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Simply the Best: The Iconic Tina Turner passes at 83 (1939-2023)

We woke up to a gut punch with the news that the icon Tina Turner had passed away on May 24th, 2023 after a long illness. The hits keep on coming. Over the last few months, we’ve lost Pelé, then Harry Belafonte, and now Turner. If you are of a certain age (various ages really) you are blessed to have experienced different moments of Turner’s brilliant music as the soundtrack of your life. There are few musicians of her calibre, period, and even fewer who defied musical genres and electrified the stage as she did across decades. Tina Turner, a name she legally fought to maintain after a bitter divorce from a maniacally abusive spouse, was truly one of a kind.

From her beginnings as half of the duo Ike and Tina in East St. Louis, Missouri, to her stunning rebirth and solo career as Tina Turner and simply Tina, she became a world-famous superstar who sold out packed stadiums around the world. Born Anna Mae Bullock to a factory worker named Zelma Bullock (née Currie) and a Baptist deacon, Floyd Bullock, in Nutbush, Tennessee in 1939 she grew up in a tumultuous and violent household which no doubt played a role in her abusive marriage to Ike Turner. This was rural Tennessee, and her family was sharecroppers. Her violent father abandoned the family after her mother fled his abuse, and Turner ended up in St. Louis with her sister where she eventually became enthralled by the music at the Manhattan Club. A mere teenager, her friendship with Ike soon shifted and they began making R & B records as the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. They were married in 1962. Hits like A Fool in Love, It’s Gonna Work out Fine, Proud Mary (1970) and Nutbush City Limits (1973) helped to cement their success. But back at home, things were falling apart in horrific ways.

In a 1997 interview with Larry King, she revealed that her ambivalence about the 1993 biopic, What’s Love got to do with it?, was due to the lack of accuracy of the depiction of her abuse. But as she stated plainly, the reality of her abuse was such that the producers thought that the details would not be believed by the film’s audience. To say that Ike was monstrously abusive over the course of their marriage is an understatement. As Turner revealed in the HBO documentary about her life, Tina (2021), Ike’s special brand of terror extended to the stage where he refused to create a playlist for the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, instead starting in on each new song on his guitar and expecting Tina, the other musicians, and the dancers to quickly fall in line.

But that is part of the triumph of Tina Turner. She survived her father and her first husband and went on to share her truth unashamedly and to claim her right to happiness, peace, joy, and yes, love. She also claimed her sex appeal in a way that women, and especially black women, had never done on a modern music stage before. The only predecessor that comes to mind is not of her era – think Josephine Baker. Tina was sensual, brave, and courageous and her interpretation and performance of her songs were sexy. Tina was sexy! But what made her brand of sexy even more powerful is that in a world where,  even today, many people who should know better believe that women are past their prime in their forties (Don Lemon comes to mind), she became the iconic Tina Turner sexy in her forties. No one should underestimate what it took for her to reclaim her sex appeal personally and publicly after the heinousness of an abusive relationship which included not only physical and emotional violence, but sexual violence. This is the joy, defiance, and passion with which Tina reclaimed and lived her life.

Her triumphs were many and began with a hard-won solo career relaunched on the smaller stages of Las Vegas. Tina also took her show on the road to obscure towns like Devil’s Lake Corral in Onoway, Alberta where her performances of songs like Tonight’s the Night and Get Back must have made the audience wonder if anyone else (like Rod Stewart and the Beatles maybe) had ever performed the songs. These lean years were transformed after David Bowie told Capitol Records that Ms. Turner was his favourite singer. What came next was a searingly passionate version of Al Green’s 1971 Let’s Stay Together (1983). But this was not Turner’s first solo foray. Years earlier Phil Spector had come calling for her, not Ike (to whom he reportedly paid a $20k bribe to bar him from the studio), to record the epic orchestral anthem River Deep, Mountain High (1966). Tina’s power on this record is indisputable. Put simply, there is church in that song!

But Tina’s 1980’s rebirth was something different. The sometimes-aggressive vocal presence which characterized her early work with Ike was replaced by smooth, melodic, nuanced, emotive, and powerful vocals that evoked the emotion of the lyrics that she delivered. The song Private Dancer (1984) from the album of the same name, is a case in point. In this soulful ballad, Tina took on the persona of a “working girl,” relating the deliberate compartmentalization that allowed the sexual transaction to remain transactional: as Tina sang in her signature seductive raspy voice “you don’t think of them as human, you don’t think of them at all.” With a hint of mournfulness “you keep your mind on the money, keeping your eyes on the wall,” and longing “I want to make a million dollars, I want to live out by the sea.” Surely such authentic emotion came from her own personal well. But it was the soulful What’s Love Got to do with it? (1984) which went on to become her first US #1 hit. The Private Dancer album sold 10 million copies, staying in the American top ten for an incredible 9 months!

Then came a string of memorable duets with the likes of David Bowie (Tonight 1988), Rod Stewart (It takes Two 1990), Barry White (In your Wildest Dreams 1996), and the Canuck Bryan Adams (It’s only Love 1985). And with the world at her feet, these duets kept coming with Cose della vita (Can’t Stop Thinking of You) [1997] with Italian rock star Eros Ramazzotti, and Teach me Again (2006) with Elisa. Tina also rocked the world at Live Aid alongside Mick Jagger in 1985 and lent her voice to We are the World (1985) the charity song organized by Harry Belafonte which raised $63 million for famine relief in Africa.

Like the sculptor Edmonia Lewis in the 1870’s and performer Josephine Baker in the 1920’s, Tina was another black female global arts superstar who understood the possibilities of Europe. All three returned to the US to perform, visit, or tour, but they all retreated to Europe to live. As Turner stated to Larry King in a 1997 interview, it was European audiences who had cemented her solo stardom, not American ones. Yes, she was big in America, but she was a phenomenon in Europe, and she understood and embraced that becoming a Swiss citizen in 2013. Europe also no doubt allowed her to experience her racial identity and her cross-racial relationship and eventual marriage to Erwin Bach in another way, that America (or parts thereof) surely would not have.

Turner’s transformation was not just artistic and musical, but spiritual. As a child of African ancestry born in the American South, her path to a spiritual practice other than the Christianity preached in her childhood household must have required tremendous courage and faith. A devoted Buddhist, Turner credited the religion with giving her the strength to leave her near lethal first marriage. As such it also led her to the solo triumphs for which she will long be globally remembered, loved, and emulated. While other talented female musicians like Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Lady Gaga have relied in part on dramatic changes of style and the creation of personas to captivate their audiences, Turner sang, emoted, and danced with a seismic passion, blazing the stages that she graced and electrifying and captivating her audiences. Yes, that smile. Yes, those eyes. Yes, that gorgeous face. Yes, that rhythm. Yes, those legs in those miniskirts. But, oh, that unmatched voice!

Among Turner’s many accolades are seven Grammy Awards, an NAACP Image Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and oh yeah, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, twice! Much more than a legendary musician and survivor, Tina Turner was a feminist icon who showed women (long before #MeToo), how to reclaim their lives after devastating abuse and reach unimagined heights with passion, dignity, and grace. What is more, she never thought that reclaiming herself meant denying her sexuality. Tina was a magnificent example that it is possible to observe, learn from, and step out of a devastating past and into a legendary future. Rock goddess? Check. R & B Queen? Check. Pop sensation? Check. Global megastar? Check. Feminist Icon. That too! Since there will never be another Tina Turner, those of us of a certain age should revel in the blessing of having experienced so many of her triumphs in real time.