Speaking of Legends: Ike Turner, 1931-2007

He was both a legendary musician and a legendary monster. Maybe it’s true that he never got to tell his side of the story, but really, what could he have said? The spectacle of Phil Spector denigrating Tina and calling Ike “misunderstood” was the stuff of parody; one unbalanced violent nutcase defending another.

But Ike Turner has been treated unfairly by history. He was a violent abuser, let’s make no bones about that. But that’s not why he’s so loathed in the public eye. The list of men in the music world who are idolized despite their violent behavior towards women (up to and including murder) is endlessly long. But Ike abused a woman who was as intensely talented as he was, who would be listened to when she spoke out. That’s the difference. This doesn’t excuse what he did, but it should make us all think twice about why we scorn him so much more than we do Jerry Lee Lewis or Miles Davis or the many many others who did as bad as Ike if not worse without paying anywhere near the consequences.

In the end, you have to judge a musician by his or her music. And Ike’s was simply magnificent. He would have been a legend if he’d never met Tina, if only for “Rocket 88,” commonly considered the first rock&roll song. Was it really? Who knows. It’s a classic record, with Ike’s piano driving a monster beat, all the elements that would become rock&roll coming together on a single brilliant record. At Sun Records before Sam Phillips discovered the white boy he’d been looking for, Ike was instrumental in the early careers of people like B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. He was a brilliant bandleader, a masterful piano and guitar player, and a damned good singer. I mean, this guy sang with with Tina Turner and more than held his own!

The music Ike and Tina made together was amazing. It was probably Ike’s best work, and was certainly Tina’s. Her deservedly successful solo career was built on her great voice but those cheesy eighties productions are fizzy wine coolers next to the straight-no-chaser whiskey of Ike and Tina Turner. The only time she ever had a band worthy of her, Ike was leading it. There are individual Ike & Tina records — “Let’s Get It On” to name just one — that blow every single solo record she ever made through the wall, leaving holes shaped like Simmons electronic drums.

Ike never recovered from Tina leaving. Between his own problems, and the ignominy of being mainly known as the guy who used to beat up Tina Turner, he never got his career back on track. I saw him at Tramps in the mid-1990s, when he was touring behind his comeback album Here and Now, and while he could still put a band together, he didn’t have it anymore. The album isn’t bad, but live, he was clearly trying to recapture what he no longer really had.

If many of his peers managed to avoid having to lay in the beds they made, while Ike languished in his, that doesn’t let Ike off. But he was a great and talented musician, and I think it’s unfortunate that his personal problems have obscured his gifts and left too many people unaware of some truly great music.

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