Ike Turner changed your life before you were born. Ike Turner invented rock 'n' roll. He died of unspecified causes on December 12 in his San Diego home. He was 76.
Years before he created Tina Turner—in name, look, and vocal style—and years before anybody thought in terms of a rock 'n' roll record, Turner made "Rocket 88," a number-one single in 1951 that sold half a million records. Ike was on piano, leading his own Kings of Rhythm behind sax player Jackie Brenston's vocal. Sam Phillips—who founded Sun Records and discovered Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, among others—believed "Rocket 88" to be rock's point of origin. Turner's amalgam of jump-blues boogie and late-'40s swing combined with his ferocious, percussive piano morphed into a breathless backbeat rhythm attack. It was one of the first examples of distorted electric guitar; the amp had been damaged on a road trip from Mississippi to Memphis on Highway 61. "Rocket 88" led to everything you know. Turner made 20 bucks off that one.
When he was a kid, he was born so poor he had to sew rags together to make quilts and he watched his father die in front of his house because the white hospital would not accept him for treatment. Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931, by the time he was in his early 20s, Turner was playing guitar and piano with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and B. B. King. He was also an A&R scout for Modern Records, where he discovered and recorded Elmore James.
"He made Tina what she is," Little Richard told me in a 1990 interview. "She couldn't sing. He taught her phrasing, singing, how to be a performer."
Turner discovered Tina in 1956 and developed her enormous talent with a vision exacting and complete. The Ike and Tina Turner Revue hit the stage with a furious blast of energy, Tina and the Ikettes whipping their long hair and shaking wildly. Turner wrote all the arrangements and many times played all the parts on the recordings.
I interviewed Ike Turner at the California Men's Colony state prison in San Luis Obispo for a 1991 Chicago Tribune story. He was in for a parole violation after 11 drug-related arrests. There was something enigmatic about his demeanor, like a nocturnal predator that has been captured, bagged and brought out blinking into the light. Turner told me he was 44 years old when he first tried drugs, playing the lounge at the International Hotel in Vegas in the early '70s. Elvis and Redd Foxx came around with a dollar bill and some powder. That night began a 14-year cocaine binge that turned him into a violent, paranoid disaster. "I used to fire people if I caught them with even a roach, and now I got a hole in my nose that you could put your ink pen in," he said.
While the rest of his peers were sitting comfortably in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the man who refused to play in segregated jump joints a full decade before civil rights legislation, who gave singing lessons to Janis Joplin and had hired a young James Hendrix, who shared venues with both Elvis and the Rolling Stones in their primes, languished in state prison during his induction in 1991.
Turner sobered up during that 18-month stint in the Men's Colony. He got out and got back to the music with his new wife and lead singer, Jeanette, 30 years his junior. From there, he never stopped. His last year of life ended in artistic triumph acknowledged by his peers when he won the 2007 Traditional Blues Grammy for Risin' with the Blues.
There's no excuse for beating a woman and Turner didn't make any. Tina was just as promiscuous, unafraid of a stiff drink and throwing the first punch, according to those who toured with her. That image didn't fit in with selling a monster-movie biopic washed in melodrama and saintly self-aggrandizement. In recent years she has confessed to exaggeration.
Tina complained bitterly about Turner's demands that she scream in higher and higher keys, but it's those screams that render the early stuff thrilling. She never made another important record again after their breakup, despite a spate of maudlin trash-pop hits.
"They made me the beast that I am not," Turner said in our interview. "I'm not being apologetic, because I did nothing that I regret. It took all that to make me what I am today."
I'll leave it to Tina's recitation in "Proud Mary" to provide a suitable soliloquy for the life and music of the Izear Luster Turner: nice and rough.