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Tina Turner’s rags-to-riches life inspired her new musical… but she had to escape her husband Ike’s vicious beatings to launch her solo career
- Anna Mae Bullock was raised in the tiny American town of Nutbush, Tennessee
- She became Tina Turner, and married the cruel Ike Turner who abused her
- The star, now 78, joined the cast of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical on stage
- She said her life story was proof ‘it is possible to turn poison into medicine’
As she picked cotton in the fields surrounding the tiny town of Nutbush, Tennessee, a young Anna Mae Bullock would distract herself from the unpleasant work by fantasising about a life of glamour and fame.
It seemed a hopeless dream. Although she had a voice that could drown out the choir at her local Baptist church, the little girl had been raised in a broken, violent home by parents who both abandoned her.
Saddled with crashing insecurity and self-doubt, the country girl seemed destined for a life of unnoticed drudgery in the racially segregated southern state.
Instead, she became Tina Turner and triumphed not only over poverty and prejudice, but also over her truly monstrous marriage to Ike Turner. Now, Turner’s harrowing journey to become the ‘queen of rock ‘n’ roll’ and one of the world’s most successful music performers has inspired a West End musical that has the critics rhapsodising.
Anna Mae Bullock was raised in the tiny American town of Nutbush, Tennessee. She became Tina Turner, and married the cruel Ike Turner who abused her. Pictured: Tina Turner on stage in Chicago back in 1983
The star, now 78, joined the cast of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical on stage in London last week and said her life story was proof ‘it is possible to turn poison into medicine’. Admittedly, Turner is one of the show’s executive producers, but she’s hardly exaggerating in her choice of metaphors. Few rags-to-riches stories are as dramatic or poignant as hers.
She was born in 1939 into a hardscrabble community of sharecropper farmers. Her father, Richard, was a farm overseer and could afford a house big enough that the children could sleep in a separate room. Richard and his wife, Zelma, spent their time fighting. Turner is convinced that, having already had her sister Alline, neither parent wanted a second child and never showed her any love.
Turner was three when her parents went to work at a wartime defence facility in Knoxville, leaving her to live with her strict, religious grandparents in Nutbush (which she celebrated in the song Nutbush City Limits).
The family was briefly reunited when the war ended, only for Zelma — desperate to escape her husband — to walk out on them when Turner was 12.
When Richard briefly married again — to a woman who repeatedly stabbed him in their vicious fights — he also deserted Turner and her sister.
They were passed between various relatives until, at 16, Turner rejoined her mother, living in St Louis, Missouri.
At a nightclub, she watched a local R&B band, Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, and ‘almost went into a trance’.
One night, she took the mike during an intermission and started singing, astonishing everyone with her raw power.
She joined the band while still at school and gave up wanting to become a nurse. She had an affair with the band’s saxophone player and, aged 18, had his child. Ike, a local celebrity and inveterate womaniser, became her mentor. Turner thought him ‘ugly’ but, desperate to make a career in music and bowled over by his attentions, she fell in love with him.
Seeing her as the route to the stardom he craved, he gave her a raunchy on-stage image, making her wear miniskirts to flaunt her long legs and insisting her singing voice was as raw and sexy as possible.
Their first record, the aptly named Fool In Love, saw her using her new name ‘Tina’ which, of course, Ike had chosen.
The first time he beat her up was when she suggested ending their affair (even though she was pregnant by him). His response was to smash her in the head with a steel shoe tree before insisting they had sex. It was, she said, when Ike started to control her through fear.
The woman who famously sang What’s Love Got To Do With It was not in love with Ike for long.
Fool In Love was a huge hit and Ike insisted they move to Los Angeles. When she was hospitalised with hepatitis and doctors insisted she needed to rest, he sneaked her out of the hospital so they could go on tour. Their son, Ronnie, was born in 1960 and they married in a ten-minute ceremony in Mexico two years later. Turner was too scared to refuse.
