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If Ike Turner's life were evaluated strictly on his musical contributions, he might be considered a pop-cultural saint. As an A&R man for a number of Memphis talent scouts and record labels, he was something of a modern-day Noah, rescuing B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker and plenty of other notable artists who might otherwise have drowned in obscurity. His expertise as a songwriter, pianist and arranger is just as worthy of praise, as is his work with Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, whose early blues recordings remain some of the most propulsive, bone-chilling efforts ever etched into acetate. Indeed, the Kings' "Rocket 88," a 1951 tune questionably credited to its lead vocalist, Jackie Brenston, is viewed by many music historians as the first-ever rock-and-roll song. And then there are his contributions to Ike and Tina Turner, a duo whose brand of amplified soul and sexual innuendo led to their 1991 enshrinement into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately for Ike, the list of hits he and Tina racked up, including "A Fool in Love," "Proud Mary" and "Nutbush City Limits," have since been overshadowed by the smashes he reportedly planted on his wife. Tina's 1986 biography, I, Tina (co-written by Kurt Loder), and the 1993 film What's Love Got to Do With It, which was based on her account, painted him as a monster. Thanks in large part to Laurence Fishburne's wicked on-screen portrayal of Ike, he's currently associated more with spousal abuse and violence against women than he is with America's rich musical heritage.
Tina's ex isn't an angel: There's no hiding the fact that he missed the Hall of Fame induction ceremony because he was in jail on a drug-related beef. But he maintains that the flick's harshest characterizations have been grossly exaggerated. "No, man, that movie was not accurate--no parts of it," he says from his home in Southern California. "That's what I'm telling you. That was not me at all. A lot of people judged me from that movie, and I'm nothing like that movie. I'm not saying that I didn't do some wrong things; I did. You can't work together and live together and be around somebody 24 hours a day and not have your arguments--you know, your fights and stuff like that. But it betrayed, uh, portrayed me in a total wrong light."
This Freudian slip implies that there may be more to Ike's story than he's telling, and given his past as a longtime cocaine abuser (not to mention the numerous eyewitness accounts corroborating the I, Tina charges), many of you will want to take his she-done-me-wrong pronouncements with a king-sized grain of salt. However, his earnest defense is aided by his mannerisms: He comes across as a down-home friend from way down South, speaking in a soothing, hickory drawl that oozes sincerity and Dixie hospitality. Even when the subject matter gets tricky, he seems nothing like the villainous figure depicted in print and on film.
That Ike sued neither Tina nor the Walt Disney Company, which made What's Love Got to Do With It, over their alleged defaming of him looks suspicious on the surface. But he says he was prevented from doing so by a certain legal document. As he tells it, "Walt Disney came to me, and they gave me $45,000 to sign a release. I thought I was signing something that said they could have someone else play me in the movie. But that wasn't what it said. I didn't realize that it said that they could portray me any way they wanted to and I couldn't do anything about it. I was signing away my rights to sue them."
Without this fear, Turner contends, Love's producers embellished his behavior, dreaming up sordid events that never took place. A brief listing of some of the most damaging scenes from the picture, which he insists he's never seen, elicit responses that strain the gentlemanly side of his nature. Did he pull a gun on Tina as she prepared for her return to the stage without him? "That never happened in life." Did he rape his wife in a recording booth of his home studio? "That's the biggest bunch of shit, pardon the expression. To rape somebody is unforgivable to me, and anybody that raped somebody, man, I could pick their eyeballs out.
"That's not me in that movie--period," he goes on. "It was horrible. I never would have thought that Walt Disney would have been involved in no movie like that. That's the biggest mistake I ever made in my whole career, to sign that release form. But I wasn't in my straight mind anyway in them days. That was the druggie days."
Turner wasn't always a slave to controlled substances; during the Fifties and Sixties, he regularly fired musicians in his employ for smoking weed. But in 1970, he says, a pair of now-dead musicians slipped him a dose of cocaine in a rolled-up dollar bill. He carried this gift in his pockets for weeks before eventually trying it--and doing so, he realizes now, was a big mistake. "You know, when you first start doing cocaine, you feel like, wow, this is great," he recalls. "It makes you feel like you just woke up in the morning on a good day. But after a week or so, it's like you have some plastic eyeglasses that you can see clear through, but then you put some kind of solution over them that dims it, and the only way that you ever get clear again is to put more solution across it. That's what happens with coke. You start doing it, and the next thing you know, you're living for it. I was giving away $50,000 of it every two months. Every night we'd play, I'd put it out in these big ol' fruit bowls."