest germinators of the R&B genre. When her singing career started, her sound was compared to the likes of Big Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith, but she actually preferred R&B as the “gritty style [of blues] didn’t appeal to her much” (Gulla, 175). Blues actually derived itself from R&B, but incorporates its rhythms, musical and formal structures, and vocal styles from gospel music (Burnim, 277). Where Anna Mae was located, St. Louis, also played a vital role in the music she created early in her career. In the early 1950s, St. Louis was a hub for Blues. St. Louis blues emphasized pianos and solo performances and is closely related to jump blues, ragtime, and piano blues (AllMusic).
Once Anna Mae began to sing with Ike, their music struggled to reach beyond the Midwest as they were mostly doing covers of songs and the few original songs that Ike wrote. Although Ike and Anna Mae were not in a personal relationship, his dominant nature still shined, one of the main influences being the change of Anna Mae’s name to Tina. Tina remembers in a later interview that “Anna Mae Bullock ended up as Tina because Ike Turner decided that’s what her name should be” (Ebony, 32). He named her after his favorite character in a television show, but his reasoning being that if Anna Mae left the band, he could easily replace her with another “Tina”. Early on with the band, Anne Mae got pregnant by a member of the band, which led to her mother kicking her out of the house. She now had to fend for herself, but it was difficult as the Revue was not as successful, at that point, as they were expecting to be. “Singing with Ike was how I made my living… And I was living better than I ever had in my life” because he was providing her with enough stipend to cover some of her expenses for her and her baby (Ebony, 34). Critics and reviewers recognized the talent of Tina and Ike’s band, but their success did not come as quickly as Tina had hoped, which did lead to internal issues for the band.
The Ike and Tina Revue gained its first taste of wide recognition after releasing their song, A Fool in Love; a critic commenting that it was “the blackest record to creep into the white pop charts since Ray Charles’ gospel-styled What’d I Say” (Turner and Loder, 79). This initial success spurred Ike’s dominant nature over Tina and the band once again, but it was exacerbated by his drug and alcohol use, as “Ike’s pursuit of money also distorted the intentions of his Revue” (Gulla, 168). As a result, Ike began to physically abuse Tina when he was unhappy with her performances, the other band members, the music business in general, or if he did not get his drug fix. Since Tina had already been forced into the relationship under duress, she began to see performing as “a safe haven, a place where all fear, sadness, and violence disappeared” (Gulla, 169). The success of the Revue continued to grow, bringing recognition, fame, and money not only in the United States, but in other parts of the world too. When A Fool in Love was released, it took longer for the song to be well-received in the United States, but in Europe, the song was a hit. In Ike’s book, Takin’ Back My Name, he commented that “[he] just didn’t expect to be that big…people were just overwhelmed by the Revue” (Turner and Cawthorne, 176). Despite this success, Ike’s vices were taking a toll on Tina. His constant degradation and his abuse exacerbated her depression, even resulting in a suicide attempt in 1976 (Gulla, 184). While the attempt was obviously unsuccessful, she began to create a plan to leave Ike and free herself from his clutches.
One of the most angst-ridden scenes in Tina’s autobiographical movie, What’s Love Got to Do with It, occurred when Tina finally decides to fight back against Ike and escape from his abuse in early 1976. They were in a limo en route to their hotel the night before a show. As per usual, Ike became irate over likely some mundane problem and he took his aggression out on Tina. Tina, portrayed by Angela Bassett, decided to fight back for the first time against Ike, portrayed by Laurence Fishburne, too. When they arrived to the hotel, they were both bloodied and injured, but upon Ike going to sleep, Tina took her chance to escape (What’s Love Got…). Their divorce was not finalized until 1978, but Tina was willing to give up all of her material belongings, “only want[ing] two things–her freedom and her stage name of ‘Tina Turner’” (Bego, 141). Since she didn’t have any money, she resorting to cleaning houses and living off of food stamps to fund her solo career (Ebony, 36).
Upon ending her relationship with Ike, Tina Turner began to reinvent her image, both personally and professionally. Personally, she converted to Buddhism as it helped to keep things in perspective and sooth her nerves (Gulla, 186). Professionally, she was initially met with setbacks. As she was no longer a member of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, it was hard for her to find work to showcase her obvious talents. Tina even tried country, since it was important to her culture growing up in Nutbush, TN, but it was met with criticism. She decided to start over and give Rock & Roll and try; this was not a far reach as Rock & Roll derives itself from soul music and soul was an important aspect of her early career. Tina said in her Ebony interview that, “sometimes you’ve got let everything go—purge it.” (Ebony, 38). This led to her Private Dancer album, which featured hits like the title track and What’s Love Got to Do with It. Turner’s career was now back on track with a new look and a new sound in both the United States and abroad, eventually culminating with her winning Best Pop Female Vocal, Best Female Rock Vocal, and Record of the Year at the 1984 Grammys (Gulla, 187).
Tina Turner endured many trials to prepare for her breakthrough and eventual success. She came from a childhood home where affection was rare due to the turbulent relationship between her parents, she transitioned to live with her grandparents who were not much better, but were responsible for introducing her to her love of music. After moving to St. Louis, Tina and her sister Aillene were introduced to blues music. When she began her professional relationship with Ike, she was exposed to R&B. However, this professional relationship with Ike not only turned personal, but abusive as well. When she finally extracted herself from that relationship, she once again reinvented herself into a Rock & Roll artist, which she was successful at as well. One reviewer of her performance during the Ike and Tina Revue in 1968 commented, “Tina foisted herself on audiences with rabid, otherworldly energy and mesmerizing stage presence” (Gulla, 168). Despite what happened in her personal life, she found a way to continually give the audience the show they came for. The horrors that she witnessed and experienced at the hands of Ike Turner did not dim her light; Tina found a way to ascend herself to the ranks as “the most exciting female performer in the Rhythm and Blues idiom today” (Gulla, 168). Her legacy is still being imitated and replicated by newer and younger R&B, pop, soul, and Rock & Roll artists, but she is and always will be a pioneer that overcame personal struggles and setbacks to carve a legacy for herself to be a pioneer for Black Women in music.
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Turner, Ike and Nigel Cawthrone. Takin’ Back My Name: Confessions of Ike Turner. London: Virgin Books, 1999.
Turner, Tina, and Kurt Loder. I, Tina: My Life Story. New York City, NY: HarperCollins, 2010.
What’s Love Got to Do With It. Directed by Brian Gibson. Performed by Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne. USA: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc., 1993. DVD.