The incomparable Tina Turner, the rock and roll singer who rose to fame under the controlling hand of an abusive partner, risked everything to leave him, then rebuilt her career from scratch to become a global superstar, died on May 24 at the age of 83. She had been dealing with health challenges for some time, having suffered a stroke in 2013, and been diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 2016. This was followed by kidney complications, for which she underwent a transplant the following year.
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Born in Tennessee on November 26, 1939, Turner's given name was Anna Mae Bullock, and her beginnings were just as ordinary, albeit turbulent. She and her two older sisters were sent to live with grandparents for long stretches, as her parents would sometimes relocate for work. Bullock honed her vocal skills in Baptist church choirs but by the time she was 11, her mother fled to Illinois to escape the abusive marriage. Bullock would eventually join her, and it was at the Manhattan Club in St. Louis that she first saw Ike Turner perform with his band, the Kings of Rhythm. She was 17 years old at the time, and asked him to let her join the group, which he only did after Bullock commandeered the microphone one night during intermission and sang B.B. King's “You Know I Love You.”
Under Turner's tutelage, she recorded her first song in 1958 under the name Little Ann, not long after graduating from high school, but only started attracting attention in 1960, when a local DJ heard her demo vocals on “A Fool in Love,” a song Ike Turner had written for Art Lassiter. The tape reached the desk of Henry “Juggy” Murray, president of Sue Records, an R&B label, and Turner knew he had found gold in Bullock. He renamed her “Tina,” conferred his surname upon her, and trademarked it so that if Bullock ever left the act, another singer could replace her by assuming the stage persona of “Tina Turner.”
Little did he know Turner was irreplaceable. Her star was quickly on the rise: “A Fool in Love” reached Number 2 on the Hot R&B Sides chart and Number 27 on the Billboard Hot 100. This was followed by the single “It's Gonna Work Out Fine,” which earned the duo a Grammy nomination for Best Rock and Roll Performance. To ride the wave of popularity, Turner created the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, which toured heavily across the United States, even playing to desegregated audiences in southern clubs and hotels. Ike and Tina married in 1962, and record deals came fast and furious over the next few years, including a stint with Warner Brothers, which helped raise their profile with television appearances on shows like American Bandstand and Hollywood a Go-Go.
After they appeared in the 1966 concert film The Big T.N.T. Show, they signed with influential music producer Phil Spector, and opened for the Rolling Stones UK tour that autumn. It was the first time Turner began to experience creative freedom and broaden her range of vocal material, but she was still very much part of Ike's operation. They opened for the Stones’ US tour, and a plethora of musical stars, including David Bowie, Elvis Presley and Elton John, guest appeared at the Turners’ Las Vegas residency. By 1970, under Spector's guidance, Ike and Tina Turner's albums marked a departure from their usual R&B repertoire to encompass rock and roll classics like “Come Together,” “Get Back,” and “Honky Tonk Woman.” In 1971, their cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's “Proud Mary” became their biggest hit. Turner's career would also take her into the realm of film, where she gave several critically acclaimed performances.
As her public persona grew, however, her personal life was in shambles. Ike was verbally and physically abusive. The violence became so unbearable that in 1968, she attempted suicide. She eventually left him after 16 years of marriage and relinquished everything except the right to her stage name. This one possession, bestowed upon her as an act of ownership, would eventually set her free.
In the early stages of her solo career, having survived for some time off food stamps and the kindness of friends, Turner supported herself by appearing on television variety shows. Though much of her income went into settling lawsuits from gigs she would no longer fulfil as part of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, she worked hard and re-emerged with a sexy new image; this was Turner commanding not only the stage, but also taking charge of her own life, on her own terms.
It was her fifth solo album, 1984's Private Dancer, that solidified her image as a still-relevant performer who had a lot more to offer. The mega-hit off that album was “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” which marked her first Number 1 song in the US. She was soon filling stadiums, including one in Brazil that is thought to be one of the largest concerts in history, with over 180,000 people in attendance. In 1985, she also performed at the Live Aid concert at London's Wembley Stadium, which raised millions of dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia.
Trinidadian film curator Jonathan Ali shared an excerpt from an essay by his Barbadian colleague Jason Jeffers, which emphasised just how much Turner's visibility meant to Caribbean people:
In 1985, on my little island, the heroes in almost every movie, book, cartoon and comic we obsessed over were white men. I remember one night tearfully asking my mother why my hair wasn’t straight. I’d been playing superheroes outside again and wanted my hair to blow in the wind like He-Man’s did when he battled his arch-nemesis Skeletor; my curls just stood there, inert….
Then came Tina Turner’s ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome).
Ali also shared film director George Miller's recount of “the iconic casting of Turner” as Aunt Entity in the film:
Mad Max is about an apocalyptic world, and we needed someone who was powerful, but most of all, who was a wonderful survivor […] and as a writing reference we kept on saying, ‘Someone like Tina Turner, someone like Tina Turner.’
Her decision to go public about her experience as a domestic abuse survivor, captured so powerfully in the film “What's Love Got To Do With It” which was based on her 1986 autobiography “I, Tina,” made her even more relatable, etching her name not only on people's lips, but in their hearts. This was especially true in the Caribbean, which struggles with high rates of domestic violence and femicide. For many Caribbean women, Tina Turner was a symbol of resilience and hope, of what could happen if you were truthful, hardworking, and courageous; if you had faith. She credited much of this to Buddhism, which she says fuelled her with the strength she needed to leave Ike.
Her amazing comeback solidified her title as the Queen of Rock and Roll. Turner was inducted (with Ike, who was in jail at the time, for driving under the influence of cocaine) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, when she began to embrace the elder stateswoman role. By then, she had found love with German record executive Erwin Bach (whom she eventually married in 2013), and was spending more time in Switzerland, where she eventually became a naturalised citizen.
Her hits were curated into a three-disc anthology, dubbed “The Collected Recordings,” in 1994. In 1999, she announced her last stadium tour, which went on to become the top-grossing tour of the year 2000. She did, however, continue to do live appearances for some time afterwards, including the Tina! (a Broadway musical) 50th Anniversary Tour. Her second autobiography, “Tina Turner: My Love Story,” was published in 2018.
Her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist finally came in 2021, when she was 81 years old. That same year, the documentary “Tina” debuted on HBO, and she sold her music catalogue to publisher BMG for an undisclosed sum.
Caribbean social media users, like netizens the world over, paid their respects to the global icon, thanking her for her music and her example. People lauded her “sense of indomitable optimism,” praised her unique sense of style, and hailed her as a legend.
Turner's triumphs didn't shield her from trauma — her son Craig, from a relationship with the saxophonist Raymond Hill, took his own life in 2018 and Ronnie, her son with Ike, died of colon cancer four years later — but she always tried to focus on the joy: her music, her husband, and her remaining children, Ike Jr. and Michael, both from Ike’s first marriage, whom she raised. The small, meaningful things that make an extraordinary life.