Ike Turner may be one of the more influential figures in rock music.
He created what many see as the first rock ‘n roll record, “Rocket 88”; his guitar licks on classic blues recordings are considered masterful; he helped launch the careers of Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, and Otis Rush, among others; and he discovered one of the most dynamic female rock stars ever.
But that is not the Ike Turner most people know, or think they know anyway. In the public mind, he remains the man who allegedly broke Tina Turner’s nose and abused her for years, until she got the courage to break free. The man so deftly portrayed as a frightening ogre by Laurence Fishburne in the movie “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”
It’s that image Turner must deal with as he attempts a comeback with his first recording in 23 years, the album “Here and Now.” He’s hoping that his new music, a mix of old time blues and rock ‘n’ roll, will put the focus back on his musical legacy.
“That’s old news now, man,” he says about his past troubles, which included a 17-month stint in jail on a 1990 drug conviction. “We’re thinking about here and now, and that’s where I am now. It’s about my music. Is my music good, or is my music bad?”
Rob Johnson, the producer who coaxed Turner out of retirement to record “Here and Now,” says the musician was hesitant at first about reintroducing himself to the public.
“He was clearly anxious to create music and put it on record. I think he was somewhat leery of the rigors of the promotional experience, and how he would have to enter back into the world of controversy,” he says.
But Turner felt he had something to prove, according to Johnson.
“His last chapter in life shouldn’t be drug abuse and the problems he had with Tina,” Johnson says.
So far, it appears Turner’s last chapter may be more flattering. When he performed for critics and music industry types earlier this year at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, he received thunderous applause, and wowed skeptics with his dynamic guitar and piano playing, backed up by his band, Kings of Rhythm.
“At South by Southwest, I was really afraid because I’ve always been afraid of rejection, and South by Southwest was the first time in my life that I ever did me on stage, totally,” he says.
In the past, Turner preferred to remain in the background, behind a singer – part of the reason his contribution to music has been overshadowed, according to Jim O’Neal, founder of the music magazine Living Blues.
“He would be a really important figure in the history of rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll and blues even if Tina had never come along,” said O’Neal. “He’s been more of the mastermind behind it than the figurehead.”
For most of his five-decade-plus career, Turner churned out music that others paid attention to – it’s even been said that a young Elvis Presley checked out Turner’s band after Turner helped the then-unknown singer sneak into clubs to hear him.
But Turner is best known for his years in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, a groundbreaking partnership that created such hits as “Proud Mary” and “River Deep, Mountain High.”
His wife was clearly the star of the act, with her raspy voice, dazzling dance steps and sexy image. But Johnson says it was Ike, playing on in the background, who was the driving force.
“Ike did formidably and powerfully… contribute to Tina’s success as a musician, as a singer, and the sounds and the arrangements and the dancing and the focus,” says Johnson.
Turner is more modest about his contribution to her career.
“She made herself. I think together we were a good team and we got our point across,” he says.
Of course, the team – and the marriage – was torn apart in 1976 when, according to Tina Turner, the pair got into a fight in Las Vegas that left her bloodied. As recounted on numerous “Behind the Music”-type documentaries on Tina, as well as in her autobiography, “I, Tina,” and her own biopic, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” she fled with only 36 cents to her name and never looked back.
Turner’s alleged treatment of his wife is not a subject he cares to discuss, or one with which he appears to have reconciled himself. At one point during an interview, he declares he does not want to talk about it; then, he says: “There’s two sides to every story. What made her stay there if it was true? Why was she there 18 years?”
He does apologize for cheating on her, admitting he “hurt her.” But in the next breath, he says he’s “not taking the blame for it, because whatever I do to you, if you stay there one minute after I did it, then you’re as much to blame as I am for staying there taking it.”
One of the mistakes he admits to is giving Disney approval to make “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” which he says fictionalized the duo’s relationship and destroyed his name.
“And so they had to have a villain in the movie, and that’s what they made out of me, a villain. That movie is nothing like me,” he says.
Turner says he agreed to the movie at the time because he was addicted to drugs. His compensation? “A lousy $45,000.”
He wasn’t able to kick his drug habit until he served time on cocaine charges. He calls the sentence a blessing.
“My experience, man, with drugs – I can’t say that I’m proud that I did drugs, but I’m glad I’m still alive to convey how I came through. I’m a good example that you can go to the bottom,” he says. “I used to pray, God, if you let me get three days clean, I will never look back. But I never did get to three days (until prison).”
Turner says he’s not only been clean since his 1991 release, he’s also given up smoking. Although he suffers from emphysema, he appears the image of health today, looking like a fit man in his 50s instead of one approaching his 70th year.
He’s in good financial health too: In recent years, he says, he’s received hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties from other artists sampling or rerecording his music; Salt ‘n Pepa’s sample of his 1961 song “I’m Blue” in their 1993 hit “Shoop” netted him $750,000 alone, he says.
And Turner – who swore off marriage after his 13th divorce – has a new lady, singer Audrey Madison, who is in his act. On stage, she bears an unsettling resemblance to Tina Turner, and mimics her style as she sings the hits Ike and Tina made famous, including “Proud Mary.”
At times, her presence reduces the show to a second-rate Tina Turner impersonation, detracting from Ike’s own compelling performance. But Johnson said it would be wrong for Turner not to play songs from his Ike and Tina period.
“I like to see the show open with Ike, close with Ike, and encore with Ike,” he said. “(But) he’s the author and the arranger of those songs, and it’s not fair for him not to play those songs.”
Still, if he never played “Proud Mary” again, chances are his audience would still emerge from his shows in awe. During a recent performance at New York City’s Village Underground, a capacity crowd roared even before Turner played a note, paying homage to him as an architect of rock ‘n’ roll.
As he stood on stage and assessed the ovation, Turner appeared to choke back tears. Clearly, he has found those willing to give him – and his music – an encore.