Soulful diva Tina Turner, who had a lengthy run of ’60s and ’70s R&B hits and struck major pop stardom in the ’80s, died Wednesday in Switzerland. She was 83.
“Tina Turner, the ‘Queen of Rock’n Roll’ has died peacefully today at the age of 83 after a long illness in her home in Kusnacht near Zurich, Switzerland. With her, the world loses a music legend and a role model,” her representative said in a statement to Variety.
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More than a decade after her crossover hit “Proud Mary” with husband Ike, Tina Turner ascended to the pinnacle of pop fame with the 1984 Capitol Records album “Private Dancer.” The collection, which spawned a trio of top-10 pop hits, sold five million copies and garnered four Grammy Awards. Though she never matched that breakthrough solo success, she recorded and toured profitably until her retirement in 2000.
Raw-voiced, leggy, peripatetic and provocative onstage, the magnetic Turner segued effortlessly into bigscreen roles, appearing as the Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s 1975 adaptation of the Who’s rock opera “Tommy” and as villainess Aunty Entity in George Miller’s action sequel “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” She sang the title song, penned by Bono and the Edge of U2, for the 1995 James Bond pic “GoldenEye.”
The winner of eight Grammys, Turner was a 1991 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and was recognized at the 2005 Kennedy Center Honors for her career achievements.
Turner was still in her teens when she began recording with future husband Ike Turner; their tumultuous partnership produced 15 years of popular singles, culminating in the 1971 crossover smash “Proud Mary.” However, in 1976 the vocalist fled her abusive marriage; she detailed her violence-scarred relationship in the 1986 bestseller “I, Tina,” which served as the basis for the 1993 biopic “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”
She was born Anna Mae Bullock in the farming community of Nutbush, Tenn. (a locale she would commemorate in the self-penned 1973 song “Nutbush City Limits”). With older her sister Ruby, she was shuttled between various relatives as a child; her mother left her abusive father when she was 11. At 16, the girls were reunited with their mother in St. Louis.
After graduating from high school, she began working as a nurse’s aide, but also started frequenting St. Louis’ Black nightspots. Though she had no musical experience outside the church choir, she managed to sit in, at a 1958 engagement at Club Manhattan, with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm.
Turner – already a veteran guitarist, keyboardist, bandleader and indie-label A&R man – was impressed enough to give the neophyte musician a spot as a backup singer, billed as “Little Ann,” in his group. She soon became involved with Kings of Rhythm saxophonist Raymond Hill, and bore him a son, also named Raymond, at 19.
In 1960, after vocalist Art Lassiter failed to show up for a recording session, she was drafted to take the lead on a new Turner-penned song, “A Fool in Love.” The tape found its way to Juggy Murray, president of the indie R&B label Sue Records. At Murray’s suggestion, Ike Turner rechristened his newly minted lead vocalist Tina Turner. (She bore Turner’s son Ronald that same year, but the musicians would not wed until 1962.)
“A Fool in Love” rose to No. 2 on the R&B chart, and scratched No. 27 on the pop singles list. Several other major R&B singles followed on Sue: “I Idolize You” (No. 5, 1960), “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (No. 2, and also No. 14 pop, 1961), “Poor Fool” (No. 4, 1961) and “Tra La La La La” (No. 9, 1962).
The Ike & Tina Turner Revue bounced from label to label, and none of their mid-’60s singles secured chart traction. However, the act’s high-voltage live performances and dynamic frontwoman continued to draw attention. After a 1965 appearance in “The Big TNT Show” – a concert attraction screened in moviehouses, like its precursor “The T.A.M.I. Show” – the Turners were approached by producer Phil Spector, who had conducted the “TNT Show” house band.
The architect of several huge-sounding hit pop 45s by the Ronettes, the Crystals and other R&B-skewed acts, Spector paid Ike Turner $20,000 to sit on the sidelines, and employed Tina as the lead vocalist on a single he envisioned as his crowning achievement. Penned by Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and cut in March 1966 with a huge, thunderous orchestra at Hollywood’s Gold Star Studio, “River Deep, Mountain High” was the apotheosis of the producer’s fabled “Wall of Sound.”
It also became one of the most storied flops in U.S. record industry history. Though it reached the top five in the U.K., “River Deep” peaked at No. 88 in the States, and proved to be the most crushing commercial debacle of Spector’s career. Nonetheless, the towering number sports what may be Turner’s most intense vocal performance; it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Groping for hits in the late ’60s, the Turners frequently relied on covers for material. One of these, a rendition of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” reached No. 23 in 1969. That same year, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue opened on the Rolling Stones’ U.S. tour; Tina’s sensual performance of the song became a highlight of “Gimme Shelter,” directors Albert and David Maysles’ 1970 doc about the English band’s fateful concert trek.
