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.
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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."
Ike's affair with coke outlasted his marriage to Tina (they divorced in 1978) and resulted in various arrests for possession and transporting narcotics during the Eighties. In 1990 he was sentenced to four years in the state penitentiary at San Luis Obispo, California. He served half this stretch before being released, but he doesn't sound bitter about his time in stir. "The best thing that ever happened to me in my life was going to jail," he says.
He's less pleased by the deterioration of his reputation. He points out that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has honored him for his contributions to the music's foundations as well as for his pairing with Tina, who he feels has been given too many kudos for their joint accomplishments. "Tina don't play music," he remarks, sounding less cruel than straightforward. "She sings, but she don't play music. And I'll tell you another thing--I can write a song right now for you to sing, and the way I write, people will say, 'Oh, you're singing like Tina.' But it's not Tina--it's all Ike. See, at that time, she didn't have a style. I would write the song and sing it to her, and she would do it the way I sang it to her. She was very good at portraying my ideas."
So were many other acts Turner rubbed elbows with in the early Fifties, when he was scouring the fields and towns of the South in the employ of independent labels such as Modern, Kent and Sam Phillips's Sun Records. "I'd go to the pool hall, the church, and find out where the best singers were," he says. "I'd get their name and stuff, and on the way to their town, I'd write songs for them. [Modern Records'] Joe Bihari would be driving, and I'd be on the passenger side writing a song on the way. I'd teach the guy the song just like I taught Tina and everybody else." Turner and Bihari would then track down a local musician with a piano, pay him with "five dollars or a fifth of whiskey," and Bihari would roll tape. Some of these songs became big-time slabs for sizable companies such as Chess Records even as Turner was shipping them to smaller firms on the sly. These practices may have been a bit suspect, but they testify to his unrelenting drive to turn a few bucks on a brand of music that he helped create using little more than his wits.
"Today we have it so easy," says Turner, who's currently working on a new album in his home studio. "Back in them days, if a guitar player would break a string, he would tie it and keep on playing, 'cause there wasn't no music store in Clarksdale where we lived at. If a horn player needed a reed, we'd cut a piece of cane and sand it down and make something for him to blow." He adds that chamois cloths made for washing cars doubled as makeshift pads for needy horn players, who would replace broken valves with bent needles, and pianists like him used wires taken from "the wall of a car tire. I would take the wire out of there and sand it down and put it in my piano."
At present, Turner is back on the road, and the responses he's received have helped rejuvenate his career, particularly in Europe. He and the members of his thirteen-piece ensemble--which includes Jeanette, his wife of nine years (she handles Tina's old chores), and two of his sons--have just returned from a brief stint in the Netherlands, headlining a number of festivals there. His current set kicks off with Turner pounding out his early tunes on the 88s ("I can make a monkey out of a piano," he boasts) before segueing into Kings of Rhythm chestnuts and favorites from the Ike and Tina Revue. Still, the music he enjoys digging into the most is the stuff he cut his teeth on. The "real blues" he plays follow in the tradition of Little Milton Campbell and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, from whom Turner copped many of his trailblazing guitar licks. "That old man is the baddest somebody I know," Turner says. "He's the baddest guitar player in the world. Whoo-hoo, that man can play."
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Following his Denver show, Turner will head back to Europe to begin a tour in support of a different sort of project. On May 17, Virgin is releasing Turner's biography, Takin' Back My Name (subtitled The Confessions of Ike Turner), which he hopes will dispel what he sees as the public's misperceptions about him. After claiming that a movie adaptation of the book is in the works, he says, "People are beginning to understand that none of that stuff was true. I ain't never been like the guy in the movie. Anybody that was like that, I don't know, man. But I'll get over it."
Whether Tina will do likewise is an open question: Ike, who says "we were always more like brother and sister than husband and wife," admits that he hasn't spoken with her in years. However, he reveals that he broke the ice with Tina's mother a few months ago and was pleased by the results. "She was so happy to hear from me. All those years we spent apart was all for nothing. I was thinking they were thinking evil of me, and they were thinking I was thinking evil of them. But everything is cool.
"I have a very happy life now," he continues, "and I know I'm a good person. I think people do themselves an injustice by not getting to know me--instead of what somebody made me out to be."
The Ike Turner Revue, featuring the Ikettes. 8 p.m. Saturday, May 15, The Casino, 2637 Welton Street, $25, 303-292-2626.