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Turner's legacy in spotlight

Eulogies focus on the achievements of the musical pioneer and performer.

December 22, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

The memorial service Friday for R&B stalwart and rock 'n' roll pioneer Ike Turner was much like the life of the troubled star himself -- rich in music and applause, reflexively defensive about the nature of his legacy and, for good or bad, most memorable for its moments of controversy.

Phil Spector, the fabled record producer and recent celebrity defendant, for instance, gave a long speech decrying Turner's defining public persona as the abusive former husband of Tina Turner, a reputation largely shaped by the 1993 film "What's Love Got to Do With It," which Spector called "that piece-of-trash movie that made up things about him."

Spector also singled out Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg and Tina Turner, all of whom he said contributed to demonizing Turner, who died Dec. 12 at his home in San Diego County at 76 after a long battle with emphysema.

Other speakers at the service included Little Richard, soul singer Solomon Burke and members of the Turner family.

Ike Turner Jr., fighting back tears, carried to the dais with him the two Grammy trophies that his father won late in life. The awards were an honor that gave the elder Turner a sense of redemption after his 1980s and '90s slide into a drug haze and obscurity. "My father was happy. I could see it," said his son.

Many speakers pointed out that the calculation of Turner's legacy is a tricky matter. He was the key person behind "Rocket 88," the rollicking 1951 hit that many music historians cite as the first rock 'n' roll record. But that single was credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, a group that didn't exist (Brenston was a horn player for Turner and did the vocals on the song).

The opportunity missed could have made Turner as famous as Ray Charles, said Jerry Wexler, the former Atlantic Records producer, who sent a letter that was read to the crowd at the cavernous City of Refuge and Greater Bethany Memorial Church in Gardena. "A terrible wrong . . . disastrous," Wexler said of the misplaced credit for the landmark recording.

Perhaps, but Turner went on to fame anyway after he spotted a talented, leggy teenager named Anna Mae Bullock, whom he gave the stage name Tina Turner.

The pair became a scintillating sensation with a string of hits starting in 1960 and a stage revue that many observers say set a new standard for R&B and pop music as a whole.

Little Richard brought laughter to the service by playfully pointing out that he shamelessly cribbed part of "Rocket 88" and "turned it into 'Good Golly Miss Molly,' a big hit song." He described the epiphany of hearing Ike Turner for the first time in Georgia and marveling at his band, the Kings of Rhythm.

"I felt it all over; it touched me down in my soul," the 75-year-old rock icon said. "I had never heard a band like this band. And I will tell you I have never heard one like this band to this day."

Spector added that Turner had been one of the best guitar players alive -- "Ike Turner could play circles around Eric Clapton, and Eric knows that" -- and that B.B. King once confided that Ike Turner was the only person he would not play guitar in front of.

Spector tried to take Ike and Tina into a wider pop field with the ambitious 1966 "River Deep-Mountain High," which the producer has in the past cited as his best personal work. That song was a commercial disappointment, and Spector said Friday that he believed Ike and Tina Turner should have been "the biggest thing in America," but that race issues tamped down their opportunities beyond R&B. He added that their great potential was "because of Ike Turner, not Tina Turner."

That statement drew applause in the room, but it doesn't match the general public impression of Ike and Tina, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. Tina's autobiography, "I, Tina," and the subsequent film "What's Love Got to Do With It" portrayed her as an exploited captive of her domineering husband. Ike Turner's name became shorthand for abusive backstage husbands.

Tina Turner has not commented publicly on Ike's death, and her publicist issued a terse statement that she had no plans to talk about someone she had not seen in 35 years. On Friday, her name was read off in a list of notable people who were unable to attend the memorial but had sent their condolences. The couple split up in the late 1970s, and their life trajectories were markedly different in the '80s.

Tina became a solo star of the first order; Ike submerged his career regrets with drugs and had several run-ins with the law.

Exaggerated or fair, his public persona was impossible to ignore.

Many of his old friends pointed out how different it was from the man they knew, one who once insisted on paying the rent for Little Richard's mother during lean times and who always opened his studios to young unknown musicians for the simple reason that he loved to work with talented newcomers.

Burke praised Turner as "a teacher who taught everyone something different" and said the man who first put rock 'n' roll on vinyl was no longer worried about his reputation in the world of men.

"Ike's got a better gig, and he took it," Burke bellowed in his smooth baritone. With a bit of wink, he nodded toward the musicians still playing: "And he didn't take his band. Say, 'Thank God.' "

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