The life of Tina Turner, as told through her essential tracks
Asked to summarise her life and career in a single word, Tina Turner once answered: “endurance”. And it’s true – after originally rising to fame with her first husband Ike as the R&B duo Ike & Tina Turner, the singer escaped the abusive relationship to mount one of the most sensational solo comebacks in pop music.
"My legacy is that I stayed on course from the beginning to the end because I believed in something inside of me that told me that it can get better, or you can make something better and that I wanted better." she told Oprah Winfrey in 2013. That same year, Turner had relinquished her American citizenship for good to embrace life in Europe, and married her partner of 27 years, the German record exec Erwin Bach. The pair settled down in Switzerland, and Turner lived with him in a beautiful home by Lake Zürich until her death on May 24.
Widely known as the Queen of Rock’n’Roll, Turner hopped between two musical worlds with consummate ease; belting out glorious power-pop anthems with a charged and ferocious gravel that most rock singers could only dream of summoning up. Her voice was perfect because of its imperfections; the cracks and rough edges told a story. As Kurt Loder puts it in the memoir I, Tina – co-written with the late artist – she “combined the emotional force of the great blues singers with a sheer, wallpaper-peeling power that seemed made to order for the age of amplification”.
After initially rising to fame in the sphere of rock’n’roll – Ike & Tina Turner famously opened for the Rolling Stones, and scored one of their biggest hits with a cover of ââCreedence Clearwater Revival – solo Tina seemed to subvert these same roots, snatching up the macho swagger and symbolism of the genre and transforming it into an expression of powerful, assured, sexually-empowered womanhood. In one such power move, Turner later opened Rough – her first solo album after quitting Ike & Tina Turner – with a cover of Elton John’s The Bitch Is Back. In perhaps one of her most iconic photoshoots, she posed at the top of the actual Eiffel Tower.
What a comeback! In memory of Tina Turner, here’s a look back at her incredible life, as told through her most iconic musical moments.
Born and raised in Tennessee, Tina Turner – born Anna Mae Bullock – was often found singing at Nutbush’s Spring Hill Baptist Church growing up; the place where she first discovered gospel music. Later, in her teens, she moved to St Louis, Missouri, where her mother had fled in order to escape Bullock’s abusive father. Tina and her sister started going to the city’s Manhattan Club – a predominantly African-American club frequented by the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Milton, and Albert King – while she was still at school, and her first ever gig happened to be a set by Ike Turner and The Kings of Rhythm in 1957. “It was the first time I had seen men in suits with guitars on stage,” she told NME earlier this year.
Entranced, Bullock befriended the band and began dating saxophone player Raymond Hill, with whom she had her first child, Raymond Craig Turner. The young singer was eager to join the group as a backing vocalist, but frontman Turner dodged the idea with vague promises to call her that never manifested.
Then, during an intermission in 1957 she took matters into her own hands, taking the microphone from drummer Eugene Washington and performing a cover of B.B. King’s Blues ballad You Know I Love You. From this moment on, her place in the band was secured; the following year, she made her recorded vocal debut on the jangly ‘50s track Box Top. She’s credited as Little Ann on the song, alongside Ike Turner and Carlson Oliver.
“I became like a star,” she told Rolling Stone “I felt real special. Ike went out and bought me stage clothes — a fur, gloves up to here, costume jewelry and bareback pumps, the glittery ones; long earrings and fancy form-fitting dresses. And I was wearing a padded bra. I thought I was so sharp. And riding in this Cadillac Ike had then — a pink Fleetwood with the fish fins. I swear, I felt like I was rich! And it felt good.”
A Fool in Love (1960)
The following year, the band headed to Technisonic Studios to record a new cut called A Fool in Love with collaborator Art Lassiter, but he was a no-show. Since Bullock already knew the song, written by Ike Turner, they decided to make use of a studio which had already been paid for. Ike intended on secretly erasing her vocals later on and replacing her with Lassiter, but after landing well at one of Ike’s gigs in St. Louis, it soon ended up in the hands of Juggy Murray, the boss of New York record label Sue Records. Murray was so impressed that he offered Ike Turner a $20,000 advance for the song, and it morphed into a crossover that travelled from the R&B charts to the mainstream pop charts, which were dominated by white artists at that time.
