Tina Turner didn’t just pull off the greatest comeback in music history — she invented the whole concept of the comeback as we know it. She became a solo superstar when she was 44. Things like that simply don’t happen. That’s how old Brandy, Usher, Adam Levine, Lance Bass, and John Legend are right now. At that age, Tina Turner was just beginning. But nothing she faced could ever scare that grit out of her voice.
Turner, who died Wednesday at 83, carried the whole story of American music in her voice, because in so many ways, she was that story, but she was also a lot more. She was Anna Mae Bullock from Nutbush, Tennessee, daughter of sharecroppers, fighting her way in and out of the chitlin circuit. She was just a kid when she got famous, as half of Ike & Tina Turner. Her deep-country voice and his guitar always made a fearsome combo, in Fifties hits like “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” and “I Idolize You.” “The emotions I expressed were real because I lived those feelings,” she wrote in Rolling Stone in a 2019 essay. “Even ‘Private Dancer’ — which seems to be about prostitution, but is also about wishes, hopes, and dreams — tells the story of women like me, caught up in sad situations, who somehow find a way to go on.”
Her defining hit was “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” a shocker from the summer of 1984. The song has gotten so familiar, it’s easy to overlook how it shocked the audience, on the radio in between Madonna, Prince and Cyndi Lauper. Unlike anyone else near her age, she had zero interest in passing for young. This woman had lived. She’d stared down more hard times than your miserable Smiths-loving teenage mind could imagine. The audience didn’t know what she’d been through — she wasn’t telling those stories yet. But even a kid could hear the rage and pain in her voice. A grandmother, and tougher than anyone.
She emerged in the Sixties as a one-woman genre — too rock for R&B, too R&B for rock, too brawny for girlie novelties, too raw-voiced for youthful romance. Her most famous hits with Ike were about how much hard road she’d already traveled, like “Proud Mary” and “Nutbush City Limits.” But her never-quite-youthful youth was just the opening act, because she truly became Tina Turner in 1984, with Private Dancer. It was a whole new kind of blockbuster, shimmying over generational, racial, cultural, musical boundaries. She was the first rock star who made a big deal about being a grandmother. Lots of stars had claimed to be the Queen of Rock & Roll, but after Private Dancer, nobody came near that crown.
She had a new audience of Eighties fans, but hardly any of them knew any of the music she’d made with her ex-husband. For them, Tina Turner was right now. Neither she nor they wanted to recall her past. “Rhythm and blues to me has always been a bit of a downer,” she said. She couldn’t stand it when the press used the word “victim.” She had rocking to do.
Tina told her life story many times — in interviews, her books (the keeper is the 2019 memoir My Love Story), the Broadway musical Tina, the classic biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It. (Your mom is probably watching it on Lifetime right now.) The story turns on her escape from and triumph over her abusive marriage. But people still underestimate the cultural importance of Turner telling that story. Strange as it might seem today, she was the first star to talk aloud about domestic violence, to insist on it as part of the story, not to gloss over it or act coy or turn into some stoic Resilience™ and Forgiveness™ poster child. Until she came along, the idiom “domestic violence” wasn’t even part of the language. The Seventies/Eighties term then was “battered wife.” “I admire her survival as a battered wife,” Gloria Steinem told Rolling Stone in December 1984. “For someone well-known to talk about it helps.”
Hero worship for Tina Turner is practically an industry, yet we’re still underrating what she did and how much interior resources she had to call on to get it done, at a time when there was no precedent or protocol. She still doesn’t get enough credit for that, but it’s not the kind of credit she really wanted. Part of her greatness is refusing to be the professional survivor the media wanted her to be. She didn’t need another hero.
She epitomized the story of rock if anyone did. She sang her ferocious “Come Together” just three months after Abbey Road, breathing more sex and dread into it than even John Lennon could have imagined. Many years and several lives later, she was onstage with Paul McCartney in 1986, when he sang “Get Back” live for the first time since the rooftop. It’s a star-studded charity event with Elton John, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, etc. Yes, obviously, Phil Collins is on drums. Tina sings the verse about Sweet Loretta, an American girl who leaves a home she can’t get back to. She’s the only Black artist here, almost the only American, definitely the only woman. She lived Loretta’s story before Paul even wrote the song. The jam keeps rolling, but after Tina, nobody goes near that microphone. She has just shut up the planet’s most un-shut-uppable men. She’s the grown-up on this stage. Every other rock star here is a child.
JANUARY, 1975: Ann-Margret Olsson, a TV variety special, from the golden days of TV variety specials. Ann-Margret introduces Tina as her best friend. They duet on “Nutbush City Limits,” Tina’s life story, and then “Honky Tonk Women,” the Rolling Stones’ ode to Memphis queens. (Ann-Margret screams the line “He blew my nose and then he blew my mind!”) Then they bump and grind to — what else?— “Proud Mary.”
What could be a more American duet? Ann-Margret, the Swedish song-and-dance girl, star of Kitten With A Whip, the Hollywood bombshell who shook her hips with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas. Tina Turner, the sharecropper’s daughter from Nutbush, Tennessee. They bonded when they were filming The Who’s rock-opera movie, Tommy. (In the movie, Tina plays the Gypsy Queen who symbolizes acid; A-M gets drowned in baked beans. Times were hard for rock & roll queens in 1975.)
