Tina Turner Opens Up: Exploring The Life and Legacy of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Original Warrior Queen
Photo: Bryan Adams
Finally, she had everything. Fame, success, money, love. She had survived a suicide attempt, escaped a monstrous husband who abused her onstage and off and staged a solo comeback that made her a global superstar. Then after half a century in show business, she happily called it quits and married the man of her dreams in a fairy-tale wedding at a Swiss château, surrounded by 140,000 red and yellow roses and serenaded by Bryan Adams as she walked down the aisle. For a moment, her life was perfect.
Three months later, she woke up unable to walk. Tina Turner had suffered a stroke. It was 2013, and she was 73. She was all set to live happily ever after, but her body had other plans.
Before Beyoncé. Before Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Madonna and Gaga. Before Cardi B, Miley, Katy, Britney, Pink, Janet, Adele, Alicia, Avril, Alanis … there was Tina.
She is pop music’s original warrior queen, a force of nature who tore up the stage and became the first woman to bust open the male clubhouse of rock royalty. Because she did not write her own songs or spin her image into a shape-shifting work of performance art, Tina would never achieve the pedigree of vertically integrated superstars like Beyoncé or Gaga. But as a singer and dancer, she blazed the trail with a body of work that was pure performance. No matter who wrote the songs — from the riverboat boogie of “Proud Mary” to the sultry hauteur of “Private Dancer” — she owned them with an authority that was both regal and incendiary. From her sunburst wigs down to her stiletto heels, she created a theatrical persona that always seemed genuine and hard-earned and inseparable from her own epic story of triumphing over violent abuse.
Tina Turner didn’t just break the glass ceiling of rock ’n’ roll. She broke the double standard that allows Mick Jagger to strut his way into the septuagenarian stratosphere while female stars hit their expiry date at less than half his age. When Tina lit up the charts with “What’s Love Got to Do With It” at 44, she became the oldest female solo artist to score a No. 1 hit in the U.S. If she were a contemporary artist, like any of today’s iconic female pop stars, she would need no last name, especially one taken from a husband who beat her. She would be simply Tina.
Her story is a bedrock fable of female empowerment. Anna Mae Bullock, self-professed tomboy from Nutbush, Tenn., finds the spotlight in the early ’60s with R&B bandleader Ike Turner — a violent cokehead who changes her name, trademarks it as his personal property, drags her to a live sex show on their wedding night in Tijuana, travels with a revolving harem and beats her black and blue for years. In 1968, she attempts suicide by swallowing 50 Valiums. In 1976, after enduring one last brutal beating from Ike, she hits back for the first time, then bolts for freedom, sprints across a Dallas freeway in blood-spattered clothes and lands in a motel with a Mobil credit card and 36 cents in her pocket. A divorce leaves her broke. Well, almost — she hangs onto her two Jaguars, one a gift from Ike, the other from Sammy Davis Jr. Rising phoenix-like from the ashes of her career, Tina scores a massive hit with her 1984 solo album, Private Dancer, finesses a starring role as Mel Gibson’s imperial nemesis in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and crowns her triumph with the film’s defiant anthem, “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”
The legend of Tina’s life story was baked into her comeback with a best-selling autobiography, I, Tina (1986), which led to a 1993 bio-pic named after her biggest hit, What’s Love Got to Do With It, starring Angela Bassett. After selling 200 million records, winning 12 Grammys and filling more concert seats than any solo performer in history, Tina gave her final performance in 2009, then slipped out of the spotlight for good, settling in Switzerland with German record producer Erwin Bach, a younger man by 16 years and the love of her life since 1986.
When celebrities vanish from view, people sometimes assume they’ve died, as if life ends when the lights go down. Even this is beginning to read like an obituary. But when it comes to an unstoppable force like Tina Turner, one has to ask that question once posed by Peggy Lee: is that all there is?
Well, no. At 78, Tina Turner is the ultimate survivor — still alive, if not kicking her legs like she used to. After spending four years running a gauntlet of life-threatening calamities — a stroke, then cancer, then kidney failure — she has published her second memoir, Tina Turner: My Love Story. Co-authored with two ghostwriters, it reboots her Cinderella story, revisiting the abuse, her escape from Ike, the stellar comeback. But it centres on her romance with Erwin and how it withstood the cascade of afflictions that followed their honeymoon. In a way, it’s as affirmational as her success story: the tale of a woman’s resilience as her body betrays her out of the blue.
