COMMENTARY : What Ike Had to Do With It : Tales from his dark side still cloud Ike Turner's reputation as a pioneer in American rhythm and blues

Robert Palmer is a contributing editor with Rolling Stone and the former chief pop music critic for the New York Times. He has recently been producing blues records for the independent Fat Possum label

Every drama needs its villain, and in "What's Love Got to Do With It," the Tina Turner movie biography, the figure of Tina's ex-husband Ike easily fills the bill. The film does suggest some motivation for Ike's emotional and physical abuse of his wife, and Laurence Fishburne's portrayal gives the man's fall from grace a certain tragic stature. But in the end it doesn't matter. Tina, played by Angela Bassett, is more than a plucky heroine, she's a saint, and there's never any real doubt that Ike is the bad guy through and through.

The real Ike Turner was playing the heavy to the hilt as long ago as the early '60s glory days of the barnstorming Ike and Tina Turner Revue. He never had the kind of commanding physical presence embodied by Fishburne; perhaps he compensated for his skinny, small-boned build by running his soul show like a spit-and-polish martinet--or, more to the point, like James Brown ran his band during the same period.

Onstage, Turner played slashing, supercharged electric guitar and affected an evil scowl while displaying lead singer Tina and the scantily clad Ikettes like some sinister pimp trumpeting his wares. Long before Tina Turner cast him as the devil incarnate in her best-selling autobiography, "I, Tina," on which the movie is based, that was Ike Turner's show business persona.

But Ike's contributions to American music, from the rhythm and blues of the '50s to the soul music of the '70s, remain little known even among aficionados, despite the election of the Ike and Tina team to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His Mephistophelean image and widely circulated accounts of his vile behavior have seen to that. But once one accepts the premise that election to the Hall of Fame and similar awards should be based solely on artistic merit and historical significance, it seems inarguable that recognition for Turner's achievements as a bandleader, talent scout, record producer, pianist, guitarist, songwriter and all-around rock 'n' roll innovator is not just warranted, but long overdue.

Ike Turner was born in 1932, (some sources say 1931) in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Clarksdale, his hometown, had given the world Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and would nurture several subsequent generations of blues and soul greats. If his father's painfully protracted illness and death hadn't given young Ike the blues, the musicians he gravitated to in his early teens would have ensured his education in the idiom.

Sonny Boy Williamson was making daily radio broadcasts from nearby Helena, Ark., through much of the '40s, and his pianist, Pinetop Perkins, later a Muddy Waters sideman, became Ike's first inspiration and teacher. Another early influence was Ernest Lane, then playing piano for the incomparable slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk.

Turner was a quick study. Before he was out of high school, he was filling in with Nighthawk, Williamson and other local blues legends, playing rough country juke joints and small-town taverns where fights were frequent and life came cheap. The popular blues lyrics of the day reflected this atmosphere of violence and were riddled with misogyny. One of Nighthawk's most popular numbers was his version of Doctor Clayton's "Cheating and Lying Blues," better known for its alternate title and lyric refrain: "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby."

Developing rapidly as a blues pianist exemplified but could not contain Turner's ambitions. He worked as a disc jockey for Clarksdale radio station WROX while still in his teens, spinning rhythm-and-blues hits in the urban jump-band style popularized by Louis Jordan. This jazz-rooted idiom was to influence his music at least as much as the more hard-edged Delta blues. He was a driving force behind the Tophatters, a jazzy big band recruited from among his high school chums.

When most of the musicians left to pursue jazz more seriously, Turner reorganized and went pro, calling his new, streamlined unit the Kings of Rhythm. In 1951 Turner took the Kings of Rhythm to Memphis, Tenn., to record at Sam Phillips' studios.

Phillips, who earned his reputation as rock's premier talent spotter by introducing the world to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin' Wolf and Johnny Cash, among others, found Turner and his band impressive: "Ike had the best-prepared band that ever came in and asked me to work with them," Phillips recalled years later. "And Ike! What a piano player he was! People don't know that Ike Turner was the first stand-up piano player. Man, he could tear a piano apart and put it together on the same song."

One of the tunes that came out of the early Kings of Rhythm sessions was a rocking automobile blues, "Rocket 88." Turner, aware he wasn't equipped to be a lead vocalist, turned the singing over to saxophonist Jackie Brenston. "Rocket 88" was a barn-burner, and Chess Records in Chicago jumped at the chance to release it. The record went to No. 1 on the rhythm-and-blues charts, becoming one of the biggest black hits of 1951, and it has since been cited by a number of authorities as "the first rock 'n' roll record."

Brenston left the Kings of Rhythm to pursue what looked like imminent fame and fortune, taking much of the band with him. To add insult to injury, the record label credited the disc to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, rather than to Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm. But by the mid-'50s, unable to duplicate the success of "Rocket 88" on his own, Brenston had rejoined the Kings of Rhythm, and Turner featured the saxophonist's vocals on several subsequent releases.

("What's Love Got to Do With It" gets around these potential plot complications by simply eliminating them from the story and portraying Ike as the song's lead vocalist.)

