A soul survivor with sex appeal
Thursday, December 1, 2005
By Scott Galupo
Accounts of the life of Anna Mae Bullock of Nutbush, Tenn., known to the world as Tina Turner, read like survivor stories. There was the sharecropper childhood in the segregated South and the abandonment by her parents. The turbulent marriage to a domineering alcoholic whose abuse drove her to attempt suicide. And that stint on welfare.
Tina Turner emerged from all this -- the physical and mental cruelty, the waxing and waning of fickle fame -- as a towering figure in pop music, a symbol of black female resiliency.
This weekend, Miss Turner will receive a Kennedy Center Honor. The tribute comes on top of seven Grammy awards and membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (She shares the last with notorious ex-husband Ike Turner.)
Miss Turner is 66 and, like many an aging Kennedy Center honoree, past the peak of her creative powers. It's been six years since her last studio album and five since her last concert tour. A putative movie project, "The Goddess," for which Miss Turner was tapped to play a Hindu deity, was nixed after the death of director Ismail Merchant.
Yet her shadow is long. "My role model," talk-show veteran Oprah Winfrey recently cooed of Miss Turner. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the likes of Janet Jackson or Beyonce Knowles without Miss Turner's influence.
She was hardly the first woman to overtly use her sexuality as an artistic device. But she was arguably the first to do so in the rock arena. She was the frenetic, downtown alternative to Diana Ross' polished urbanity, the foremother of every pop diva who unabashedly flashes her gams.
Miss Turner bluffed her way into Ike Turner's band, the Kings of Rhythm, in a St. Louis club. They began cutting singles such as "A Fool in Love" in 1960 and married hastily in 1962 in Tijuana, Mexico. Success was modest at first. "River Deep, Mountain High," a galvanizing 1966 set produced by Phil Spector, was a disappointing seller.
Bigger hits came later, when Mr. Turner retooled the band to appeal more broadly to white audiences. In addition to the soul and funk rave-ups for which they were known, Ike and Tina covered rock songs such as the Beatles' "Come Together" and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary," the latter interpretation reaching the Top 5.
The red-hot images of Miss Turner captured by Albert and David Maysles in the documentary "Gimme Shelter" -- the Ike and Tina Turner Revue opened for the Stones in 1969 -- are, in retrospect, still quite provocative. As she croon-moans her way through an aching cover of Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long," Miss Turner grips the microphone in ways that are blush-making to this day. "Her male audience sat transfixed while she crooned and panted her way to the grand finale," wrote a young and breathless Bob Geldof in a 1974 review of an Ike and Tina show for the Vancouver Sun.
In 1985, Mr. Geldof, by then the world's most famous humanitarian impresario, paired Miss Turner with an exquisitely appropriate male counterpart, Mick Jagger, for the grand finale at Live Aid. There, in the heat of a duet, Mr. Jagger snapped off Miss Turner's skirt. Unsuspecting and, at first, perhaps a touch embarrassed, Miss Turner quickly gave in to the moment; she can be seen reveling in the sexual abandon of the stunt. Credit Miss Turner, then, with the first "wardrobe malfunction" in the history of live television.
The litheness of Miss Turner's body was as vital an element of her appeal as was the expressive rasp of her voice. An indelible image on MTV in 1984 (the high point of her "Ike who?" comeback) was of a denim-clad Miss Turner, her hair a spiky, feral pile, strutting down a city street in high heels and spitting out the cautionary lyrics of "What's Love Got to Do With It," her lone No. 1 hit.
Miss Turner won four Grammy awards in 1984, including record of the year for "What's Love Got to Do With It" and best female rock performance for "Better Be Good to Me." The success of the album "Private Dancer" -- it sold 11 million copies worldwide -- was the culmination of a slow recovery that began with separation from Mr. Turner in 1975. (The couple divorced in 1978.)
Miss Turner followed "Dancer" with "Break Every Rule" in 1986. The world tour that followed proved an enormous draw, with more than 180,000 fans turning out to see her in Brazil. With one foot firmly in pop music, Miss Turner hewed close to her rocker supporters, touring with Rod Stewart and performing songs by the Beatles, David Bowie and Mark Knopfler.
She also followed up in earnest her interest in movies. Ten years after appearing briefly as the Acid Queen in a misbegotten big-screen adaptation of the Who's rock opera "Tommy," Miss Turner starred opposite Mel Gibson in "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." (Its soundtrack yielded the hit "We Don't Need Another Hero.")
With help from rock journalist and MTV talking head Kurt Loder, Miss Turner set down an account of her life in the 1987 autobiography "I, Tina," in which the singer cited her Buddhist faith as a decisive factor in her post-Ike recovery. (The book would become the basis of the 1993 biopic "What's Love Got to Do With It," starring Angela Bassett.)
Throughout the 1990s, Miss Turner recorded sporadically; she retreated from the scene, became unadventurous. The louche "Steamy Windows" and the anthemic "The Best," both 1989 singles, were the last gasps of the rejuvenated singer.
Eventually, Miss Turner found herself literally in retreat, living permanently in Europe. (Semiretired, she shares homes with German-born record tycoon Erwin Bach in Switzerland and France.)
"Success in America -- what I find with my homeland, nothing lasts very long," Miss Turner told CBS' Mike Wallace in 2002. "Europe is different. You're right there with them until you come back."
Perhaps a celebratory weekend in the nation's capital will once again nudge Tina Turner home.