Many have wondered with amazement why she didn’t leave him. The answer, she suggested in a 1986 autobiography, lay in her blighted childhood which had left her with negligible self-esteem and a terrible fear of being abandoned.
She fretted that leaving him would finish her career and it was only later that she understood it was Ike who was terrified of losing her. Realising she was the real talent in their act, Ike sought to control her psychologically and physically. He rarely let her out of his sight, gave her no money and refused to let her see friends. He kept her in a state of continual fear that she might offend him.
The savage violence was relentless, choking and beating her with anything that came to hand, including phones, coat hangers and the heels of his shoes. Turner merely needed to look at him the ‘wrong’ way to provoke him. Many nights she would appear on stage nursing a black eye or a swollen, bloody lip.
Abused: Tina with husband Ike
Their housekeeper once saw him push a lit cigarette up Turner’s nose, and she got third-degree burns when he hurled a cup of hot coffee in her face. On one occasion he broke her jaw, on another he fractured her ribs after attacking her in their dressing room — but he always forced her to go on stage afterwards.
He would later claim: ‘Yeah, I hit her, but I didn’t hit her more than the average guy beats his wife . . . if she says I abused her, maybe I did.’
When he wrote his 1999 memoirs, such twisted reasoning still held sway. ‘Sure, I’ve slapped Tina,’ he wrote. ‘There have been times when I punched her to the ground without thinking. But I have never beat her.’
He hardly bothered to hide his cheating from her. He had affairs with her backing singers, the Ikettes, and with their housekeepers, one of whom essentially became his live-in concubine.
Turner didn’t dare object, asking only that he never brought any woman into her bed. On tour, the male band members would have a special party suite which Turner wasn’t allowed to enter.
When Ike built a recording studio, he included a private sanctuary with steel doors and security cameras, where he could take his women. Turner called it the ‘whorehouse’.
Ike started taking drugs heavily — first marijuana and then cocaine — and became even more paranoid. Turner, who didn’t even drink or smoke let alone take drugs, once tried to leave him, but he intercepted the bus and herded Turner and the children back home.
However, it was becoming clear, even to her, that she could have a career without him.
Ike, a local celebrity and inveterate womaniser, became her mentor. Turner thought him ‘ugly’ but, desperate to make a career in music and bowled over by his attentions, she fell in love with him
Then revered record producer Phil Spector was the first to spot her potential, paying her the then huge sum of $25,000 to record his song River Deep-Mountain High. Spector paid Ike $20,000 simply to stay away from the studio. The single flopped in the U.S., but was a hit in Britain. The Rolling Stones invited Ike and Tina to tour with them in the UK.
When Turner discovered that she and one of his mistresses had simultaneously become pregnant with his children, she had a termination.
She came to believe suicide was the only way out of her ordeal.
‘It finally got to the point where I was ready to die,’ she said in her memoirs. ‘One time, right before a show, he punched me in the face and broke my jaw — and I had to go and sing anyway, with the blood just gushing in my mouth. I felt like I could not take any more.’
She consumed 50 Valium pills and only survived because her stomach was pumped. When she returned home, Ike allowed her two days off before he put her back on stage.
Cocaine took over his life, destroying the cartilage between his nostrils. The equipment in his recording studio stopped working thanks to all the white powder spilt into it. His behaviour became more erratic — barely sleeping, he started carrying a gun.
Amid the chaos, Turner, who used to recite the Lord’s Prayer like a chant when she needed to calm herself, was introduced to Buddhism by friends. She embraced meditation and would repeat the Buddhist mantra ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo’ for up to four hours a day.
After 16 years, Turner finally called time on their appalling relationship in July 1976 when — with their record sales and live appearances dwindling — they flew to Dallas for a concert. In the limo to their hotel, Ike attacked her — taking off a boot and smashing the heel in her face. For the first time, she fought back and later slipped away while he slept in their room.
She checked into another hotel whose manager was so alarmed by her battered face that he put a guard on her door.
