Flashbacks of Ike
It’s a thorny thing, trying to eulogize Ike Turner. On the one hand, he really was a titanically important musical figure, one who helped to create a sound and then managed to stay relevant for decades, mutating that sound to fit the times; not too many other 50s rock pioneers were making hits into the 70s. A lot of his music still sounds good today, another thing I can’t say of all his contemporaries. He had a famously furious live show, and he masterminded the career of one of the era’s most iconic vocalists. He also beat the shit out of that vocalist, repeatedly, for years. At this point, Ike Turner is way more famous for beating Tina Turner than for any of his musical accomplishments, which he probably should be. Plenty of morally bankrupt types have involved themselves in pop music over the years, but I can’t think of any quite as notorious as Turner, who always seemed perversely proud of all the bad things he did. Complicating things further, it’s hard to write about his music without at least touching on his personal life. He made most of his best songs with the wife he beat and mercilessly controlled, and some deeply fucked up relationship dynamics are deeply entrenched in many of those songs. He wasn’t a good person, but he made good music.
1. Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats: “Rocket 88” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Well, yeah. “Rocket 88,” which Turner is now generally credited with writing and recording in 1951 with his Kings of Rhythm band, is one of those songs that may or may not be the first rock and roll song ever, depending on who you ask. I don’t like to get into that sort of historical debate; musical evolution rarely if ever happens on the back of a single track. But “Rocket 88” was definitely an important and prescient jam. Its smooth car-talk lyrics, fuzzed-up blues bassline, and honking saxophones all conjure up the sort of abandon that would pretty much define the music for the next ten years or so. It’s also a pretty great little song, and Turner’s hammering pianos, combined with Brenston’s nonchalant vocals, ooze a very particular sort of slickster charisma. It’s a starmaking performance, so it’s weird to think that Turner wouldn’t really become a star for almost another decade.
2. Otis Rush: “Double Trouble” Preview/Buy from iTunes
After “Rocket 88,” Turner and the Kings of Rhythm spent a while working as Memphis session musicians, backing blues musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James. On tracks like this one, Turner and his band generated a seriously intense slow-burn groove. “Double Trouble” is a forbidding sort of grown-man song, one that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the squawking frenetic sound that Turner had helped to develop on “Rocket 88.” Turner also recorded a few solo records for a few different labels around this time, and that label-jumping helped insure that a lot of those songs don’t show up on iTunes searches.
3. Ike & Tina Turner: “A Fool in Love” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Ike married Anna Mae Bullock, who he renamed Tina, in 1958, after she’d been singing backup in his band for a while. “A Fool in Love,” from 1959, was the first song that Tina sang lead on, and it became a surprise R&B hit. Given Tina’s raging, bloodthirsty vocal here, it’s hard to believe Ike didn’t recognize Tina’s starpower faster. Appropriately enough, “A Fool in Love” is a song about the confusion inherent in being in love with a total asshole.
4. Ike & Tina Turner: “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” Preview/Buy from iTunes
This is far and away my favorite of Ike & Tina’s initial run of R&B hits, which lasted until about 1962. Ike’s twangy tremelo guitar here is just awesome; it’s got a guttural simplicity that reminds me of Duane Eddy. And Ike does an amazing job playing foil to Tina. He doesn’t really sing on the track; instead, he mutters sort of sleazy lounge-lizard ripostes to Tina’s raspy howls. (Tina: “Ikie?” Ike: “Uh-huh?” Tina: “I been to see the preacherman.” Ike: “The preacher? You must be out your miiind.”) Ike and Tina were touring hard together around this time, and Ike was developing a reputation as a strict, draconian bandleader, one who made all his sidemen practice hard constantly. You sort of have to be a supernaturally driven asshole to get anywhere in music, and Ike was definitely that.