Before he was 21, Ike Turner had recorded his first national hit, only to lose the core of his band and go uncredited, with negligible financial remuneration for his efforts. Apparently undaunted, he linked up with record man Lester Bihari, talking himself into a job as Southern talent scout for the Bihari brothers' Modern/RPM/Flair/Meteor group of labels.

And he didn't just track down artists, he recorded them, some in the first of his series of do-it-yourself home studios and some in juke joints, using portable equipment. The technology was primitive, but as a producer, Turner's standards were high. He recorded classic performances by Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James and a host of less celebrated but equally intense bluesmen. At the time, only a handful of black Americans were working as talent finders or record producers for nationally distributed labels. But once again, Turner was paid mostly in theoretical, the-check-is-in-the-mail sort of money, as opposed to actual cash. Still, he was learning.

During his period with Modern, Turner somehow found time to rebuild and drill his Kings of Rhythm and to learn to play the guitar. In the summer of 1954 he took the band north to St. Louis, and by the next year they were one of the city's top attractions, often playing at two or three clubs or dances a night.

Severing his ties with Modern, Turner recorded the Kings of Rhythm for several labels between 1956 and 1958. During a brief stay in Chicago, the band recorded two singles for Cobra ("Box Top" /"Walking Down the Aisle") and Artistic ("(I Know) You Don't Love Me" / "Down and Out") and backed other artists signed to those labels. Otis Rush's magnificent Cobra single "Double Trouble," a postwar blues landmark, features Ike's stinging guitar leads.

Recording for Federal in 1956, Turner scored his second national hit with "I'm Tore Up." The Federal recordings were groundbreaking work, combining pop and blues song forms, rough and extroverted vocals that almost rivaled Little Richard in intensity and shattering, sonic guitar solos that predicted the overdriven, feedback-laced styles popularized later by rockers like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

The man who had made "the first rock 'n' roll record" was now writing the book on loud, flashy rock guitar. His solos on Federal tracks like "I'm Tore Up," "Sad as a Man Can Be" and "Gonna Wait for My Chance" were machine-gun bursts of tortured, quivering chordal slams, screaming high notes and vehement riffing. They were like nothing heard before, and for sheer excitement they have rarely been equaled.

Tina (born Annie Mae Bullock) entered the picture in 1958, when she sat in with the Kings of Rhythm as guest vocalist and won over the audience as well as Ike Turner himself. In 1959 Ike featured her vocals on a song he had recently written, "A Fool in Love," which would be his first million-seller and the first of a string of hits for Ike and Tina Turner.

By the end of 1965, Ike Turner had written, arranged and produced two more Top 40 Ike and Tina hits, as well as two that featured their backup vocalists, the Ikettes. The Ike and Tina Turner revue toured constantly and had become a world-renowned attraction by the time the partnership broke up in the mid-'70s.

Ike Turner's songwriting gets rather short shrift in "I, Tina" and the new film. In the movie, for example, Ike first becomes abusive after Tina tells him his songs all sound alike. He did write and record some indifferent material, and he was not above appropriating riffs or catch phrases from other artists' hits. But throughout the '60s and early '70s, the best of Ike and Tina Turner's recordings (mostly taped on the run amid a grueling tour schedule) were state-of-the-art soul music, with a distinctive style that bore little resemblance to the then-dominant sounds of Motown, Memphis and Muscle Shoals. And some of Ike's lyrics ("Hard Times," "I Don't Need," "Hurt Is All You Gave Me") provided Tina with a chance to reprove him for the way he treated her while asserting her own strong sense of identity. "Just one of my ideas would crack your head wide open," she tells her feckless lover at the beginning of "Hard Times."

There was never any doubt that Tina Turner was the star of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, the electrifying performer audiences came to see. Ike kept his own stage presence deliberately low-key, avoiding flamboyant moves and directing the band with underplayed, economical gestures. His songwriting, production and musical direction were geared toward showcasing Tina. Perhaps he played the behind-the-scenes Svengali too seamlessly for his own good. To the fans who bought the records and concert tickets, his contribution was practically invisible. With his creative work of the '50s largely forgotten and his more recent efforts overshadowed by Tina's larger-than-life presence, he was easily dismissed as a purely exploitative figure riding on his wife's coattails.

Since her comeback as a solo artist in the 1980s, Tina Turner's record sales and concert attendance have eclipsed her earlier successes with Ike. In the music business, this is the only kind of success that matters. But not everyone prefers her sleek rock and techno-pop to the grittier textures and emotional immediacy of the Ike and Tina records.

Time has a way of equalizing art and commerce; gossip and reputations fade until only the music remains. By that time, Ike Turner's artistic stock should be paying dividends, but he may not be around to smell the roses. Whatever his character transgressions, his history as a musical innovator (and as a repeated victim of music industry exploitation) would seem to entitle him to some sort of recognition, not at some time in the future but right now.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday June 27, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction Because of a production error, the credit accompanying a photograph last Sunday of Ike and Tina Turner was obscured. The photo was provided by the Michael Ochs Archives, Venice, Calif.
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