Tina Turner: The legendary the star who left a violent marriage and relaunched a triumphant career
Tina Turner, the unstoppable singer and stage performer who teamed with husband Ike Turner for a dynamic run of hit records and live shows in the 1960s and 1970s and survived her horrifying marriage to triumph in middle age with the chart-topping What’s Love Got To Do With It, has died at 83.
Turner died on Tuesday, after a long illness in her home in Kusnacht near Zurich, Switzerland, according to her manager. She became a Swiss citizen a decade ago.
Few stars travelled so far – she was born Anna Mae Bullock in a segregated Tennessee hospital and spent her latter years on a 260,000 square foot estate on Lake Zurich — and overcame so much.
Physically battered, emotionally devastated and financially ruined by her 20-year relationship with Ike Turner, she became a superstar on her own in her 40s, at a time when most of her peers were on their way down, and remained a top concert draw for years after.
With admirers ranging from Beyoncé to Mick Jagger, Turner was one of the world’s most successful entertainers, known for a core of pop, rock and rhythm and blues favourites: Proud Mary, Nutbush City Limits, River Deep, Mountain High and the hits she had in the 80s, among them What’s Love Got To Do With It, We Don’t Need Another Hero and a cover of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together.
Her trademarks were her growling contralto, her bold smile and strong cheekbones, her palette of wigs and the muscular, quick-stepping legs she did not shy from showing off. She sold more than 150 million records worldwide, won 12 Grammys, was voted along with Ike into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 (and on her own in 2021) and was honoured at the Kennedy Centre in 2005, with Beyoncé and Oprah Winfrey among those praising her. Her life became the basis for a film, a Broadway musical and an HBO documentary in 2021.
Until she left her husband and revealed their back story, she was known as the voracious on-stage foil of the steady-going Ike, the leading lady of the “Ike and Tina Turner Revue”.
Ike was billed first and ran the show, choosing the material, the arrangements, the backing singers. They toured constantly for years, in part because Ike was often short on money and unwilling to miss a concert. Tina Turner was forced to go on with bronchitis, with pneumonia, with a collapsed right lung.
Other times, the cause of her misfortunes was Ike himself. As she recounted in her memoir, I, Tina, Ike began hitting her not long after they met, in the mid-1950s, and only grew more vicious. Provoked by anything and anyone, he would throw hot coffee in her face, choke her, or beat her until her eyes were swollen shut, then rape her. Before one show, he broke her jaw and she went on stage with her mouth full of blood.
Terrified both of being with Ike and of being without him, she credited her emerging Buddhist faith in the mid-1970s with giving her a sense of strength and self-worth and she finally left in early July, 1976.
The Ike and Tina Turner Revue was scheduled to open a tour marking the country’s bicentennial when Tina snuck out of their Dallas hotel room, with just a Mobil credit card and 36 cents, while Ike slept. She hurried across a nearby highway, narrowly avoiding a speeding truck, and found another hotel to stay.
“I looked at him [Ike] and thought, ‘You just beat me for the last time, you sucker’,” she recalled in her memoir.
Turner was among the first celebrities to speak candidly about domestic abuse, becoming a heroine to battered women and a symbol of resilience to all. Ike Turner did not deny mistreating her, although he tried to blame Tina for their troubles. When he died, in 2007, a representative for his ex-wife said simply: “Tina is aware that Ike passed away.”
Little of this was apparent to the many Ike and Tina fans. The Turners were a hot act for much of the 1960s and into the ’70s, evolving from bluesy ballads such as A Fool In Love and It’s Going To Work Out Fine to flashy covers of Proud Mary and Come Together and other rock songs that brought them crossover success.
They opened for the Rolling Stones in 1966 and 1969, and were seen performing a lustful version of Otis Redding’s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long in the 1970 Stones documentary Gimme Shelter. Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett gave Oscar-nominated performances as Ike and Tina in the 1993 movie What’s Love Got To Do With It, based on I, Tina, but she would say that reliving her years with Ike was so painful she couldn’t bring herself to watch the movie.
Ike and Tina’s reworking of Proud Mary, originally a tight, mid-tempo hit for Creedence Clearwater Revival, helped define their assertive, sexual image. Against a background of funky guitar and Ike’s crooning baritone, Tina began with a few spoken words about how some people wanted to hear songs that were “nice and easy.”
“But there’s this one thing,” she warned. “You see, we never ever do nothing nice and easy. We always do it nice – and rough.”
But by the end of the 1970s, Turner’s career seemed finished. She was 40 years old, her first solo album had flopped and her live shows were mostly confined to the cabaret circuit.
Desperate for work, and money, she even agreed to tour in South Africa when the country was widely boycotted because of its racist apartheid regime.
Rock stars helped bring her back. Rod Stewart convinced her to sing Hot Legs with him on Saturday Night Live and Jagger, who had openly borrowed some of Turner’s on-stage moves, sang Honky Tonk Women with her during the Stones’ 1981-82 tour. At a listening party for his 1983 album Let’s Dance, David Bowie told guests that Turner was his favourite female singer.
More popular in England at the time than in the US, she recorded a raspy version of Let’s Stay Together at EMI’s Abbey Road studios in London. By the end of 1983, Let’s Stay Together was a hit throughout Europe and on the verge of breaking in the US.
An A&R man at Capitol Records, John Carter, urged the label to sign her up and make an album. Among the material presented to her was a reflective pop-reggae ballad, initially dismissed by Tina as “wimpy”.
“I just thought it was some old pop song, and I didn’t like it,” she later said of What’s Love Got To Do With It.
Turner’s Private Dancer album came out in May 1984, sold eight million copies and featured several hit singles, including the title song. It won four Grammys, among them record of the year for What’s Love Got to Do With It, the song that came to define the clear-eyed image of her post-Ike years.
“People look at me now and think what a hot life I must have lived — ha!” she wrote in her memoir.
Turner wed her long-time German partner, the music executive Erwin Bach, in a Swiss civil ceremony in 2013 and had lived in Switzerland with him since 1994. She had suffered ill-health in recent years, being diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 2016 before having a kidney transplant in 2017.
In another autobiography, Tina Turner: My Love Story, she revealed Bach saved her life by donating a kidney.