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Tina Turner, the great survivor

A great live performer, the singer evolved from her R&B beginnings with husband Ike to a new sound that highlighted her image as a sensual and empowered woman

Tina Turner
Tina Turner, at a concert in Cologne (Germany), in 2009.Hermann J. Knippertz (AP)
Diego A. Manrique

Tina Turner, who died on Wednesday, was essentially a survivor. Born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939, she left behind a life in rural South Tennessee when she settled with her mother in St. Louis, Missouri. She began singing in church and started frequenting the city’s nightclubs. It was there that she met Ike Turner, the leader of the Kings of Rhythm, in 1957, and they began to sing together. Ike was a veteran who made a living in a tough business, always bordering on illegality; he realized the potential in Tina’s ferocity on a stage, and he made her his wife in 1962.

As Ike & Tina Turner, they racked up hits on the rhythm and blues charts, that is to say, in the African-American market. But the strategy followed by Ike, who preferred to jump from one record company to the next, did not help to establish them as leading figures. However, in 1966 they accepted a proposal to record with producer Phil Spector, who really only wanted to work with Tina. The result was an orgasmic song, River Deep, Mountain High, which flopped in the United States but made quite an impact in Europe. In the UK, Tina became a cult artist. The fascination felt by the likes of Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and David Bowie helped put them in the mainstream.

Husband-and-wife R&B duo Ike & Tina Turner pose for a portrait in circa 1961.
Husband-and-wife R&B duo Ike & Tina Turner pose for a portrait in circa 1961.Michael Ochs Archives (Getty)

The Rolling Stones hired Ike & Tina Turner for their 1969 American tour: White audiences gasped at the turbo-charged sexuality of Tina and her dancers, the Ikettes. Ike, who rarely thought beyond the short term, understood that it was time to establish himself in the rock market. They did it with steamy versions of hits like Proud Mary (Creedence Clearwater Revival) and Come together (The Beatles), as well as resounding originals like Nutbush City Limits, a Tina creation that celebrated her origins.

What Tina kept quiet about was that life with Ike, a cocaine addict, was hell. In 1976 she left him in Dallas and filed for divorce. That would be the central point of her embellished autobiography, later reflected in the corresponding biopic —where she was played by Angela Bassett — and in the musical Tina. She was forced to start over and had to accept all kinds of jobs to pay the rent: she flirted with disco music and reappeared on the nightclub circuit; to her eternal shame, she also performed in South Africa under Apartheid.

Tina Turner performs on stage at Ahoy, Rotterdam, Netherlands, on November 4, 1990.
Tina Turner performs on stage at Ahoy, Rotterdam, Netherlands, on November 4, 1990. Rob Verhorst (Redferns / getty)

In 1979 she connected with Roger Davies, an Australian manager who developed a clever plan to boost her career. She signed with the multinational Capital Records and focused on making albums with songs that highlighted her image as a sensual and empowered woman; it had different producers that covered everything from techno pop to rock. Her 1984 album Private Dancer would sell millions and become the prototype of a new way of understanding broad-spectrum pop, later imitated by Whitney Houston and other divas.

Tina dominated the airwaves and the stages during the 1980s and 1990s. The truth is that she never stopped: she signed up for duets with her British fans and appeared in a movie from the Mad Max saga. And she rebuilt her life with a record executive, Erwin Bach, with whom she shared Buddhist beliefs. She retired in 2000, although she embarked on a farewell tour in 2008. By then she was already residing in Switzerland, a country that was good to her. In gratitude, in 2013 she became a naturalized Swiss citizen and renounced her US citizenship.

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