Musician and songwriter Ike Turner was born either Izear Luster Turner Jr. or Ike Wister Turner in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on 5 November 1931. From early in his life, Turner was exposed to the hard realities of life in the Jim Crow South—his father was lynched when Ike was eight, and his family consistently faced severe poverty. Turner became drawn to the Delta’s rich blues tradition, first working at a local radio station and then playing guitar and piano behind some of the day’s biggest stars. In the late 1940s he formed his own ensemble, Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, which specialized in the blend of blues, jazz, and big-band dance music that ultimately became R&B.
Like many African American musicians of the time, Turner’s band sought greater opportunity in Memphis, already a premier center for black music. In 1951 the Kings of Rhythm signed with fledgling Sun Records, started by disc jockey Sam Phillips for the express purpose of recording African American blues, gospel, and R&B music. The Kings of Rhythm’s first session produced the jumping hit “Rocket 88,” written by Turner, which many consider the first rock and roll record. Despite the fact that Turner was both bandleader and composer, the Sun release was credited to the band’s vocalist, Jackie Brenston, who soon left Turner’s employ to capitalize on his newfound fame. The Kings of Rhythm served as one of Memphis’s leading session bands, and Turner played an increasing role in the development of younger talent.
Turner and the band departed for St. Louis in 1955, beginning a multiyear run as successful touring performers. Turner’s gift for musical arrangement, his keen ear for talent, and his pioneering style on both piano and guitar helped the Kings of Rhythm gain an avid following throughout the famed Chitlin’ Circuit of black venues. In St. Louis, Turner attracted the attention of a young female singer, Anna Mae Bullock. Turner immediately realized the gritty-voiced young woman’s potential, married her in 1958, renamed her Tina Turner, and made her a permanent fixture in his band, which became the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.
Ike Turner achieved his greatest success with Tina through both concert appearances and a series of singles that bridged R&B, soul, and funk. Beginning with the smoldering “A Fool in Love” in 1960, which reached No. 2 on the R&B charts, the pair racked up a series of hits over the next fifteen years, with most of the songs composed and produced by Ike. The Turner Revue opened for the Rolling Stones on several occasions and flirted with sounds from the world of rock music, incorporating fuzz-toned guitar, gritty arrangements, and covers of rock material, including a gospel-influenced version of John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary” (1971) that became a hit. This infusion of rock sounds helped made Ike and Tina Turner’s early 1970s output even more successful than their earlier songs, and the Revue became one of the era’s most acclaimed live acts. Tina’s intense performances, combined with the proficiency of the Ike-led band, made them a consistent draw, particularly in Europe.
However, as his fame grew, Ike’s problems mounted. His penchant for drug use, physical violence, womanizing, and destructive jealousy grew increasingly intense. Tina left Ike in 1976, and they divorced in 1978. She later alleged that he had been violent toward her, charges that he confirmed.
Over the next two decades, Ike Turner experienced a series of personal catastrophes, including a fire that destroyed his Los Angeles recording studio and a number of arrests on drug and weapons charges that culminated in an eighteen-month stint in jail, during which time he and Tina were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
While in jail Ike Turner kicked his cocaine habit, and he began recording and touring again in the late 1990s. He released a 2001 album, Here and Now, that was nominated for Grammy Award. In his autobiography, Takin’ Back My Name, published the same year, he addressed many of his flaws and failings and claimed to have been married fourteen times. He began using cocaine again in 2004, was diagnosed with emphysema the following year, and died of a cocaine overdose on 12 December 2007.
- John Collins, Ike Turner: King of Rhythm (2003)
- Jon Pareles, New York Times (13 December 2007)
- Ike Turner with Nigel Cawthorne, Takin’ Back My Name: The Confessions of Ike Turner (1999)