Walking out on Ike in the middle of a tour, Tina flew back to LA the next day and began divorce proceedings.
Her troubles were hardly over. Without money — he had complete control over the purse strings — she was forced to stay with friends, cleaning their homes in lieu of rent and living on food stamps.
Ike couldn’t countenance Turner’s attempts to launch a solo career. Homes of friends who helped her were repeatedly set on fire and cars — including Turner’s — were blasted by gunfire.
Police told Turner that Ike had put a contract out on her and she started keeping a revolver in her handbag. Undaunted, she returned to performing on the cabaret circuit.
In their eventual divorce settlement, she gave him virtually everything they had, keeping little more than her stage name, foiling his plans to replace her with another ‘Tina Turner’.
Once again, she triumphed over adversity. Although her popularity had waned in the U.S., she was still big elsewhere in the world, especially the UK. In 1980, she got a resourceful new manager, Australian Roger Davies, and successfully toured apartheid-era South Africa (reassuring a sceptical Davies that she was used to racial segregation, having grown up in America’s South).
Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Tina Turner and Adrienne Warren
Davies updated her image, ditching the sequins, lamé and long wigs. In came tiny black leather dresses and a grittier rock ‘n’ roll style. And yet the U.S. music industry was still hesitant about giving a record deal to a forty-something African-American singer who had walked out mid-tour.
Friends across the pond came to her aid. Tina-loving British pop stars proved instrumental in propelling Turner on the path to stadium-packing superstardom.
Rod Stewart invited her to sing with him on the popular U.S. TV show Saturday Night Live. The Rolling Stones had her perform on part of their U.S. tour. A 1982 single recorded with the pop group British Electric Foundation (an offshoot of The Human League) drew the attention of a big record label, Capitol.
The Capitol executives were further enthused when they learned David Bowie was a huge Tina fan and — together with Stones Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood — they all trooped off to watch her perform at a New York hotel. Afterwards, the musicians returned to Richards’s flat and had an all-night jam session.
Capitol gave her a record deal and she went to her beloved London to record her 1984 breakout album, Private Dancer. It sold 20 million copies worldwide and produced a string of hits, including her first number one What’s Love Got To Do With It.
Appearing alongside Mel Gibson as a busty post-apocalyptic warlord in the 1985 feature film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome helped cement her stardom. Male stars including Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton queued up to sing with her.
In January 1988, Turner made history in a Rio de Janeiro stadium when she sang in front of the largest paying audience (approximately 180,000) to see a solo performer.
She’s shown an extraordinary ability to keep successfully rebooting her career over the decades — even after she announced her ‘semi-retirement’ in 2000.
That year, she notched up the year’s highest-grossing music tour and Guinness World Records announced she had sold more concert tickets than any solo performer in music history. She recently said she may continue recording songs, but she’s too old to perform live again.
After her ordeal with Ike, she gave men a wide berth. Turner says she had a few inconsequential relationships, but avoided a serious entanglement until she met Erwin Bach, a Ferrari-loving German music executive 17 years younger than her, in London in 1985.
They’ve been together ever since, Turner once commenting: ‘I’ve touched upon a happiness I thought was impossible to have.’
In 2013, they married in Switzerland — their home since 1994 — in a Buddhist ceremony at her mansion on the shores of Lake Zurich. Now a Swiss citizen, she apologised to neighbours in advance for any noise.
Ike, who spent two years in prison for drug offences, died of a cocaine overdose in 2007. He insisted until the end that he had never treated Turner that badly.
‘His death meant nothing to me,’ she said later. ‘He had been dead to me for 30 years. When I left, I really left.’
It’s said that adversity produces great art and Turner is nowadays sanguine about her past.
‘People think my life has been tough, but I think it has been a wonderful journey,’ she says. ‘The older you get, the more you realise it’s not what happens, but how you deal with it.’
Given the challenges thrown in her path, the girl from cotton-picking country certainly hasn’t acquitted herself badly.
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