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COMMENTARY : What Ike Had to Do With It : Tales from his dark side still cloud Ike Turner's reputation as a pioneer in American rhythm and blues

June 20, 1993|ROBERT PALMER | Robert Palmer is a contributing editor with Rolling Stone and the former chief pop music critic for the New York Times. He has recently been producing blues records for the independent Fat Possum label

Every drama needs its villain, and in "What's Love Got to Do With It," the Tina Turner movie biography, the figure of Tina's ex-husband Ike easily fills the bill. The film does suggest some motivation for Ike's emotional and physical abuse of his wife, and Laurence Fishburne's portrayal gives the man's fall from grace a certain tragic stature. But in the end it doesn't matter. Tina, played by Angela Bassett, is more than a plucky heroine, she's a saint, and there's never any real doubt that Ike is the bad guy through and through.

The real Ike Turner was playing the heavy to the hilt as long ago as the early '60s glory days of the barnstorming Ike and Tina Turner Revue. He never had the kind of commanding physical presence embodied by Fishburne; perhaps he compensated for his skinny, small-boned build by running his soul show like a spit-and-polish martinet--or, more to the point, like James Brown ran his band during the same period.

Onstage, Turner played slashing, supercharged electric guitar and affected an evil scowl while displaying lead singer Tina and the scantily clad Ikettes like some sinister pimp trumpeting his wares. Long before Tina Turner cast him as the devil incarnate in her best-selling autobiography, "I, Tina," on which the movie is based, that was Ike Turner's show business persona.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 27, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of a production error, the credit accompanying a photograph last Sunday of Ike and Tina Turner was obscured. The photo was provided by the Michael Ochs Archives, Venice, Calif.

But Ike's contributions to American music, from the rhythm and blues of the '50s to the soul music of the '70s, remain little known even among aficionados, despite the election of the Ike and Tina team to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His Mephistophelean image and widely circulated accounts of his vile behavior have seen to that. But once one accepts the premise that election to the Hall of Fame and similar awards should be based solely on artistic merit and historical significance, it seems inarguable that recognition for Turner's achievements as a bandleader, talent scout, record producer, pianist, guitarist, songwriter and all-around rock 'n' roll innovator is not just warranted, but long overdue.

Ike Turner was born in 1932, (some sources say 1931) in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Clarksdale, his hometown, had given the world Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and would nurture several subsequent generations of blues and soul greats. If his father's painfully protracted illness and death hadn't given young Ike the blues, the musicians he gravitated to in his early teens would have ensured his education in the idiom.

Sonny Boy Williamson was making daily radio broadcasts from nearby Helena, Ark., through much of the '40s, and his pianist, Pinetop Perkins, later a Muddy Waters sideman, became Ike's first inspiration and teacher. Another early influence was Ernest Lane, then playing piano for the incomparable slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk.

Turner was a quick study. Before he was out of high school, he was filling in with Nighthawk, Williamson and other local blues legends, playing rough country juke joints and small-town taverns where fights were frequent and life came cheap. The popular blues lyrics of the day reflected this atmosphere of violence and were riddled with misogyny. One of Nighthawk's most popular numbers was his version of Doctor Clayton's "Cheating and Lying Blues," better known for its alternate title and lyric refrain: "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby."

Developing rapidly as a blues pianist exemplified but could not contain Turner's ambitions. He worked as a disc jockey for Clarksdale radio station WROX while still in his teens, spinning rhythm-and-blues hits in the urban jump-band style popularized by Louis Jordan. This jazz-rooted idiom was to influence his music at least as much as the more hard-edged Delta blues. He was a driving force behind the Tophatters, a jazzy big band recruited from among his high school chums.

When most of the musicians left to pursue jazz more seriously, Turner reorganized and went pro, calling his new, streamlined unit the Kings of Rhythm. In 1951 Turner took the Kings of Rhythm to Memphis, Tenn., to record at Sam Phillips' studios.

Phillips, who earned his reputation as rock's premier talent spotter by introducing the world to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin' Wolf and Johnny Cash, among others, found Turner and his band impressive: "Ike had the best-prepared band that ever came in and asked me to work with them," Phillips recalled years later. "And Ike! What a piano player he was! People don't know that Ike Turner was the first stand-up piano player. Man, he could tear a piano apart and put it together on the same song."

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