Ike did everything he could to ensure that he was in control of Bullock’s rising star. He was responsible for choosing her stage name, and under his watch, Little Ann became Tina; Ike liked the way it rhymed with Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. He also changed her surname to Turner, and trademarked her new stage name in a bid to prevent her from ever leaving him behind or striking out alone. Tina later said she disliked her own stage name, but had no say in the matter.
Proud Mary (1971)
Ike & Tina Turner’s profile continued to rise over the next decade, with the pair performing together as a fully-fledged duo. By now, the pair were also in a romantic relationship, after starting an affair the year that A Fool in Love was released. After giving birth to their child Ronnie, Tina married Ike in 1962 when she was 22. She also adopted Ike’s children Ike Jr. and Michael (tragically, two of Tina’s children – Craig Turner and Ronnie Turner – died in 2018 and 2022 respectively).
Around this time, she expressed concern about the direction her relationship with Ike was heading, and he became violent; in her memoir, she writes that he attacked her with a wooden shoe stretcher, hitting her repeatedly across the head.
As the duo steadily became more popular, the abuse continued as he subjected her to violence and regularly cheated. In 1968, Tinar attempted suicide. "I knew I should leave, but I had no money and didn’t know how to take the first step. At my lowest, I convinced myself that death was my only way out,” she wrote in her 2018 memoir My Love Story.
On stage, Ike & Tina Turner appeared to be on their way to stardom; in 1966 they opened for Rolling Stones, and later signed a record deal with the producer Phil Spector (at the time, he was known for his distinctive ‘Wall of Sound’ recordings). Their true breakthrough came in 1971, with their frenetic, soul-laden taken on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary. Undeniably, Tina is the key to the cover’s magic, her raw vocal charging the song with the wild spirit of rock’n’roll.
Nutbush City Limits (1973)
During Ike & Tina Turner’s rise, Ike kept a firm grip on the songwriting side of things, but the semi-autobiographical Nutbush City Limits – written solely by Tina, but produced by Ike – demonstrates what a gift she had for capturing the energy and feeling of a place. “A church house, gin house,” she chants, immortalising her rural hometown atop fuzzy Blues guitar, psychedelic warbles of Moog synthesiser, a powerful brass section and an unrelenting stomp; “a school house, outhouse, on Highway Number Nineteen.”
A hit at the time, Nutbush later went through several evolutions – following her split from Ike, Turner transformed it into a free-wheeling live favourite, and re-recorded a funkier, piano-laden 90s version of the song which became a Top 20 hit in a number of European countries. Nutbush has also morphed into a slightly strange cultural phenomenon in Australia, where a line-dance routine for the song emerged during the height of 1970s disco. It’s still a wedding disco staple today down under, and is steadily going global even now thanks to TikTok.
Let’s Stay Together (1984)
Three years after the success of Nutbush, Ike & Tina Turner were offered a lucrative record deal with Cream Records for a reported $150,000 per year. The contract contained a clause which would contractually bind Tina to Ike for the next five years; before signing it, Tina fled following a violent altercation.
“He handed me this chocolate candy, and it was melting, you know? And I was wearing a white suit, and I went, ‘Uh’. That’s all, and he hit me. And this time, I was pissed. I said, ‘I’m fightin’ back,’” she recalled to Rolling Stone. “I remember pointing my finger in his face and saying, ‘I told you. You got the money, you got everything. I’m gonna try to stay — but I’m not gonna take your licks anymore.’ And then the big fight started — and I started hitting back. I didn’t cry once. I cursed back and I yelled, and he goes, ‘You son of a bitch, you never talked to me like this before.’ And I said, ‘That’s right, but I am now!’
While Ike was sleeping later at the hotel, she seized her chance, leaving with just 36 cents and a Mobil travel card in her pocket.
