The Irredeemable R&B Legend
Interview and photos by Bob Gersztyn
In March 1971, I attended the Ike & Tina Turner Revue at the University of Detroit in Michigan's largest city. The price of tickets ranged from $3.50 to $5.50 at a time that they were at the peak of their popularity with their then current radio hit, which was a cover of CCR's "Proud Mary." The show featured Tina front and center backed up by her husband Ike and his band the Kings of Rhythm that included a trio of female singers called the Ikettes. The show met all of my expectations and still remains indelible in my mind half a century later.
Ike Turner was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on November 5, 1931 with the given name of Izear Luster (Wister) Turner. His father was a Baptist minister and his mother a seamstress. He witnessed his father being tortured and left for dead by a white mob and was sexually abused by a female neighbor. His mother remarried and his step father was a drunk that abused him. He escaped his pain during this time through music and after running away from home he got a job as a DJ at a Clarksdale radio station.
While Turner was in high school he formed the Kings of Rhythm and in 1951 they put out a record titled "Rocket 88" which the Smithsonian Institute calls the first "Rock & Roll" record. In 1956, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri and performed in a local club with his band where he met Anna Mae Bullock. Later, they were married in Mexico and her name was changed as they became the Ike and Tina Turner Revue
In 1993, Touchstone Pictures released the film What's Love Got To Do With It based on the 1986 biography I Tina by Tina Turner with Kurt Loder. The film shows the previously little-known side of Ike as an horribly abusive husband with a cocaine addiction. They were divorced in 1978 and a decade later, Ike spent time in prison because of drug offences and even missed his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 due to his incarceration in prison.
After he was released from prison he was clean of drugs and reformed the Kings of Rhythm and began touring and recording again. He released Here and Now in 2001 and in 2002 it won the W. C. Handy award for "Best Blues Comeback Album" and was nominated for a Grammy as the "Best Traditional Blues Album."
In 2006, he released his last studio album Risin' with the Blues, which won a Grammy Award for "Best Traditional Blues Album." On December 12, 2007 according to the medical examiners Ike died of a cocaine overdose.
Back in July 2002, he appeared at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon and I reviewed it for Blueswax/Blues Revue. His fourteenth wife, Audrey Madison Turner, who he married in 2006 was a member of the band at the time. A couple of months later, I managed to get a phone interview with Turner where I questioned him about his genesis and some of the people that he helped on their way to stardom.
When I called the number that I had been given to conduct my interview a woman, who I suspected was Audrey answered and I told her who I was and why I was calling. She said that she would see if Ike wanted to talk to me, which surprised me since I assumed that the interview was confirmed. After a minute, Ike came on the phone and asked me why I was calling like he never heard anything about doing this interview. After I told him that his publicity office had confirmed and set it up and I knew the right names, he agreed to talk to me but said that I only had ten minutes. So I immediately jumped right into my questions and asked how he got interested in music in the first place. He told me that he was around six or seven years old when he saw pianist Pinetop Perkins and it blew his mind.
Pinetop in 2000, at 87 years old
"I don't think that I had ever seen a piano before I saw him, and he was really, really playing the thing, man. We walked up to the window where they were rehearsing. It was one of the piano players I have with me now, Ernest Lane. We were looking through the window like kids do. We were excited looking at the piano. I wanted a piano, and I wanted to be a piano player Then I went home and told my mama that I wanted a piano. I told her what I saw and she saw how excited I was. She told me that if I came home with good grades and was promoted to the next grade, then she would buy me one. When I came home with the card, man, to tell her that I was promoted, the piano was sitting in the house. It was the beginning of me and music. She started giving me money to go take music lessons from teachers. I went 3 or 4 times and it got boring. She was showing me scales and stuff, and that was too slow for me. I wanted to play like Pinetop. So I started to learning stuff by ear and taking the money she would give me to go to music lessons, and I would go to the pool room with that, and then I would just learn how to make something up on the piano. Like the left hand of the boogie woogie or something. Then I'd go home and she'd say, what did you learn? Then I'd play boogie woogie for her, and she'd say where did you learn that? I'd say that was the beginning of my entry into music."
Over years of practice at home and in the pool hall, Ike became a proficient piano player. He tried out for the school band and he became a member of the 32 person band but then one day they kicked him and all the other boys that couldn't read music out. The school band with the boys that could read music were named the Dukes of Swing. The band was led by Clayton Love.
