Bruised, battered and alone, her head so swollen she had to leave her famed shag wig behind, Tina Turner had just 36 cents in her pocket and was deep in debt when she walked out on her wife-beating husband and co-star Ike.
During their 15 years together he had cheated on her, beaten, slapped and choked her, thrown hot coffee in her face and broken her jaw. Abandoned, Ike fired a gun into her home and torched her car.
“When I left, I was living a life of death,” she said. “I didn’t exist. I didn’t fear him killing me when I left, because I was already dead. When I walked out, I didn’t look back.”
Yet the music industry had no interest in a 37-year-old single black woman, who feared her career and life was over. But Tina Turner, the earthshaking soul singer who died on Wednesday aged 83, made a comeback for the ages.
With her thunderous voice, explosive high-energy moves, shimmying micro-mini-skirts showcasing dancer’s long legs, high cheekbones and a cavalcade of spectacular wigs, Tina became the prototypical rock queen.
She quickly eclipsed Ike, the brutal, controlling Svengali who moulded and oppressed her, with whom she had created pop classics including Proud Mary, Nutbush City Limits and River Deep – Mountain High.
“Yeah, I hit her, but I didn’t hit her more than the average guy beats his wife,” Ike complained. “If she says I abused her, maybe I did.”
Their chaotic marriage became fodder for Hollywood when Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne starred as Ike and Tina in 1993 movie What’s Love Got To Do With It. She recorded a hit new song for the film, I Don’t Wanna Fight, but refused to see the movie.
“Why would I want to see Ike Turner beat me up again?” she asked.
Tina was born Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee, in 1939, where she grew up picking cotton and strawberries and singing in church alongside her father, Baptist sharecropper and plantation manager Floyd Bullock.
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A teen when her parents separated, Tina moved with her mother to St Louis, where at 17 she visited her first nightclub, finding onstage the charismatic Ike Turner and his band. One night she grabbed the microphone to impressively belt out a BB King song, and Ike soon hired Tina as a backup singer.
“I became like a star,” she recalled. “I felt real special.” Ike bought her furs, clothes and costume jewellery, a padded bra and earrings. “I felt like I was rich!” she said.
Tina had barely graduated from high school in 1958 when she became pregnant with saxophonist Raymond Hill’s son, Craig. But it was two years before Ike left his wife and took Tina to California, where their doomed romance began.
When Ike’s lead singer Art Lassiter skipped a 1960 recording session for A Fool In Love, Anna Mae stepped in, scoring her first hit. Without consulting her, Ike decided they should be billed as Ike and Tina Turner.
They finally wed in Mexico two years later, after she became pregnant. Tina adopted Ike’s two sons by his first wife, but already she had seen his abusive ways.
“When he asked me to marry him, I didn’t want to, because I knew then what my life would be like,” she told Rolling Stone magazine. “But I was afraid to say no.
“I was still in love, but I was beginning to realise I was unhappy… We were two totally different people.”
An inveterate womaniser, Ike regularly beat Tina, even as their hits mounted up. She was the duo’s star, but Ike was domineering and violent.
“When he woke up, I’d have to do his hair, do his nails, his feet,” she said. “I was a little slave girl.
“I felt very loyal to Ike, and I didn’t want to hurt him. I knew if I left there’d be no one to sing, so I was caught up in guilt. I mean, sometimes, after he beat me up, I’d end up feeling sorry for him. I’d be sitting there all bruised and torn and feeling sorry for him. Maybe I was brainwashed.”
Record producer Phil Spector, who created his famous ‘Wall of Sound,’ took Tina to new heights in 1966 with River Deep – Mountain High, though she struggled to satisfy perfectionist Spector with the opening line: “When I was a little girl…”
“I did that 500,000 times,” she said. “I don’t know if I ever got it right.”
Despite its billing as an Ike and Tina Turner song, Ike had played no role in the hit. Seeing the writing on the wall, he became even more abusive.
Increasingly depressed, Tina tried to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills before a show, hoping to die onstage.
Rushed to hospital, she had no discernible pulse. Ike leaned over her deathbed, growling: “You better not die – I’ll kill you!” Suddenly her pulse limped back to life.
Ike spiralled into drink and drugs. “He served cocaine like wine,” she said. “It was like living in hell’s domain.”
Openly unfaithful, Ike moved one of his many mistresses – a former Ikette backup singer who soon became pregnant – into his home with long-suffering Tina.
But by 1976, after 15 turbulent years of marriage, she reached her limit when Ike hit her in the face yet again as they drove from the airport in Dallas, Texas.
“I started fighting back,” she said. “I cursed back and I yelled. I knew that was it. By the time we got to the hotel, I’m not lying, my face was swollen out past my ear. Blood was everywhere.”
Remarkably, they went to their hotel suite where Ike lay down and Tina massaged his head as he fell asleep. “He started snoring, and I leaned over and I said: ‘Goodbye’.”
She asked for nothing in their divorce, wanting only to be rid of him, leaving Ike all their property. She took only their debts.
For six years she almost disappeared, relegated to cabaret shows, unwanted by a teen-obsessed music industry. But a showcase at New York’s Ritz attracted rave reviews and fans including David Bowie and Keith Richards. With a new record contract she came storming back up the charts in her 40s, with hits including Private Dancer, The Best, and What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Tina had made her movie debut as the Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s 1975 version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy, but became a Hollywood star with 1985 blockbuster Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, playing a post-apocalyptic warlord, winning one of her eight Grammy awards with the film’s hit We Don’t Need Another Hero. Tina penned two memoirs and toured the world into her 60s, only retiring from the road at 69.
A practising Buddhist, she finally found inner peace, even through family tragedies. Her eldest son Craig committed suicide in 2018, and son Ron, by Ike Turner, died of colon cancer in 2022. Ike died in 2007, barely mourned.
Tina found love again with German music executive Erwin Bach, 16 years her junior, in 1985, living in a Swiss chateau in Küsnacht, marrying in 2013. Together they produced 2018 hit stage musical Tina, and when she was struck with intestinal cancer in 2017, Bach gave her a life-saving kidney.
“People think my life has been tough, but I think it’s been a wonderful journey,” she said. “My legacy is that I stayed on course… from the beginning to the end, because I believed in something inside of me.”
She was, as she sang, simply the best.
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