It’s a body she always took care of. Tina swears she’s never used drugs or smoked a cigarette. And while she was not one to go to the gym, 50 years of intense workouts as a performer kept her fit. She proudly recalls jumping from the stage at the Apollo Theatre in New York when she was eight months pregnant with her second child — “I was a good athlete. I knew that I could handle it.” Two days after her son was born, she says she was back onstage “singing and dancing as if nothing had happened.” Tina was 21. Later, as a 44-year-old action hero in Beyond Thunderdome, she took pride in doing her stunts and wearing 70 pounds of armour.
Tina talks about her body in practical terms. Billboard once raved that she had “the most kinetic legs in the business” and, when she was honoured at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush called them “the most famous legs in show business,” an observation that left Tina nonplussed. “I was — and am still — amused by the constant attention paid to my legs,” she says. “I truly don’t get the fuss. Did you ever see a pony’s legs when it’s just born? Long and spindly? That’s what my legs looked like to me … My short torso is hooked onto these two little dangling legs, but I’ve learned how to wear clothes to flatter them.”
Equally iconic is her hair, which doesn’t belong to her body. It’s adopted. Tina has been wearing wigs since the early ’60s, when a hair salon over-bleached her chemically straightened black locks and turned them brittle. For a show that night, she hid the damage under a wig and never looked back. She would wear the same style and colour of wig onstage and off but, for performances, she’d “prepare it like a three-course meal,” forking it into her signature haystack. The wig, she says, has always been “an extension of myself,” not a costume.
That attitude also extended to her skyscraper heels. You had to wonder how she could dance in them, never mind with the lightning moves she brought to the stage. Apparently, the secret to dancing in heels is all in the toes. “You always stay a little bit on your toes, with your weight thrust forward,” she says. “Toes are surprisingly strong.” As for footwear, Tina loved to perform in Louboutins and Manolo Blahniks. But for endurance, she relied on unbreakable shoes with a steel shank. Custom-made by cobbler-to-the-stars Pasquale Fabrizio, “they felt like an extension of the leg.” Even her revealing costumes were “practical choices,” she says. “Fishnet stockings didn’t run as often as the other kind. Short dresses were easier for dancing because they left my legs free. Leather didn’t show perspiration or dirt, and it never wrinkled. So much for sex appeal.”
Like many fans of my generation, I got my first glimpse of Tina Turner on the big screen — in Gimme Shelter, the classic documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1970 tour. Ike and Tina Turner were the band’s opening act, and the film has a smouldering scene of Tina singing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” while sculpting the microphone with explicit carnality. As a young man, I was mesmerized. Little did I know I was witnessing a primal #MeToo moment. “Ike was just as controlling and abusive onstage as he was in the house,” Tina recalls. “He forced me to sing ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ in such a cheap and sexual way that it became my least favourite song.”
The first time I saw Tina perform was up close, in the Imperial Room of Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. She had just kick-started her solo career with a Vegas-style revue. Flanked by a line of dancers, she overwhelmed the genteel supper club with a molten energy that could have ignited a stadium. A couple of years later, in 1985, I saw her launch her North American Private Dancer tour in a St. John’s hockey arena. Suddenly she was a rock star, burning down the house in a dizzying repertoire of costumes that evolved from white buckskin pants to an ostrich-feathered gown, from a loin cloth and halter top layered with diaphanous chain-mail to a black leather mini-dress slit past the hip.
So when she writes in her memoir that “looking sexy onstage was never my primary goal,” it seems a bit disingenuous. But here’s the rub: she goes on to say, “I didn’t worry about how guys would react to my look. I always played to the women in the audience because if you’ve got the girls on your side, you’ve got the guys.” At the time, she adds, “there were no women who sang and danced like me — women who could be sexy without making it sexual.”
It’s a fine line. Perhaps because Tina didn’t write her own material, it never became disturbingly personal. She treated her show as rock ’n’ roll burlesque — just good, light-hearted fun. “There was never anything coming from the stage that was negative,” she maintains. “Beyoncé has that same kind of energy today, but I was the only one back then.”
Backstage at that show in St. John’s, wearing just a blue terry towel, Tina told me that, after being treated as Ike’s “little slave girl,” she had no desire to dwell on the past. She even turned down a role in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. “Black people can do better than that,” she said. “I’ve lived down south in the cotton fields. I don’t want to do anything I’ve done.”