"And they started them a band called the Dukes of Swing. Which was Clayton Love, he's still around, he's in St Louis with a guy called Nash and another called Fox. Man anyway they named themselves the Dukes of Swing. And so anyway I took the ones of us that couldn't read and put together a group. Then a girl told me, 'why don't you name yours the "Kings of Rhythm"?' Because we keep up with the juke box. Whatever was hot on the juke box, that's what we were playing. We would sound just like the record. We would take off the records and man everywhere we played at it was packed with people, every night man. So that was the beginning of the King's of Rhythm, when I named them, and we started to play all down through Mississippi, Shelby, Greenwood, Greenville, Lamberts, Mississippi and everywhere else."
Some of the people who influenced Ike after he grew up and began to observe and integrate their styles and techniques into his band were piano player, Amos Milburn and people like bandleader and saxophonist Pete Brown and drummer Billy Higgins. However, he said that the biggest influence on him was Joe Jordan who taught him how to produce and arrange horns. He considers him to be one of the all-time greats.
After he ran away from home, he was in Memphis which was about 65 miles from where he lived in Clarksville, Mississippi. The reason why he ran away was because of his broken relationship with his step father. Ike was hanging around Sam Phillips' Sun Studio when he ended up on a BB King recording of "You Know I Love You." That led to him becoming a talent scout and Ike explained it this way.
"I was just watching them, because they had the door open. It was a church studio in Memphis. When they took a break, I went inside and I got to messin' around with the piano. This guy Joe Bahari, when I started messing with the piano, he said, "I want that right there." I ended up playing on the song that B. B. King was recording. After that, Bahari started talking to me and he said, "is there any more talent around like you?" I told him a lot of it. You know who Joe Bahari is I guess, he owns Velvetone, CRN and Crown labels, they have about five labels.
"The four Bihari Brothers included Joe, Saul, Jules and Les who co-founded Modern Records in Los Angeles, California. It included all their subsidiaries including Meteor Records in Memphis where they used pseudonyms "and split writing credits with the original artists on their labels in order to get a part of the royalties, but didn't actually write any of those songs."
(for more on Les Bihari, see his Discogs entry)
Ike was explaining how he was working for the Bahari brothers because they were showering him with gifts when he was just a teenage boy that made him feel important. "When he asked me if there was any more talent around like me, 'I told him, yeah a lot of it, down in Mississippi,' which is my home, where I'm from. So he said, 'well let me pick you up tomorrow and we'll go down and talk to some of them.' The next day he picked me up and we went down to Clarksdale. I would go to the pool room and ask the people at the pool room if they had any singers around, and they would tell me, if there was. If there wasn't, then I would also go and talk to some church and find out if there was any sharp singers around in any town because we didn't just go to Clarksdale. We went to Clarksdale, Greenwood, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, Shelby, Batesville, Mississippi, we went to Texarkana, Texas, but this was later, you understand. This was how we started."
Bahari recorded a number of the performing artists from that time period and returned to California with the recordings, telling Turner that he would return and hire him. Bahari promised him fame and fortune in a Faustian deal that would make the Devil and Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" deal pale in comparison. Bahari gave Turner a list of names that he had gathered and told him that he wanted help to record them when he returned with recording equipment. When he returned with recording equipment, they went to nearly a dozen towns and recorded the artists that performed there with Ampex portable equipment. It wasn't a sophisticated recording session where they had microphones everywhere like in a studio, but they only used one or two mikes.
"Then he told me, Ike I'm going back, and what I'm going to do is buy you a car. I think I was 19 or 20 years old then. He bought me a '49 Buick, and it was green. It was the first car I ever had in my life, and I used it. He said he's going to give me a salary. Then in Mississippi, the highest paying job was like, if you're the president of a bank, $15.00 a week was a whole lot of money. So he started giving me $100.00 a week for a salary. Then I would take all my gas receipts and send them to him. Whether it was $50.00 or $60.00, because I was riding down all through the south, and finding talent, and writing their names down and tellin' 'em I would come back in one month. You know, in a couple of months and then record 'em, and that's what I did. I don't think he named me a talent scout. He named me 'field representative.' That was my title back then I wasn't really a talent scout."
Then Ike talked about how he influenced some of the early rock & roll pioneers through personal interaction with them. In the case of Elvis Presley, it took place while he was still driving a truck for a living. Ike was living in West Memphis at the time with a guitar player named Matt Murphy that later played with the Blues Brothers. Turner had a group that included Murphy and a singer named Little Jimmy Parker where they played in West Memphis at a club on 11th Street. In those days, Ike would play the piano while he was standing and do all the pelvic gyrations that Elvis adopted.
