Despite her success, Tina Turner has done her best to obscure the fact that she's a great singer. It doesn't help that she just launched her latest solo album, Wildest Dreams, and her first U.S. tour in six years at the same time one of her most incendiary early-Seventies performances is available for the first time on CD. And while What You Hear Is What You Get: Ike & Tina Turner Live at Carnegie Hall won't touch the sales of Turner's new effort, it's by far the finer of the two. Hearing them back to back makes you wonder what happened to her.
Turner insists she's a rock singer, not a soul diva. But Wildest Dreams isn't rock or soul. The album is crammed with smooth, banal disco-pop that's sporadically enlivened by Trevor Horn's production tricks. Thirty minutes with it is like being battered senseless with foam bats. The gimmicks -- a full orchestra, a guest performance by Barry White -- are in the service of corny bravado. The legend of Tina as Survivor has consumed all available ink.
It's disconcerting to think that Turner now has fans who know only her recent work, and who don't realize what she veered away from artistically when she finally walked out on Ike after twenty years of physical and mental torture. Let's be clear here: No one should have to endure the abuse Tina recounted so vividly in her autobiography. But no one should have to listen to Wildest Dreams, either, especially with What You Hear finally in the CD racks. From the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies, the Ike and Tina Turner Revue constituted one of the hottest live acts on any stage, rivaled only by James Brown. The Carnegie Hall disc captures them in their glory.
Live albums usually suck because musicians either try to reproduce their recordings -- if not impossible, then dull -- or inflate them with vain frippery. But for the Turners in their heyday, the show was the whole point; the records, which rarely charted, were the novelties. In concert Ike led his band through covers that left the originals bleeding. The Carnegie set starts with back-up singers the Ikettes ripping through "Piece of My Heart," a minor hit for Aretha Franklin's sister Erma, followed by Sly Stone's "Everyday People." When Tina emerges, she hammers three Otis Redding compositions, Jesse Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" and the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women."
The Revue had just come off a tour opening for the Stones, and the double LP What You Hear would be its first gold album, to be followed by its first million-selling single, a cover of John Fogerty's Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Proud Mary." Creedence never imagined the sass and sex Tina could ladle over its choogling hit. Her introduction to the song, on the single and at Carnegie Hall, was itself an achievement: "Right about now I think you might like to hear something from us nice and easy," she purrs from the Carnegie stage. "But now -- I'd like to do that for you, there's, there's, there's just one thing: We never ever do nothin' nice and easy. We always do it nice -- and rough." What follows is a delicious vamp, replete with Ike's strumming, that suddenly explodes into throttling, horn-driven release. You can taste the sweat flying from Tina's fringe.
To understand what made the Ike and Tina collaboration great, you have to start with Ike, who brought history and chops to the party. Born Izear Luster Turner in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931, he was gigging with an R&B combo by the time he was in high school. Not long after that, he and his Kings of Rhythm hit Memphis and the legendary Sun studio to lay down "Rocket 88," which many would argue is the first rock and roll song.
After "Rocket 88" hit on Chess in 1951, Ike was in demand as a session guitarist, thanks to his shattering tone, and as a talent scout and producer, cutting sides with B.B. King, Otis Rush, Junior Parker, Howlin' Wolf, Little Milton, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. In 1956 he moved his Kings of Rhythm to St. Louis. It was there, during a local nightclub stint, that he met Bullock sisters Annie Mae and Ailene. Sixteen-year-old Annie wanted to sing with the band, and she pestered Ike until he gave her a shot.
Ike was always a low-rent entrepreneur who resembled nothing so much as the emperor of a tiny island-nation. He changed Annie's name to Tina, to rhyme with Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, his favorite TV character. Then, when a scheduled singer failed to show for a 1960 recording session, he put Tina in front of the mike on "A Fool in Love."
For people who associate her principally with Private Dancer, Tina's voice on that first single is startlingly rough. Her early style was neither church nor country, but a sandpapery amalgamation of both that remains instantly identifiable and thrilling. Most listeners, especially white ones, associated it with carnal pleasures. It was raspy. It lacked polish. But it was indisputably authentic, the essence of roots music.
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What's particularly notable, right from her very first recording, is the way Tina used sounds -- gasps and groans -- in place of words in a lyric line, something familiar in the Southern black church but radically new then in pop music. "A Fool in Love" went to number 2 on Billboard's R&B chart and number 27 on its pop list. Ike and Tina were ushering in the era of what we now call classic soul.
Ike hopped labels like freight trains through the Sixties, looking for another hit. That didn't happen, but he kept pushing, whipping the Revue into shape and keeping it on the road 51 weeks a year for several years. The Revue's live show was paced like the best porn or horror flick. Ike was the ringmaster, cracking tough guitar lines; Tina, the scared and scary kitten, matching him note for note with growls when words failed. When they played Carnegie Hall in 1971, teasing and satisfying a crowd was second nature. It was to be their high-water mark.
Tina has been understandably praised for resurrecting her life from the hell she says Ike made it. Her comeback in the Eighties, beginning with Private Dancer, was an unlikely feat. But it's clear now that when she walked out on Ike, she left not only him behind but also the legacy of soul. Now, people seem to love her story as much as they do her music. Yet think how much finer it would have been if she'd escaped an abusive relationship and bloomed artistically. Instead, she just got watered down.
Tina Turner performs Wednesday, June 11, at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury Way, West Palm Beach; 561-795-8883, with Cyndi Lauper. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $17.75.