Thursday, June 27, 2013

Joe's Record Collection: Ike and Tina Turner had a terrible marriage and a great sound

Doing what they do best: Ike and Tina Turner, tearin' it up onstage.

The record: Live! The Ike & Tina Turner Show (Warner Brothers, 1965 - WS 1579)

The artist(s): Ike and Tina Turner, with Jimmy Thomas, Venetta Fields, and Jessie Smith

Live! The Ike & Tina Turner Show
History: If anyone ever compiles a list of horrible human beings who were nevertheless essential to the history of modern music, surely Ike Turner would rank near the top. Born in Mississippi in 1931, guitarist-songwriter Ike was responsible for what many musicologists consider the first rock record ever made, "Rocket 88" (1951), which was credited to the song's lead vocalist, Jackie Brenston, instead of Turner and his band, the Rhythm Kings.

Ike went on to be a top R&B session guitarist and talent scout, but his career took a major left turn when he met an aspiring young singer named Annie Mae Bullock at a club in 1956. He rechristened her "Tina" and made her a permanent part of his act. In 1962, they married for professional, rather than romantic, reasons. Annie had already been calling herself "Tina Turner" for two years by that point.

As Ike & Tina, they scored a string of hit R&B singles, three of which reached the pop Top 40 as well, in the early 1960s but didn't make a dent on the album charts until they recorded a live disc for Warner Brothers in 1965. They continued recording for a wide variety of labels and toured steadily throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies, until Tina could no longer stand Ike's abuse and escaped from their hotel room in 1976 with less than a dollar in change to her name.

While Tina rebuilt her career and became a solo star in the 1980s, Ike's reputation was irrevocably damaged by Tina's harrowing accusations of abuse, which ultimately overshadowed all of his musical accomplishments, including the induction of Ike & Tina into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. His long-term cocaine addiction finally killed him in 2007, and today his name is all but synonymous with spousal abuse.

Recorded at Fort Worth's Skyliner Ballroom (demolished in 1969) and Dallas' Lovall's Ballroom (fate unknown; its only claim to fame is this album) and edited for release by "Bumps" BlackwellLive! The Ike & Tina Turner Show captures the couple at roughly the midpoint of their 20-year association. They were hardly newcomers, but they still hadn't reached a "crossover" (read: white) audience quite yet. At the time, the act was still controversial because of the raw sexuality of Tina's onstage presence. Their one big mainstream hit, a Top 10 cover of CCR's "Proud Mary," was still five years away.

All Music Guide says: Four stars. "The recording is primitive and raw, with considerable distortion, but that only adds to the excitement." - William Ruhlmann [link]

Was it a hit: It reached #126 on the Billboard charts in February 1965. Ike and Tina released a second live album for Warner Brothers that same year but were recording for other labels by 1966.

Choice excerpt from the liner notes: Disc jockey Curtis (Gene) Pierce of KGFJ, at the time an influential Los Angeles soul music station, gives Ike and Tina a breathless, semi-incoherent rave review. Example: "Namely, listen to 'Let the Good Times Roll' and 'Twist and Shout' on Side Two. That's where Tina sings with especially a lot of soul." [The songs he mentions are both on Side One.] Later, he advises us: "Whenever the Ike and Tina Turner Show is in your town or city, do like me. Make the scene." Trivia note: according to Pierce, Tina was often called "The Human Bombshell."

A young John Waters.
The listening experience: Hot and bothered, low-fidelity bliss. There's scarcely a wasted second in this album's roughly 34-minute playing time. I was introduced to the music of Ike and Tina Turner by director John Waters, who used their songs heavily in his 1960s films Roman Candles and Mondo Trasho. In fact, I first discovered this LP in a used record store while trying to assemble my homemade Mondo Trasho soundtrack. John has always insisted the best records Tina ever made were the ones she did with Ike. He's right. If all you know is "What's Love Got to Do With It" and "We Don't Need Another Hero," you haven't really heard what Tina can do.

You can almost feel the sweat beading up on the musicians' foreheads as they barrel through the 12 tracks represented here. Compared to the sporting arenas where live albums are usually recorded today, the venues on this LP are incredibly intimate. The photos on the front cover show Ike, Tina, and their various backup singers and musicians huddled around microphones on cramped stages under low ceilings. The audience is just a few feet away. Indeed, you can hear their individual shrieks, gasps, and words of encouragement throughout the recording. The music is primal and urgent, and at the center of it all is Tina, half-singing, half-shouting with an intensity that suggests both a religious epiphany and an orgasm.

On a couple of tracks, supporting players in Ike and Tina's revue are allowed to sing lead (most impressively, Jessie Smith), but there's no question about who the star is. Ike may have been a controlling monster offstage, but he's a generous performer in concert, giving Tina a muscular musical backing but never ever overshadowing her. Most of the songs on this LP are covers, all of which the Turners make thoroughly their own, but the album kicks off with "Finger Poppin'," an original that Ike wrote for Tina. This astonishing song is a triumphant declaration of economic independence by a woman who has escaped from a bad relationship. Given the nature of their real-life relationship, this is mind-boggling. Instead of hiding their marital problems, Ike and Tina air them publicly... to a dance beat, no less! Here, take a listen.

Ike and Tina wisely borrow from the Ray Charles playbook in their act. They end this album with a searing cover of Charles' "To Tell the Truth" and perform lurid, sensual R&B re-arrangements of country songs like "You Are My Sunshine" and "I Can't Stop Loving You," both previously done (to great commercial success) by Brother Ray. But Mr. and Mrs. Turner take these songs even further away from the white mainstream than Ray did. You won't hear any soothing strings or Caucasian backing choruses here the way you will on Ray's waxings. While Ray Charles aimed for theaters and nightclubs, Ike and Tina are firmly rooted in the roadhouses and juke joints of black America. To illustrate my point, here's Ray's #1 hit remake of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" from 1962:

And now here's Ike and Tina's version from 1965:

They're both great records, but the Turners' version is much more erotic and not nearly as pop-friendly as Ray's. It was this uncompromising quality of their music that largely kept them off the Top 40, even though they were one of the most potent acts of their time. Tina herself addresses the issue in the spoken monologue that prefaces their one big crossover hit, "Proud Mary" (which is not part of this album):
You know, every now and then I think you might like to hear something from us nice and easy. But there's just one thing. You see, we never ever do nothing nice and easy. We always do it nice... and rough!
With her smash Private Dancer album in the 1980s, Tina finally hit the big time with a sound that was indeed "nice and easy," mid-tempo, adult-contemporary pop-soul that was perfect for MTV and Top 40 radio. She had more than earned her day of triumph, but it's still exhilarating to hear "the Human Bombshell" back when she was nice and rough.

Overall grade: A