5. Ike & Tina Turner: “River Deep, Mountain High” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Crazy story behind this one. In 1966, Phil Spector wanted to work with Tina, but he wanted nothing to do with Ike. So he set up an arrangement: Ike could get credit for the record, but he wasn’t allowed anywhere near the studio when Tina was recording. “River Deep, Mountain High” is a serious pop classic, and even though Ike’s name was on the sleeve, he didn’t write or record a note on it. One of his greatest songs wasn’t his at all. It’s an intriguing little music-history what-if to imagine what might’ve gone down if Spector had allowed Turner into the studio; with two of pop’s most notoriously controlling and abusive shitheads in the same booth, you have to wonder who would’ve been stabbed first. Spector managed to harness Tina’s fiery intensity and put it over a big, clean track after Ike had been using her on no-budget Southern soul for years, and the difference is revelatory. It took Ike a little while to pick up on that difference.
6. Ike & Tina Turner: “Bold Soul Sister” Preview/Buy from iTunes
By 1970, Ike was basically playing catchup with black pop. “Bold Soul Sister” is Ike’s attempt at a James Brown track, with Tina yowling non-sequiturs (“things and stuff and stuff and things!”) over a monstrous funk groove. It’s a deeply weird song: no structure, no real chorus, not about anything beyond how badass Tina is. It’s also a great song. Tina was better at yelping ad-libbed interjections than singing actual tunes, and Ike’s chicken-scratch guitar-solo is just nasty. Ike was probably able to get a convincing James Brown imitation out of his band because he worked that band as hard as Brown worked his own.
7. Ike & Tina Turner: “Proud Mary” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Again, yeah. The Rolling Stones brought Ike and Tina on tour in 1969, and Ike slowly figured out that the Stones’ white fans would go nuts if he laced his disciplined soul-funk bite with freaked-out acid-rock and covered some of the psych-rock anthems that were blowing up at the time. It worked beautifully, both commercially and artistically. Ike and Tina’s cover of “I Wanna Take You Higher” was a bigger hit that Sly and the Family Stone’s original, and probably a better record besides. But Ike and Tina probably had their defining moment when they turned Creedence Clearwater Revival’s straight-up blues-rock stomper into a fired-up stormy singalong anthem. It’s hard to imagine cross-genre fusion resulting in a banger like this these days. Instead, we get Lupe Fiasco lip-syncing in a Nickelback video. I love that the slow-burn intro here takes up half the song; it’s the better half anyway.
8. Ike & Tina Turner: “Workin’ Together” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Ike wrote this one, and it’s one of the great early-70s change-the-world soul ballads. So someone who’s famous for being an abusive fuck, who missed his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction because he was doing time on gun and drug charges, who has cheerily occupied his position as one of music’s chief supervillains for decades, once wrote an amazing song about how we should let love be our guide. Music is weird.
9. Ike & Tina Turner: “Nutbush City Limits” Preview/Buy from iTunes
This was Ike’s last big hit; a few years later, Tina left him and blew the whistle on all the years of abuse she’d endured at his hands. And it’s not even really his song; Tina wrote it, and it’s about her experiences growing up in a one-stoplight town. Still, the charged-up track that he and his band worked up is no joke. “Nutbush City Limits” is pretty much a straight-up rock song with only a few funk embellishments, but Ike didn’t have any trouble translating his flamboyant style to a different form. About halfway through, there’s a trebly solo that may or may not have come from a guitar; it sounds like a deranged tea-whistle.
10. Gorillaz: “Every Planet We Reach is Dead” Preview/Buy from iTunes
The only time I ever saw Turner live in any capacity was when he guested at a Gorillaz show at the Apollo Theater last year. Weird night. Turner’s appearance wasn’t really a surprise; almost all the guests from that last Gorillaz album were showing up, and Turner had already turned up at the group’s London shows earlier in the year. But it was still hard to figure out how to react when Turner came strutting out from the wings in a rainbow-colored coat and sat down to play a dense, rolling piano-solo. My line at the time was that applauding for him felt something like applauding for Skeletor, but even in his mid-70s, this guy was a serious showman, butt-smashing keys and screwing up his face like he was smelling something terrible. So yeah: I applauded. He was good. Turner died yesterday. I can’t honestly say that I’ll miss him, but he left behind a lot of great music, and that counts for something.