New, Improved Ike Turner
Ike Turner, who comes to B.B. King’s in Universal City on Saturday night, recently attended ceremonies in Cleveland, Ohio, for the opening of the new wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There he performed on stage with other music greats such as George Clinton, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Joe Walsh.
“It was fun,” Turner said. “It was what a Hall of Fame party should be.”
When Ike and ex-wife Tina Turner were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991, Ike was unable to attend the party because of a prior engagement: He was in jail. Since his prison release later that year, Turner has been working to put his life and his career back together.
It hasn’t been easy.
In Tina Turner’s 1986 autobiography “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and the film, based on the book, made in 1993, Turner was portrayed not only as a drug abuser but as a wife beater as well. He was vilified in the media and became the butt of jokes.
Ike never denied slapping Tina, but insisted he was not the devil she and the film made him out to be. He remains unrepentant, saying he has nothing to be ashamed of, but he declines to answer any further questions regarding Tina.
These days, Ike Turner is feeling pretty good about his life. He’s back with a new show, a new wife, Jeanette, who is also a lead singer, some new music and even some new Ikettes, his act’s dancing female backup singers.
“The girls I have now are really wild,” Turner said. “We just got back from Norway; I’ve been getting great reviews. I’ve been blessed.”
According to Turner, the music has always been his primary concern.
Born in 1931, Ike Turner came out of the Mississippi Delta and first made his mark as a piano player and bandleader. His early influences were Pinetop Perkins, Amos Milburn and Louis Jordan, as well as country music artists such as Hank Williams Sr. and Merle Travis.
“I just love [any kind of] music when it’s done well,” Turner said. “I would say hillbilly music is my favorite.” He laughed, and then as an offer of proof sang a few bars of Travis’ “Sixteen Tons.”
Turner’s 1951 hit “Rocket 88" is cited by some critics as the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Turner and his band recorded it at Sam Phillips’ Memphis studio, where a few years later a young Elvis Presley got his start.
During the 1950s, Turner worked as a talent scout and producer for a small record company in the Southeast and was instrumental in the early careers of B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Ace and Bobby “Blue” Bland.
In 1958, he took up with a young woman named Annie Mae Bullock and in Pygmalion fashion, transformed her into Tina Turner and created the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.
Their show was known for its high-voltage musical and sexual energy, with the spotlight on Tina and the Ikettes. Ike Turner ran the show but generally stayed in the background, playing guitar.
Former New York Times rock critic Robert Palmer described their live show: “Onstage, (Ike) 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.”
During the group’s heyday in the 1960s-70s, Turner was known, as were his contemporaries James Brown and Ray Charles, as a demanding taskmaster to the musicians who worked for him. Turner said that reputation was well-deserved.
“I don’t compromise,” Turner said. “I’m open for opinions, but I don’t compromise. If you have nine musicians, you’re gonna have nine opinions. But I don’t compromise.”
The Ike and Tina Turner Revue scored several hits on the R&B; charts in the early 1960s. Attempting a crossover to the mainstream pop audience, they recorded “River Deep Mountain High” with legendary producer Phil Spector in 1966, but the record sold poorly.
When the group opened for the Rolling Stones on their 1969 American tour, the Turners finally caught the attention of the mainstream American audience. The Ike and Tina Turner Revue reached its pinnacle in the early 1970s when it scored hits with covers of “Proud Mary,” “Come Together” and “I Want to Take You Higher.”
But, the group’s popularity faded in the mid-1970s. Tina left in 1976. Ike worked in his own Inglewood recording studio until it burned in 1982. He became progressively more involved with drugs and alcohol.
After multiple arrests on various drug-related charges, Ike Turner was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 1990.
“I didn’t do any drugs in my life until 1971,” Turner said. “If someone did grass in the band, I’d kick them out.”
After his release from prison, Turner moved to San Marcos, near San Diego.
“I’ve lived through it. I’m in better shape now,” Turner said. “God has been really good to me.”
He married singer Jeanette Bazzell in 1995. His new show features her, but Ike now also performs a solo part of the show at the piano. The act continues to tour and has plans to return to Europe next month.
Turner has also set up a recording studio in his home with new digital recording equipment, technology with which he was unfamiliar. “When I got out of jail, I didn’t know how to work this stuff,” Turner admits. “It was scary.”
But not scary enough for Turner to give up.
“My next album is going to be hard-core blues,” he said. “Blues has been here in America all the time, but it took the English people to discover it.”
The 66-year-old performer has no plans for retirement.
“I’m going to be playing music as long as I can get to a piano or a guitar.”
* Ike Turner and his band perform Saturday night at B. B. King’s Blues Club, Universal CityWalk, 1000 Universal Center Drive, (818) 622-5464.