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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2008/01/24
by Mike Gruenberg

Ike Turner

In My Life
Ike Turner died last month at the age of 76. His musical career began when he was a teenager which roughly means that Ike spent about 60 years making music and earning a living in a business where a performers chances of success are usually slim to none. The current generation of people listening to music today may only know Ike as the guy who married Tina, abused her and when she left him, she went on to become a star. Or they may know about him in less than a favorable light from the movie, Whats Love Got To Do With It? The depiction of Ikes alleged behavior in the film does not paint a pretty picture of this man. The excesses of sex, drugs and rocknroll are clearly shown in this movie with Ike as the poster child for this out of control behavior. Although Ike always admitted to being somewhat abusive towards Tina, his version of the events differed from hers and given the poetic license that some Hollywood movies have taken in the past, one could imagine that there may have been an entwinement of truth and fiction contained in the film strictly for entertainment value. Nevertheless, Ikes abusive actions towards Tina, no matter whom you believe, cannot be condoned.
If we are to judge our political leaders and entertainment heroes based on their conduct in their personal lives as Ike has been so often judged I suspect that many of those people would not pass the litmus test of morality and good taste. Yet, we continue to vote many of those tainted politicians back into office because we are able to separate their personal lives from their political achievements. So as not to pass judgment on Ike, since only he and Tina and their family know the real truth, I will concentrate on the profound effect this man has had on virtually all the popular music we are privileged to hear today. His influence through a vast body of work reveals a talented musician, producer, arranger and songwriter who rose to a level that few in his profession have ever come close to reaching.
Ike was born (Izear Luster Turner) in November of 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Given the difficult circumstance of race relations in the south at that time, Ike had the misfortune of knowing that his father had been beaten to death by a group of white men. Ikes escape from those difficult times was through music. While in high school he formed a band called the Top Hatters which later became the Kings of Rhythm. In 1951, the band recorded Rocket 88 written by Ike and recorded at the legendary Sun music studios in Memphis. The lead singer that day was the saxophone player, Jackie Brenston, so the record came out as Jackie Brenston & The Delta Cats instead of Ike Turner and the Rhythm Kings. The record became a #1 hit on the R&B charts for Chess Records. That song has been credited as being the first record classified as rocknroll, which has since become an acknowledged milestone in the history of modern music.
Throughout the fifties, Ike became a widely used session man. He worked with such artists as B.B. King, Howlin Wolf and Otis Rush. He also produced a number of records, as well. In 1956, he moved to St. Louis where he reunited with the Rhythm Kings and became the hottest musical act in the area. There he met Tina, then known as Anna Mae Bullock. She was eight years his junior and the rest, as the say was history. They supposedly married in 1962, but according to Tina, theirs was more a marriage of friendly musicians on stage. The tightly choreographed stage act directed and choreographed by Ike consisted of a band with a horn section, three scantily dressed lady back-up singers all fronted by Tina. Her incredible voice and energy mesmerized audiences making Ike & Tina one of the most popular acts of the day.
The Ike & Tina Revue featuring the Ikettes became a major R&B act playing to enthusiastic audiences all over the world. The act came under the watchful eye of Ike whos organizational and musical skills propelled the group to international stardom. In the 60s I remember seeing them perform in New York and was astounded by the energy level that Tina was able to generate which only got more and more intense with her interaction on stage with the Ikettes. As a teenager, my friends and I would never miss an opportunity to watch Johnny Carson or any other late night TV show that featured the Ike & Tina Revue since the act bordered on being risquor that time and produced great music as well.
As the band gained in popularity in the 60s, they scored a number of hits for a small label called Sue Records. Seemingly, their big recording break came in 1966, when legendary producer Phil Spector looking to jumpstart his career with a commercial comeback produced a new Ike & Tina song, River Deep-Mountain High for his Philles label. Using his signature wall of sound Spector spared no expense to produce this record. Although the record sold well in England, it bombed in the U.S. This devastated Spector who stopped producing records for three years unable to cope with this setback. Undaunted, Ike & Tina continued. They were named as the opening act for the Rolling Stones on their 1969 Tour.
By the time the 70s rolled around, Ike & Tina were more popular than ever. Their recording career was very successful as they covered such songs as Come Together, I Want To Take You Higher and their most popular, Proud Mary which went into the Top 5 simultaneously on both the Pop and R&B charts. But beneath the success, Ike was way out of control as drug and alcohol use along with their endless touring schedule took a severe toll on him. By 1976, Tina left him and the group, Ikes drug use reached mammoth proportions and as he careened out of control finally ending up in prison in 1990 for 18 months. Ironically, while in prison, he and Tina were inducted into the RocknRoll Hall of Fame.

When you hit bottom, theres no place left to go, but up and thats precisely what he did when he got out of jail and resurrected his life. In the years from 1991 to his recent passing, he went back to his music, produced records, wrote a book and released two albums, one of which became a Grammy Award winner, Risin With the Blues.
Im a believer that a person has the ability to lift themselves up from the depths of their despair. The determining factor is if that person wants to save themselves since you cannot be saved if you dont want to be. Through all the notoriety and fame, Ike was clearly not at peace with himself. Years of drug and alcohol abuse finally landed him in jail and somewhere behind those walls; he found inner peace, established the will to survive and decided to experience life sober.
Many of the obituaries I read about Ike make mention that his personal problems overshadowed his musical accomplishments. Quite frankly, I take exception to that assessment because once you realize the extent of his work and the star studded roster of musical giants that he discovered, he produced and he played with, his musical accomplishments should be the standard by which he is judged and no other event should overshadow his brilliance. Consider the time line that would begin with the recording of Rocket 88 in 1951 and then fast forward to his winning a Grammy award over 50 years later for his blues album. In between that time, he worked with some of the greatest blues, r&b and rock musicians of all time. He choreographed the most exciting R&B act ever to grace a stage. He produced and played on more records/CDs from a multitude of genres than most musicians have ever done, thus gaining the deserved recognition by being inducted in to the RnR Hall of Fame.
Here are a number of interesting facts about the life and times of Ike Turner that you may not have known. Clarksdale, Mississippi where he grew up was also the home of blues men John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. R&B great, Sam Cooke also was born there. Ike was the singing coach for Janis Joplin at one point in her career. He hired a young Jimi Hendrix as the second guitarist for the Ike & Tina Revue, but had to fire him because Jimi did not follow Ikes tightly choreographed directions Turner played with BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon in the 50s. Ike Turner began his musical career at eleven as a piano accompanist to Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk.
It doesnt matter if I invented rock n roll, because it didnt make me any money, Ike told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I made $60 from Rocket 88: Six-oh. I dont care about the glamour or the money. I dont care about the nominations and Grammys, all that bull. I just care about making people happy —- getting onstage and getting everybody going.

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