Tina Turner was always on television when I was growing up. There were appearances on variety shows, guest spots on Hollywood Squares, and I seem to remember a full concert broadcast as well. This was before the 1984 comeback which made her a household name but still, I watched her every performance. She came on like a force of nature, long flowing locks, legs that never stopped, surrounded by a phalanx of backup dancers done up in sexy shiny dresses, playing a set of rock n’ roll standards. I had no knowledge of her past, had never heard of Ike Turner, I just thought she rocked.
For all Turner’s subsequent achievements, the millions of records sold, the stadiums full of adoring fans, the movie roles and musicals, the years with her infamous ex-husband hang over her like a specter. The new HBO documentary Tina, which premiered March 27, recounts her story of survival and success. Though her story has been covered thoroughly in the 1986 autobiography I, Tina, its 1993 film adaptation What’s Love Got To Do WIth It, and the musical Tina – The Tina Turner Musical, its telling is most powerful in the first person, as Turner, now in her 80s, looks back on her life surveying its cavernous valleys and colossal peaks.
According to Turner, she never wanted to revisit the darker parts of her past, which first came to light in a 1981 profile in People magazine. “It was just so unlike me, my life, that I don’t want anyone to know about it,” she’s heard saying in an archival interview. “It wasn’t a good life. It was in some areas, but the goodness did not balance the bad.” Born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939, she grew up in the Jim Crow South and was later abandoned by her parents. She found success with husband Ike Turner, but suffered horrific abuse during their 16 years together. She hoped coming clean about it would close the book on that chapter of her life. Instead, it became part of her legend, one she would have to recount, reliving the trauma again and again, as her popularity grew.
While Ike Turner is perhaps best known for his infamous role in Tina Turner’s life, his musical contributions to the development of rock n’ roll, as well as R&B, are beyond dispute. Among other accomplishments, he wrote and played piano on possibly the first rock n’ roll record, 1951’s “Rocket 88,” which was erroneously credited to Jackie Brenston & his Delta Cats while the band was actually known as Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. This bred bitterness and resentment in Ike, who was also deeply insecure, according to Tina. She was 17 when she started singing with the group. Though their relationship was initially more like a brother and sister, they became a couple with the release of 1960’s hit single “A Fool In Love,” Ike rebranding her Tina because it rhymed with his favorite comic book character, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.
The beatings began early, the first time when Tina was pregnant. The details are harrowing. Ike beat her with shoe-stretchers, coat hangers and fists, and scalded her with hot coffee. His moods “could just flip in a second,” according to tour manager and friend Rhonda Graam. Like many victims of abuse, Tina internalized the behavior, feeling ashamed of herself and sympathizing with her victimizer. She finally left him for good in 1976 following a knock-down, drag-out fight in a limousine in Dallas, Texas. “The divorce was cleancut. I got nothing,” she says. The only thing she insisted on retaining from their personal and professional partnership was her name.
Almost 40 years old at the time she launched her solo career, Turner played Las Vegas casinos and did TV appearances to pay the bills before hooking up with manager Roger Davies in 1979. “My dream is to be the first black rock n’ roll singer to pack places like The Stones,” she told him before making over her image and getting to work. It was an uphill battle. Turner faced music industry indifference, hostility and racism, with an unnamed Capitol Records executive referring to her as an “old n****r douchebag” while admonishing the A&R man who signed her.
Her 1984 album Private Dancer was recorded in just two weeks. It would go on to sell over 10 million copies and make her an international superstar. She would eventually achieve both professional and personal success, finding love with German record executive Erwin Bach, with whom she’s been involved with since 1986 and married in 2013. She has lived in Zurich, Switzerland, since 1994 and retired from performing in 2009.
Tina is a powerful portrait of a woman who overcame a troubled childhood and years of abuse before staging one of the greatest comebacks in entertainment history. Still, an air of melancholy hangs over the film, the magnitude of Turner’s accomplishments seemingly unable to fully numb the pain she endured. “You don’t want to think about those times,” she says near the end of the film, a film which once again forces her to think about them. “You just want it to go away.”
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter: @BHSmithNYC.
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