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A Big Wheel Turns Again

Ike Turner hopes to put his career back on track with a new album. But can the public forget his past?

July 08, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at

SAN MARCOS — "Here and Now" is one of the year's most striking albums, a tour de force that offers the raw command of the great R&B and blues records that helped shape the early boundaries of rock 'n' roll half a century ago.

So why do I feel defensive recommending the album?

It's by Ike Turner.


Most of the women I know, including my wife and grown daughter, recoil at the name. Many men also view Turner as a social leper of sorts.

They can't forgive him for the beatings reported by ex-wife Tina Turner in her 1986 autobiography, "I, Tina," and the related 1993 film, "What's Love Got to Do With It."

Is that fair?

Should those events, some of which Ike Turner denies, disqualify this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member from a place on the contemporary pop scene?

It's been 25 years since Tina left Ike, who was zonked out of his head on cocaine for much of the '70s and '80s. It was only after an 18-month prison term for cocaine charges in the early '90s that he broke the addiction and began putting his life back together.

Turner spent most of the last decade trying to rebuild his confidence as a musician--and waiting for a record executive willing to overlook his tarnished image.

He found that benefactor in Robert Johnson, who owns Bottled MaJic Music, a Connecticut-based company that runs three boutique roots-music labels.

"I believe Ike is one of the pantheon figures of the modern popular music era and I wanted to meet him to see if he was still vital," says Johnson, a former speech writer for U.S. Sens. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and William Proxmire (D-Wis.).

"When I went to see him at his house in San Marcos, I was worried that he'd be a bitter, beaten man, but I found this warm, magnetic personality. You could feel that he was ready to get back to creating again. He had all this pent-up energy, like a coiled spring. But we were both fully aware that he faced a tremendous obstacle in terms of the image he has in the aftermath of the movie."

San Marcos, north of San Diego near Carlsbad, is so sleepy and nondescript a town that it would be perfect for anyone in the federal Witness Protection Program. It's easy to picture Turner hiding away and nursing his wounds in his modest, four-bedroom house.

But he's surprisingly upbeat as he stands in a photo-filled den amid the recording equipment he used to make the new album. Rather than try to disappear in anonymity, he has customized plates on his Mercedes: IKE REVU (for the old Ike & Tina Turner Revue). He's living in San Marcos not to hide out, but because he likes the weather and the peace and quiet of the area.

"My life is better today than it has ever been," boasts an energized Turner, 69. "There was a time when I didn't do anything except sit in the studio and do cocaine and party. I had cocaine in big bowls. People would come in and scoop it up. It was a 15-year party. I know now that it was all a waste.

"I used to pray to God to just give me three days without the stuff so I could stop, but I would always come up with some excuse to continue. Jail was a blessing in disguise because it finally enabled me to stop and get my life back on track. Now, I'm movin' again."

The great misconception in the Ike & Tina story is that Ike rode into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Tina's coattails.

The truth is that if the two had never met, he would have stood an infinitely greater chance of being inducted than she would have, because their act was largely his creation. That's not to downplay Tina's immense talent, but simply to underscore Ike's legacy.

His induction in 1991 wasn't just warranted--it was overdue, as Robert Palmer, the late blues historian, pointed out in a 1993 essay in The Times. Turner was a first-level talent scout, record producer, pianist, guitarist, songwriter and rock auteur whose legacy began long before the high-energy Ike & Tina Revue.

The photos in Turner's den form a gallery of the many musicians and record producers who worked with him. There's a photo of Ike and Pinetop Perkins, the barrelhouse pianist who taught Ike his aggressive style. There's another of Ike with Sam Phillips, owner of the studio where Turner recorded "Rocket 88," the 1951 single that some historians claim was the first true rock 'n' roll hit. And, somewhat surprisingly, there are lots of pictures of Ike and Tina.

"She was part of my life. No matter what happened, we were a team," he says softly.

Izear Luster Turner Jr. was born on Nov. 5, 1931, in Clarksdale, Miss., the same Delta town that was home to such blues giants as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. And Ike's early years certainly prepared him to sing the blues.

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