“I walked out without anything and had to make it on my own for my family and everyone, so I just went back to work for myself,” she later told Jonathan Ross “It was very difficult and dangerous because Ike was a violent person and at that point he was on drugs and very insecure. I had no money. I had no place to go.”
In the ensuing divorce settlement, Tina Turner kept the right to her stage name and the royalties to the handful of songs she had written, but virtually everything else went to Ike. Turner was also forced to shoulder the debt for the duo’s cancelled tours, and relied on borrowed money and food stamps. As she later told Rolling Stone, she was forced to accept all manner of jobs, including a string of corporate gigs for McDonalds. By this point, Turner was in her ‘40s. In a youth-obsessed pop machine, any kind of comeback felt increasingly out of reach – with her first two post-duo solo records Rough and Love Explosion enjoying only modest success.
Then, along came the sensational solo record Private Dancer – a ridiculously strong album boasting some of the Eighties’ staple hits, and one of her most powerful covers. Seriously, it doesn’t get better than the ache Turner manages to unearth at the centre of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together.
What’s Love Got to Do with It (1984)
And then, there was Turner’s biggest hit of all, What’s Love Got To Do With It, which won three Grammys, and sold a staggering 2 million copies worldwide. It’s hard to overstate the significance of the song in Turner’s comeback – it is sheer pop perfection. “I’ve been takin’ on a new direction,” she sings, her raw vocal embodying a kind of powerful, bittersweet exhaustion. At its core, it’s a kind of anti-love song, Turner dismissing romance as a "a sweet, old-fashioned notion,” and unapologetically revelling in the draws of no-strings attached sexual pleasure instead.
Turner wasn’t sold on the song – which was written by Graham Lyle and Terry Britten – initially, but credited her journey into Buddhism with giving her the open-mindedness to make it her own. “If I hadn’t been willing to go outside my comfort zone, open my mind a little wider, and do the extra work it to make it mine, who knows if I would have broken through in my career," she wrote in her 2020 memoir Happiness Becomes You.
The song later lent its title to a 1993 biographical film of the same name, which told the story of Tina Turner’s life. The star was played by Angela Bassett, who was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars for her role.
The Best (1989)
It takes a very special artist indeed to transform a cover into the definitive version of a track, but Tina Turner pulled it off with her now-ubiquitous version of Bonnie Tyler’s The Best. Perhaps the biggest smash hit of her 1989 album Foreign Affair, the song went platinum in the UK.
By now, Tina Turner was happy with Erwin Bach, the love of her life. The pair first met when the record exec was sent to pick her up from Düsseldorf airport in 1985, and the connection was immediate. “Falling in love with my husband, Erwin, was another exercise in leaving my comfort zone, of being open to the unexpected gifts that life has to offer,” she later said in a 2021 documentary.
“That simple first meeting led to a long, beautiful relationship — and my one true marriage.” In 1988 – the year before The Best’s release – the couple moved to London, kickstarting Turner’s decades-long residency in Europe. "I have left America because my success was in another country and my boyfriend was in another country," she later told Larry King in a 1997 interview. “I’m as big as Madonna in Europe. I’m as big as, in some places, the Rolling Stones." Turner ultimately settled in Switzerland, living there until her death.
It Takes Two (1991)
Tina Turner duetted with a huge number of icons during her career, covering Iggy Pop’s Tonight with the late David Bowie, and linking up with the likes of Mick Jagger, Cher, Janis Joplin, Paul McCartney, Pet Shop Boys, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen. Though it’s immensely challenging to pick just one stand-out, Turner and British singer Rod Stewart’s duet It Takes Two feels like the perfect creative meeting of minds, and a thumping, squalling slab of power-pop
And capping things off, who can forget the Bond tune to end all Bond tunes? Written by U2’s Bono, Goldeneye teeters brilliantly on the line between blistering power and slight camp, with Turner bringing a sense of the theatrical to proceedings. Like many of Turner’s greatest moments, it seems to subtly draw on her own experiences, while also sticking to the 007 brief.
“You’ll never know the days, the nights, the tears, the tears I’ve cried,” she sings. “But now my time has come, and time, time is not on your side.” Sublime.