In 1971, the Turners scored their biggest pop hit with the Liberty Records single “Proud Mary,” a blazing rendering of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s No. 2 single of 1969. The cover climbed to No. 4 on the pop chart and reaped a Grammy as best R&B performance by a duo or group. Its success pushed the studio album “Workin’ Together” and a subsequent live set recorded at Carnegie Hall into the pop top 25.
After a final top-40 pop hit by Ike and Tina, “Nutbush City Limits” (No. 22, 1973), Tina embarked on a solo career with the United Artists set “Tina Turns the Country On”; the 1974 LP, comprising renditions of country-flavored material, was not a hit, but earned Turner her first solo Grammy nomination. After returning to the U.S. after filming “Tommy” in England, she released a second solo collection, “Acid Queen” (1975), which capitalized on her film appearance.
By that time, not only was the Ike & Tina Turner Revue over-exposed after 10 albums in just three years, but the Turners’ marriage was coming apart. Ike Turner had long been an abusive husband, but his violence escalated along with his cocaine use. Finally, after a brutal beating inflicted on the way to a Dallas hotel in July 1976, Tina quickly left Ike, exited the revue and filed for divorce. The end of the marriage was finalized in 1978, with Tina assuming a host of business-related debts, including an IRS lien.
It took the better part of a decade for her to return to prominence in the music business. She toured the U.S. and abroad, but her recordings for UA and EMI failed commercially. Finally, with the sponsorship of David Bowie, she secured a short-term deal with Capitol Records.
After her 1983 cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” became a hit in Europe, the label was encouraged to record a full album with Turner. Cut in England with a panoply of producers and songwriters, “Private Dancer” was issued in June 1984. Its leadoff single, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” shot to No. 1 on the U.S. singles chart, spending six months on the 45 rolls. It was followed up by “Better Be Good to Me” (No. 5) and “Private Dancer” (No. 7). The album peaked at No. 3, but clung to the chart for more than two years, selling more than 5 million copies.
Turner’s solo triumph was further institutionalized at the 1985 Grammy Awards, where “What’s Love Got to Do With It” was named record of the year and best female pop vocal performance; the tune’s writers, Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, were honored with the song of the year trophy. Additionally, “Better Be Good to Me” was named best female rock performance. Turner followed up the kudos with a 177-date world tour that year. That summer, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” drawn from the “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” soundtrack, reached No. 2 on the pop chart.
Her hot streak continued in 1986 with the publication of her candid bestselling memoir “I, Tina,” co-written with MTV’s Kurt Loder, and the No. 4 album “Break Every Rule”; the album contained “Back Where You Started,” which collected a best female rock vocal performance Grammy. The 1988 album “Foreign Affair” (No. 31) included the single “The Best”; originally recorded by Bonnie Tyler, it became a No. 15 pop single, and later attained ubiquity through play at U.S. and international sporting events. The ’88 concert set “Tina Live in Europe” was recognized with a Grammy as best female rock vocal performance.
In 1993, Turner scored her final U.S. top 10 hit with “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” a song recorded for the top-20 soundtrack of the biopic “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Director Brian Gibson’s feature starred Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, who both received Oscar nods for their work as Ike and Tina. Even more than Turner’s autobiography, upon which it was loosely based, the film focused further attention on the issues of spousal abuse and domestic violence. (Ike Turner, who maintained in interviews and his autobiography that the charges of abuse were exaggerated, died of an apparent cocaine overdose in December 2007.)
Turner’s later solo albums for Virgin Records, “Wildest Dreams” (1996) and “Twenty Four Seven” (1999), were comparatively less successful, peaking at No. 61 and No. 21, respectively. Her 2000 world tour – the most successful trek of the year, according to concert tracker Pollstar – prefaced her announcement that she was retiring.
On her sole latter-day return to the recording studio, Turner managed to make an impression: She shared in the 2008 album of the year Grammy for her restrained, jazzy performance of Joni Mitchell’s “Edith and the Kingpin” on pianist Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters.”
A devotee of Buddhist chanting since the early 1970s who never abandoned the Baptist faith of her youth, Turner released “Beyond,” a collaborative album of Buddhist and Christian music and chanting, on the indie New Earth label in 2012.
In 2013 – the same year she relinquished her American citizenship and took up residency in Switzerland — Turner married German music exec Irwin Bach, her companion of 27 years. While she suffered a number of ailments in her later years, she continued to do press and promote “Tina,” a jukebox musical about her life and career that launched in 2018 and has toured Europe, North America and Australia.
The most severe of those ailments seems to have been kidney disease. On World Kidney Day this past March, she posted on Instagram: “My kidneys are victims of my not realising that my high blood pressure should have been treated with conventional medicine. I have put myself in great danger by refusing to face the reality that I need daily, lifelong therapy with medication. For far too long I believed that my body was an untouchable and indestructible bastion.”
Turner is survived by her husband and two of Ike Turner’s sons that she adopted. Her sons Craig Raymond and Ronnie both pre-deceased her.
Additional reporting by Jem Aswad.
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