But here they are singing about rollin’ on the Mississippi River steamboats. They’re laughing so hard as they dance, they’re practically falling over. Neither of them really belongs on a steamboat, and neither did the guy who wrote the song, a white suburban kid from El Cerrito named John Fogerty. He’s never set foot on the bayou, but he’s gotten drafted, served his time, and worked his way back into the bar-band scene with Creedence Clearwater Revival. This song is a fantasy, but all three of them traveled a long distance to get here, and the song is a generous river that carries them all. “You on a riverboat?” A-M asks. “There hasn’t been one of those around in 75 years!” Tina laughs, “I wear my eighties well!”
Tina already had a hit with “Proud Mary” in the Sixties, but in 1975 she has no idea what this song will mean to her in years to come. She’ll turn “Proud Mary” into a feminist rock anthem, representing all the unspeakable (and unspoken) violence she escapes and her determination to claim her own story. But right now, she’s still trapped in her marriage to Ike. In less than a year, she will finally leave him, on the Fourth of July. She’s got nothing to her name but 36 cents, a gas-station credit card, and the blood-stained white suit on her back. Ann-Margret takes her in, hooking her up with designer Bob Mackie and a divorce lawyer.
But right now, it’s just Ann-Margret and Tina, singing on a TV soundstage in London. They can’t stop laughing hysterically. Two women sharing a weirdly private joke in a public place. The big wheel keeps on turnin’.
AFTER SHE ESCAPED Ike, Tina was written off by the whole music business. She was a Black woman in her forties. It was time for the oldies circuit. But she discovered that there was a rising Eighties generation of New Wave kids, especially in the U.K. And they idolized Tina Turner. She did a 1982 duet with Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, in their side project as B.E.F., the British Electric Foundation. She was shocked these kids didn’t see her as washed-up. They saw her as a vibrant, relevant legend in her prime. As she wrote in My Love Story, “Martyn, who was practically a boy, though a very talented one, happened to think that this middle-aged singer had a bright future.”
Tina sang “Ball of Confusion” with them, in one take. To her amazement, it took off on a brand new cable network the kids were into. MTV had a nationwide audience and a playlist full of unconventional Black rockers who didn’t fit into radio: Prince, Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley. “Ball of Confusion” made her an MTV star, even though American radio wouldn’t touch her. She cut another single and video with Martyn Ware, a remake of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” an even bigger hit.
That led to the night that changed her life, in NYC, January 1983. David Bowie was having dinner with his new record label, right before Let’s Dance came out, getting wined and dined, but he informed them he had plans for the night: He was going to see Tina Turner live. He wouldn’t dream of missing her. He dragged everyone along with him. Her manager Roger Davies got a last-minute call, asking for 63 spots on the guest list. “My Cinderella moment,” she called it in her book. “That night at the Ritz was the equivalent of going to the ball (minus the part about Prince Charming) because it changed my life dramatically.”
After the show, she raised hell all night with Bowie, Keith Richards, and Ron Wood, sitting around the hotel piano, singing Motown classics, guzzling Dom Perignon. They posed for one of the coolest rock photos of all time: Tina, Keith and Bowie all drinking from the same bottle of Jack Daniels. She was a rock star now, forever. Her story was just beginning.
It was funny for fans how she was so into old-school rock, but she spiced up her live set with ZZ Top’s “Legs” (she had them) and Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” (she wasn’t). At Live Aid, dueting with Mick Jagger, the song they did was “It’s Only Rock & Roll But I Like It.”
But she was really ahead of her time. The concept of “classic rock” didn’t exist yet. (Not until the radio format began in 1986.) Rock culture was still so stuck on the mythos of youth and newness that her Seventies-retro concept was kinda ahead of her time. In a way, it’s an underrated Tina innovation: the Black grandma who invented dad rock.
ROLLING STONE BLEW up Private Dancer with one of the most influential reviews the magazine has ever run, from the brilliant critic Debbie Miller. The review framed the Tina Turner comeback narrative, as the world has known it ever since. The final lines: “Last year, I heard Tina Turner sing that awful Terry Jacks song ‘Seasons in the Sun’ on television, and she found something in it that broke her heart. Imagine her doing the same thing to good songs.”
She and Bowie always had one of the most endearing rock-star friendships—they always brought out the weird in each other. They duetted on his strange Pepsi commercial, starring David as Dr. Frankenstein and Tina as the rock goddess in his laboratory, both singing on “Modern Love.” They also duetted on a weirdly touching synth-reggae version of “Tonight” in 1984, about lovers separated by death, their voices meshing for the payoff lines “I will love you till I die/I will see you in the sky/Tonight.” She found her permanent home in Zurich, becoming a Swiss citizen. In so many ways, her closest career twin was Leonard Cohen, a fellow Nicheren Buddhist devotee. They were both born in the Thirties, but blew up in the Eighties as icons of middle-aged cool, after decades in the game. They showed everyone else how to age gracefully, flaunting the cracks in their voices, living their long weird lives in the tower of song.
When her life story became the Angela Bassett movie What’s Love Got To Do With It, she stole the show at the end with “Proud Mary.” But she couldn’t bring herself to watch it. As she wrote in Rolling Stone, “I never saw What’s Love Got to Do With It because I was too close to those painful memories at the time, and I was afraid it would be upsetting, like watching a documentary.” She resisted the idea of the 2019 Broadway musical Tina for the same reason, saying, “I didn’t feel like talking about that stuff from the past because it gave me bad dreams.” But she loved the musical when she saw it with an audience. She said, “I want to pass the baton, so to speak, to them, and anyone facing a challenge, so they leave the theater standing proud, with their chests out and chins up, inspired to believe, ‘I can do it.’”
Really, she spent her whole life doing that. And that’s why Tina Turner’s voice will never go silent. In the end, she is the big wheel who keeps on turning, forever.