Photo: Frank Micelotta Archive/Getty Images
Before Tina Turner became a pop star, she was a rock pioneer. Turner, who died this week at the age of 83, got her start at 18 years old, frequenting the Manhattan Club in St. Louis to watch Ike Turner’s famed Kings of Rhythm perform. Ike recruited her as a backup singer, and two years later she was the main attraction of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, which scorched up and down the Chitlin’ Circuit, playing highly charged soul and rhythm and blues. The teens who would eventually front the British Invasion — Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Robert Plant, and Rod Stewart, among others — soon started studying Tina’s act, borrowing her dance moves, hair tosses, struts, and fearless attitude.
As the ’60s rolled along, Ike and Tina’s repertoire expanded to include songs from the very same artists they influenced. Tina’s ability to step into tracks written by white men who were inspired by Black acts like Tina felt revolutionary. More than that, she had the ability to embrace and embody just about any song thrown her way. Her voice was like a lion’s roar — an instrument full of power and vibrancy and fierceness at a time when women were supposed to be quiet and demure — and she danced with the grace of a gazelle (and always in the highest heels).
The story of Ike’s emotional and physical abuse toward Tina during those years is well-documented. As is Tina’s post-divorce era, where she tried to reestablish herself as an entertainer, only for the industry to blatantly ignore her talent. But by the mid-’80s, she had become an international superstar, and was singing with the likes of Mick Jagger and David Bowie. To pay tribute to Tina Turner’s place among (and beyond) the rock pantheon, here are some select performances where she outshined, out-danced, and out-sang either the original songs she chose to cover, or those who dared get on the same stage with her.
Ike & Tina Turner opened for the Rolling Stones in ’66 and ’69. By then, the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” was part of their live set (and later recorded for their 1970 album Come Together). While the Stones’ version drips with sleaze and tawdriness, Tina’s is just plain sexy. Her delivery is warm and open and welcoming — everything Mick would want to be if he could. You feel Tina, while Mick is the louche guy at the end of the bar.
The first glimpse many viewers had of Tina Turner performing live was in the Rolling Stones’ 1969 film Gimme Shelter, a harrowing account of the band’s U.S. tour that ended with the murder of Meredith Hunter at Altamont. One of Ike and Tina’s big numbers on that trek was a cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Redding’s performance of this song was always a high point in his shows. Tina may not reinterpret or transform the original like she does other songs on this list but she is still able to match Redding’s pathos and intensity.
Here, Ike, Tina, and the Revue turn the Beatles’ Abbey Road suite into a full-blown soul shouter, complete with horn section and elaborate intro where the Ikettes and Tina dance away. In their hands it’s a completely different song, reshaping a short-but-important moment on record into a profound one on stage. It’s also a great example of both the Beatles’ songwriting abilities and Tina’s skills as a front woman. The Beatles sang those songs; Tina turned them into a performance.
All due respect to John Fogerty, but the famous Ike & Tina rendition of “Proud Mary” makes you forget CCR wrote the original. In Tina’s version, she turns a nostalgic tale of an everyday working man originally sung with an unadorned, matter-of-fact twang into a blazing five-alarm rock-and-roll powerhouse. Her voice is quite literally rocket fuel here. It’s a mystery why anyone even tried to cover this after Tina did.
Rod Stewart was the musical guest for the season opener of Saturday Night Live’s seventh season in 1981. During rehearsals, he ventured downtown to see Tina Turner, who was then playing regular shows at the Ritz. (If you’re confused as to why Turner was doing small downtown club gigs, this was the era between her post-divorce efforts to re-establish herself and her second life as the Tina Turner the world would come to know.) Rod went backstage after the show and, according to Rolling Stone’s Robert Palmer, invited her to join him on TV for a rendition of “Hot Legs,” a Rod Stewart song that had coincidentally been part of her recent sets. Her SNL cameo later that weekend was like a bolt of lightning, as Tina delivered a series of deliberate, exuberant high kicks as if to illustrate what the song’s lyrics are referring to. Rod, who would later invite Tina to open for his 1981 U.S. tour, was clearly thrilled.
There are many (possibly apocryphal) stories of the connection between Tina Turner and David Bowie. There’s the legend of how he told a room full of record executives that he couldn’t go to a party with them because he had to go see one of his favorite performers, which was how a limousine full of label honchos ended up at a Tina Turner show at the Ritz — and how she ended up getting her comeback record deal. There’s also the tale of Bowie putting the moves on Tina while wearing a Tina Turner wig. Either way, they clearly had mutual admiration, as you can see from this wonderful “Let’s Dance” medley.
But there’s a lot more to be said about Tina’s cover of Bowie’s “Cat People,” which she used as the opening number on her 1983 tour. “Cat People” was written for a Paul Schrader erotic-supernatural horror film of the same name, with music by Georgio Moroder. Bowie’s version is perfectly disembodied, but Tina turns it into a dramatic, soaring, quasi-rock opera, extending the vocals emotionally and technically in a way that Bowie himself would have struggled with. They are two completely different interpretations of the same song and yet both serve the material.
Someone once tried to describe Tina Turner as the female Mick Jagger when the reality, of course, is that Mick is the male Tina Turner. There is no better proof of that theory than this performance. Most Gen-Xers can tell you where they were when Jagger inadvertently pulled Turner’s leather skirt off in front of a global audience. It was July 13, 1985, and Live Aid was winding down in Philadelphia when the two stars sang a medley duet of “State of Shock” and “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll (But I Like It).” Viewers witnessed more than just a standout performance; they saw two artists basking in their respective glows, all while trying to simultaneously one-up each other vocally, emotionally, and physically.
In 1975, Tina was cast in Ken Russell’s film adaptation of the Who’s rock opera Tommy. She played the Acid Queen, one of the many characters the parents of the deaf, dumb, and blind boy seek out to try to restore their son’s senses. Here Tina uses her deep and rich vocals to flip Townshend’s bad trip of a song into a vivid, sensual psychedelic dream. The performance also helped create the Acid Queen template that would be used for future performances of the rock opera, from the 1993 Broadway production to the Who’s 1989 tour, where none other than Patti Labelle assumed the role. But Tina’s version is still the best and truest version of the song.
There have been a million words written about the legendary “River Deep.” What matters the most is the quality of Tina Turner’s vocal performance — the warmth and the depth, the emotion and the shading, the control and the vibrato. It’s also an incredibly difficult song to perform live; the versions Tina sings with Ike and the Revue flatten it into a shape that worked for the dancing and gyrating efforts of Tina and the Ikettes. Meanwhile, the version above, taken from the encore jam at the 1989 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony (where Tina inducted Phil Spector, who produced the song), excels because Tina is visibly happy, with only her vocal performance to focus on. Paul Shaffer (from David Letterman band fame) introduces it by saying, “The evening would not be complete if we did not attempt the classical overture of all time. We’re going to give it a try; it’s a hard song.” He instructs them on the key (“We’re gonna do it in B flat.”) and cues the group, as Tina heads to the front, a white towel draped over her shoulder. Bruce Springsteen scurries to get himself clear, Little Richard holds the space right behind her, and Stevie Wonder’s playing keyboards — but it’s Tina’s focus, precision, professionalism, and power that carry this moment.
Yes, it’s an obvious reference toward Tina Turner’s second-greatest asset, but in her hands, this version of the ZZ Top hit, from their massive Eliminator album, is a delightful, infectious romp. The point of the ZZ Top version is its deadpan delivery and strongly syncopated beat, but she transforms it into a full-blown arena-size rocker. She even released a ten-minute live version as a B-side in 1988.
Tina Turner Upstaged Everyone