Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

One of R&B's greats, one of wedlock's worst

Ike Turner, who died yesterday in his suburban San Diego home at age 76 of undisclosed causes, was incontestably one of the greatest bandleaders in the history of rhythm and blues.

Ike Turner performing in 2002.He died yesterday at age 76.
Ike Turner performing in 2002.He died yesterday at age 76.Read moreFABRICE COFFRINI / Associated Press

Ike Turner, who died yesterday in his suburban San Diego home at age 76 of undisclosed causes, was incontestably one of the greatest bandleaders in the history of rhythm and blues.

In 1951 - a full three years before Elvis Presley's recording of "That's All Right (Mama)" - Turner was the architect of Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," considered by many historians to be the first rock-and-roll record.

Turner was wickedly proficient at the piano, an instrument that he learned growing up in Clarksdale, Miss., from blues master Pinetop Perkins. After switching to guitar, he backed up many a legendary bluesman, often, and not coincidentally, on their finest work, such as Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years" and Otis Rush's "Double Trouble."

Legendary rock critic Lester Bangs named Turner, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the third-greatest rock guitarist ever.

But that's not what you know about Ike Turner.

What you know, in all likelihood, is that Turner was a brutally abusive husband, portrayed with completely convincing menace by Laurence Fishburne in

What's Love Got to Do With It

, the 1993 Tina Turner biopic starring Angela Bassett. The film was based on the 1986 autobiography

I, Tina


On screen, Turner, who discovered 18-year-old Anna Mae Bullock in 1959 and changed her name to Tina Turner, came across as a harshly demanding bandleader who would burn his wife with cigarettes if he felt she was out of line. (It's unclear whether the two were ever actually married; in a recent interview, Turner claimed they never were.)

The movie depicted Turner as a cocaine-snorting monster, a goateed, control-freak clothes horse ultimately unable to keep Tina under his thumb as the couple scored hit after hit, peaking with the brilliant Phil Spector production "River Deep, Mountain High" in 1966 and Creedence Clearwater Revival cover "Proud Mary" in 1971.

Was it unfair that Ike Turner's role as the heavy in the redemptive story of Tina Turner's rise to long-legged and strong-willed superstardom outweighed his many musical accomplishments in the pop- culture consciousness?

He thought it was.

"They had to have a villain, so they made a villain out of me," Turner told The Inquirer in a 2001 interview on the occasion of the release of his 2001 comeback album

Here and Now

, which showed him, at 70, still to be a boogie piano virtuoso. "They tore down what it took my life to build. That movie's nothing like me."

Yesterday, a representative for Tina Turner told the Internet gossip site "Tina is aware that Ike passed away earlier today. She has not had any contact with him in 35 years. No further comment will be made." (The couple actually split 32 years ago, during a 1975 concert tour.)

Turner was particularly aggrieved by the scene in the movie that depicts him raping Tina, which he contended never occurred. He claimed he had signed away his right to sue for $40,000, which he said he gladly accepted when his life was ruled by cocaine.

But while Turner argued that he was unfairly demonized, he didn't do such a good job of denying his wrongdoing in

Takin' Back My Name

, his 1999 autobiography.

"Sure, I've slapped Tina. We had fights and there have been times when I punched her without thinking," he wrote. "But I never beat her. . . . I did no more to Tina than I would mind somebody doing to my mother in the same circumstances."

Turner may have been dogged by his bad reputation, but in recent years he attained a level of respectability, and never stopped making music. In 2004, he was given a Heroes Award from the Memphis branch of the Recording Academy, whose president, Neal Portnow, yesterday called him "one of rock-and-roll's great architects."

In 2005, he played piano on "Every Planet We Reach Is Dead," on

Demon Days

, the album by the Brit-rock band Gorillaz. This year, he won the best traditional blues album Grammy for

Risin' With the Blues

, a rough-and-ready platter that carried his trademark sense of danger. And next year he will be heard from posthumously on a potentially mind-blowing collaboration with the blues-rock band the Black Keys and hip-hop producer Danger Mouse.