Tina Turner, caught between two monsters
The singer survived two decades of marriage to a cruel husband and put up with the most megalomaniac of producers, Phil Spector
To my surprise, I have come across a vinyl reissue of River Deep-Mountain High, the 1966 album by Ike and Tina Turner. Put out by the Barcelona record label Elemental Music, I realize that the album is a watershed, a dazzling mid-point between the industrial pop emerging from New York’s Brill Building and the rock music of the second half of the 1960s, which sought creative autonomy.
The Brill Building was an office complex where sublime – and also terrible – songs were churned out. In some cases, the artists were husband-and-wife teams, couples who pretended to still be in touch with their adolescence. If the compositions made the cut, they could be quickly recorded in tiny studios in the Brill Building. They were then reviewed by record labels, by producers or, very rarely, by the artists themselves. If the stars aligned, a polished version of these songs would be played on the radio and perhaps become hits.
The climate was one of intense competition and, often, frustration. The record labels were taking the lion’s share while the artists themselves got the scraps while aware of what was happening in the clubs of New York’s Greenwich Village, where artists such as Fred Neil and Jerry Landis – a pseudonym used by Paul Simon – had got into folk. The solution was to become confessional singer-songwriters. At Brill, the dream was to become a producer and found a record label, like Phil Spector.
Already working in Los Angeles at that time, Spector was the ultimate role model. His productions sounded spectacularly different. And he didn’t want to make friends: he shamelessly reduced his artists’ royalties to a minimum. He had an outsized ego, especially after being described by Tom Wolfe as The First Tycoon of Teen in the New York Herald Tribune in January, 1965, when he was still just 23.
In general, Phil worked with little-known artists whom he nurtured himself. But in 1966 he was knocked out by Ike & Tina Turner’s spectacular live set. He lured them from Loma Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros, and then tried to convince Ike Turner to release the resulting album under Tina’s name alone, to no avail. He settled in the end for paying out an extra amount to placate Ike, with the request that Ike show up as little as possible at Gold Star, the Santa Monica Boulevard studio where Spector made his recordings.
Phil’s main asset was River Deep-Mountain High, the brainchild of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, an all-out declaration of love with a thundering instrumental arrangement, which also required dozens of takes by Tina – drenched in sweat, she ended up singing in her underwear! A proud Spector handed out previews to friends and VIPs. Overall verdict: it would shoot to number one.
But it was not to be: River Deep-Mountain High didn’t get past number 88 on the Billboard charts. The album was earth-shattering but it didn’t fit in with the 1966 vibe in the US. Things were different in the UK where it was hailed as a piece of soul-pop brilliance and got to number three. Later, it would be covered by Eric Burdon and the Animals and Deep Purple.
The rug pulled from under him, Spector withdrew from world of production. In fact, he would have remained just another 1960s legend had he not connected in 1970 with the Beatles just as they were falling apart. His work for John Lennon and George Harrison, plus his production on the Let It Be album pulled him back under the spotlight. It is true that he seemed like a more humble and efficient version of his former self, removed from the eccentricities and boasts he became synonymous with. But by the end of the 1970s, he had reverted to type and there were heated recording sessions with Leonard Cohen and the Ramones; his antics earned him reams of newsprint.
But back to the reissued River Deep-Mountain High. Spector left the album half-finished, producing just six of its tracks, and Ike completed it with re-recordings of earlier hits. The album has a psychedelic cover, even though the photos were taken by Dennis Hopper, then banned from Hollywood. The back cover notes were signed by Tony Hall, an old-school promotional agent, which dated the project further. The whole package suggested that both Spector and the Turner team were out of touch with current trends. On the back cover, an aristocratic Ike absentmindedly plays keyboards while, behind him, Tina tends to the laundry; it didn’t even seem to be ironic.
Many years later, while interviewing Tina, it occurred to me to ask her if she wouldn’t like to record an R&B album – the closest thing nowadays to 1960s soul. She looked at me in disbelief and let out a colossal laugh. I still feel myself blushing when I remember it. Basically, the message was, “This poor fool doesn’t understand the difference between third and first division.”