Rock pioneer was known for abusing wife Tina Turner

Times Staff Writer

Ike Turner, the musician who gave the world what many historians consider the first rock ‘n’ roll record -- “Rocket 88” in 1951 -- but bitterly acknowledged in his later years that he was most famous for being the abusive husband of Tina Turner, died Wednesday in suburban San Diego. He was 76.

Turner died at his home in San Marcos, said Scott M. Hanover of Thrill Entertainment Group, which managed Turner’s musical career. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Turner’s career spanned more than six decades and peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he and his wife, Tina, were an incendiary force in R&B; and live music, with hits such as “Proud Mary,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Nutbush City Limits” and “River Deep-Mountain High.”


The pair’s dynamic revue took them well beyond the R&B; scene in 1969 when they opened for the Rolling Stones on the British group’s North American tour.

But while their stage show was engaging and feverish in its high-energy sexuality, the couple’s backstage relationship was far darker. They split in 1976, and Ike Turner began a descent into a drug haze.

He became an obscure figure until 1986, when his ex-wife published her autobiography, “I, Tina,” which portrayed him as a volatile, drug-addicted brute who manipulated her, personally and professionally, and once broke her jaw.

Then came the 1993 film adaptation, “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” which featured Laurence Fishburne in an Oscar-nominated portrayal of Ike Turner as a sullen and tyrannical husband. Angela Bassett also was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Tina Turner, who had a huge career resurgence in the early 1980s, one that magnified the dramatically different life trajectories of the former spouses.

Ike Turner on numerous occasions said his former wife exaggerated the tales of abuse, but he also conceded that her accusations eventually defined him in the public mind.

“The problem is that there are two sides to every story and they only printed the bad side,” Turner told The Times in 1991 on the day he was released after 18 months in prison for drug-related charges. He added: “I regret that I’ve screwed up my life, but I’m not ashamed of nothing I did.”

In an interview with the Associated Press, he said: “I know what I am in my heart. And I know regardless of what I’ve done, good and bad, it took it all to make me what I am today.”

A decade later, in another interview with the Associated Press, Turner expressed frustration that his musical legacy was not given its due outside of musical circles.

“You can go ask Snoop Dogg or Eminem, you can ask the Rolling Stones or [Eric] Clapton, or you can ask anybody -- anybody -- they all know my contribution to music, but it hasn’t been in print about what I’ve done or what I’ve contributed until now.”

Turner refocused on his music in recent years, touring with a reconstituted Kings of Rhythm band and earning strong reviews that made him the subject of numerous articles that sought to reframe his reputation somewhat.

Last year, he won a Grammy for best traditional blues album for “Risin’ With the Blues.” In 2004, he also received the Recording Academy’s Heroes Award.

Neil Portnow, chief executive and president of the Recording Academy, lauded Turner’s musical legacy Wednesday.

“There is no doubt that Ike Turner was one of rock and roll’s great architects with his genre-defying sound as an instrumentalist and bandleader,” Portnow said in a statement. “His innovative musicality helped lay the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll and R&B; more than 50 years ago. As a bandleader, his well-rehearsed ensembles were some of the most exciting live groups the world had ever heard.”

Ike Turner was born Nov. 5, 1931, in Clarksdale, Miss., and his mother bought him his first piano at age 9. By then he was already a sort of junior employee at a local radio station, WROX, where he got firsthand exposure to live blues performances by his heroes, chief among them Pinetop Perkins, whose piano blues shaped the youngster’s sensibilities. By 11, Turner was backing blues men such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk and soon started his own band, the Kings of Rhythm.

By 1951, he was in Sam Phillips’ studio in Memphis (later known famously as Sun Records, which launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison) where he would record with Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby Bland, Elmore James, Junior Parker and Little Milton Campbell.

It was in March of that year that he and his band caught some historic lightning in a bottle: “Rocket 88,” a song that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and many historians credit as the first rock ‘n’ roll record.

The song featured one of the first examples of distorted guitar, which became a signature accent in the forming language of rock ‘n’ roll; Turner, who played piano on that recording, would later say that the effect was pure accident, due to an amplifier that had been damaged by a fall from a car roof, water damage or both.

The song, a rollicking ode to the Oldsmobile 88, drew on jump blues and swing combos, and surged to No. 1 on the R&B; chart. “We were all surprised that it sold that much,” Phillips said years later, “but it got the ear of the white and the black youngsters.”

“Rocket 88” was originally credited to an act that never really existed, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (Brenston, the baritone sax player on the song, did the vocals). Brenston got his name on the charts and a free Oldsmobile from the thrilled carmakers.

It was the first of several perceived slights or missed career opportunities that stirred resentment in Turner. In 1991, for instance, he missed his induction into the Hall of Fame because he was sitting in a cell; later, when his award was shipped to him, it arrived broken.

The tandem of Ike and Tina began in St. Louis. Ike Turner, by then a respected session player, bandleader and talent scout, had relocated there in 1956, and a leggy teenager named Anna Mae Bullock caught his eye. Turner and the woman who soon changed her name to Tina first recorded in the studio together in 1960; by that summer they had their first hit, “A Fool In Love,” which they followed up with “I Idolize You” and “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.”

Their signature song would be a fiery interpretation of “Proud Mary,” the swampy Creedence Clearwater Revival hit with Tina’s memorable, husky spoken-word declaration that “We never, ever do nothin’ nice and easy.”

By several accounts, they were married in 1962, although other dates have been cited. In 1976, they split after an especially vicious fight that Tina Turner described in her memoir as the lone time she seriously fought back against her husband.

In one interview, he said the loss of Tina in his life sent him into a dark spiral.

“I took everything God gave me for granted: Tina, my family, my career. When me and Tina broke up, man, I panicked. I got so insecure. I thought the public would reject me without her. I knew I was in real bad shape, but I couldn’t stop.”

Ike Turner said on repeated occasions that he was married 13 times, Tina being his second wife.

He is survived by at least four children: sons Ike Jr., Michael and Ronald, and daughter Mia. (Tina Turner is Ronald’s mother.)

In 2001, in an interview with Robert Hilburn, then pop music critic of The Times, Ike Turner pointed to numerous photos of Tina among the career souvenirs that lined the walls of his den.

“She was part of my life,” he said softly. “No matter what happened, we were a team.”

Perhaps, but on Wednesday a representative of Tina Turner delivered a terse comment regarding the death of the singer’s ex-husband.

“Tina is aware that Ike passed away earlier today,” publicist Michele Schweitzer said. “She has not had any contact with him in 35 years. No further comment will be made.”