"This was a black club, you know they wasn't integrated then. Anyway, I saw this white guy standing at the back door looking in. So I pulled the piano out from the wall, and I go, 'hey man, you come in.' Then he started coming by man, every night we played there, and watching me play piano. I don't know how long this went on, but anyway, I got to know him by sight. I didn't know what his name was, he was just somebody who liked music and then I don't know when it was five or ten years later. They had just opened up the International Hotel in Las Vegas. They had Elvis Presley playing in the main room, and they had Ike & Tina, Redd Fox, and I forget who else playing in the lounge. So I didn't know who Elvis Presley was. It wasn't too long after, well we left West Memphis, that the song came out, "Blue Suede Shoes." But I never even thought this guy could sing. I didn't know anything about him, period.
So anyway, while we was playing at the Hilton in the lounge, and Elvis Presley was in the main room, I started messing with one of the girls in the Sweet Inspirations. One night man, I won $470,000 on the dice and I put all this money on a roller, a roller cart (when I questioned Ike about the amount, he repeated "four-hundred-seventy-thousand dollars"). Cause I didn't want to put it in the cage. I wanted to take it up to my room, up to my suite, to show it to Tina. On the way from the dice table, I had them put all this money on one of these little roller carts man. I didn't go through the audience. I went up through the employees route, up through the back. So I'd never seen this guy in the main room, Elvis. I'd never seen him period. Even now, if I'd be on the show with you, I don't even notice the other groups on there. So I was going the back way with this money and stuff, and this guy walks up to me. And said, 'hey remember me?' I looked at him and said 'no I don't.' Then he pulled his hair back off his face, and I said, 'no I don't remember.' And he told me to take a good look. Then he started moving, and he said 'this is what you did on the piano,' and he started showing me how I play the piano. I said, 'yeah I used to do that a lot, but now I'm playing guitar.' He said, 'man, you oughta play the piano.' Then he said, 'I'm the guy from West Memphis who used to hide behind the piano when you played on 11th street back then. Oh man, I'll show you...' So that's how that ended.
By the mid 1960's, Turner and the Kings of Rhythm were living and performing in East St. Louis and he heard a guitar player that he liked. Even though Ike played guitar, he didn't think that he was that good so he would have another lead guitarist in his band. At that time, he wasn't known as Jimi Hendrix but as a member of Ike's band he was known as "Little Jimmy." So Ike hired "Little Jimmy" because his guitar prowess impressed him.
"Anyway, I hired him, and boy, he could really play when he come to a solo. I didn't think I was that hot on solo, because I used to copy Gatemouth Brown, and this guy he didn't really copy nobody man. But he was always messing around with gadgets, man. In those days fuzz and wah wah's and all that stuff wasn't part of the gear, back then, but you know them people used things like slides or something like that. Well anyways, this guy, man, he had all these gadgets on the floor. They wasn't on no board or nothing. They were just across the floor on stage in front of him. Come time for solo and he would mash one of those buttons. They didn't have balanced lines then. The damn thing was starting to feedback (makes buzzing noise) and by the time he got the whistle out of it and stuff, the solo was over with. Anyway, I told him about it, after a few weeks of this stuff man, I let him go, because he had all those pedals. I liked the way he played, but he didn't want to do without those pedals. So I cut him loose. Later, I saw him again with, I think it was Little Richard. I just saw him as a guitar player that I liked. Then finally, man, we played Los Angeles, at Devonshire Downs, that was a festival, where Ike & Tina was playing at. This guy Jimi Hendrix was here, man, and there was more people than I'd ever seen in my life at that festival. Then this guy came out with this rag around his head. He had this thing tied around his head. It was this little dude, man, and man he come out and he had put all those pedals on a board. By then they had balanced lines where when you go from one pedal to another one and they didn't feedback. He had those girls running up the fence man, trying to climb over a fence, like an 18 foot fence when he started to play. They was just screaming and doing all kinds of stuff boy. This was when I knew that he was Jimi Hendrix. Later, we played at the Madison Square Garden. That's the last time I saw him. We were coming in and he was coming out and the limo stopped. We pulled up aside each other in the driveway and we talked for a minute, and that's the last time I seen him."
Suddenly Ike realized that we had been talking for nearly twenty minutes and he abruptly said, "I gotta go." So I told him thanks as he hung up the phone.
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|