Tina’s musical heritage may be steeped in soul and R&B, but she didn’t want to stand still long enough to sing the blues. So many of her hits, like “River Deep, Mountain High,” are flat-out declarations of love. Initially, she even balked at the urbane innuendo in some of the pop songs written for Private Dancer. When her new manager, a 30-something Australian spitfire named Roger Davies, first brought her a demo of “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” she dismissed it out of hand, arguing that it was “not what Rod Stewart or the Rolling Stones would sing.” Those boys were her role models. As Tina’s solo career took off, it was white rock stars who lit the runway, with Jagger, Bowie, McCartney and Bryan Adams performing live duets that were tailor-made for the brave new medium of MTV.
In the 1990s, Tina moved to Europe. She liked it for its civility and tolerance, and she “felt safe abroad because there was no chance of running into Ike … I could forget about him in a foreign country.” (Ike died of a cocaine overdose in 2007.) But her main reason for moving was to be with Erwin Bach. They lived in Cologne, with a place in the south of France and finally made their home a villa on Lake Zurich, where she says “the air is so fresh that the simple act of breathing feels like drinking a cold, clear glass of water.”
In 2000, after completing her final studio album and performing what she intended as her farewell tour, Tina slipped so far from the limelight that rumours of her death were trending on Google. But in 2005, she emerged for a tribute at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and saw Beyoncé perform “Proud Mary.”
“When I think of inspiration,” Beyoncé told the audience, “I think of the two Tinas in my life — my mother, Tina, and, of course, the amazing Tina Turner. I never saw a woman so powerful, so fierce.”
After seven years off, Tina credits Sophia Loren with prodding her to go back to work when they ran into each other at a fashion show in Milan. Celebrating half a century of performance with her 50th Anniversary tour, she sold more than a million concert tickets, finally pulling the plug in 2009. Then came the roller-coaster ride: the lavish wedding, the honeymoon cut short for a TV audience with Oprah … and the stroke. Waking up half-paralyzed, “I was too embarrassed to ask for help,” she recalls. “Legs for days and muscles of steel from dancing, but I didn’t have the strength to get up.”
It was just the first in a string of medical catastrophes. Next came severe vertigo, followed by intestinal cancer, kidney failure and almost a year of dialysis. The combo of cancer and kidney disease presented a lethal catch-22 — tumour-fighting drugs would reject a kidney transplant. But in the end, Tina was cleared of cancer in the nick of time and saved by the love of her life. Erwin donated his kidney. After an arduous recovery from her operation, she nervously stepped back into the public eye for the opening of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical in London’s West End. “I watched my past unfold from the comfort of a plush velvet seat,” she writes. Tina felt a strange sense of closure. When the actor playing Ike came onstage, she says the likeness was so uncanny “it was as if Ike had come from the grave.” But he couldn’t hurt her. In fact, she felt she could finally forgive him.
Stories don’t always stop when they should. Before the memoir went to press, Tina had to append a tragic epilogue to the fairy-tale ending. In July, just before she would celebrate her fifth wedding anniversary with Erwin, after attending an Armani fashion show in Paris followed by a lively dinner, Tina went back to the hotel to learn that her son Craig Turner had shot himself. He was dead at the age of 59. Tina had a son with Ike and adopted two of his children, but Craig was her first: she gave birth to him at 18 after a passing romance with Ike’s saxophonist, Raymond Hill. “He’ll always be my baby,” writes Tina. “I know I’ll get through this somehow. I’m strong.”
Tina likes to point out that she has two sides: rock ’n’ roll Tina and “the Tina who wears ballet flats and pearls, who believes in elegance.” There’s Tina the ferocious dancer with the switchblade legs, and “a voice that could fuse polyester at 50 paces” (as Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder put it). Then there’s Tina the lifelong Buddhist who would chant for hours on end, creating a secret refuge from Ike’s abuse. She no longer sings on stage but still chants at home, in a room where she has built a small shrine to her lost son.
Looking back on her life, she admits, “My longest love affair has been with my audience.” In that sense, her legacy seems secure. Public icon or private dancer, Tina Turner will always be the Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll.
A version of this article appeared in the Dec. 2018/Jan. 2019 issue of Zoomer.