When Ike Turner died in December 2007, I was tapped to write numerous obituaries, including this one, which appeared in Wax Poetics. I still tell Ike Turner stories—but as I sometimes forget, they don’t always make the best icebreaker. A few months ago, I was eating dinner with a group of newfound friends in Albuquerque, and when it was my turn to talk about myself, I mentioned working with Ike in passing and expected to get the questions and curiosity level I always get at home in Memphis. Instead, I received concerned looks and frowns. Ike’s legacy is a decidedly tarnished one, but I still have mad love and respect for the man who invented rock-and-roll.
It’s the summer of 2000, and Ike Turner is navigating a leased Lincoln Town Car through the streets of South Memphis. His girlfriend, Audrey Madison, is riding shotgun. I’m in the back seat, a Triton 88-key keyboard resting on my lap. Ike makes a left-handed turn onto Crump Boulevard and slows in front of a combination gas station/fried chicken joint. Then Ike gestures magnanimously toward Audrey, a California girl who is anxious to glean any details about his former history. “See that?” he asks, guiding our attention toward three shotgun structures, pointing toward the blue one, which stood on a lot further west of the intersection. The house was laughably small – probably narrow three rooms, including a kitchen. The front porch sagged. Tarpaper patches on the roof were tattered and worn. Yet the pride in Ike’s voice was unmistakable. “That house,” he says, “is the first place I rented in Memphis.”
Ike died on December 12, 2007, and within a few months, his first Memphis home was razed. Even the concrete foundation has disappeared, likely hammered into moveable chunks by scavengers and hauled off overnight. All that remains is a pile of old tires unwanted by even the garbage men, who turn a blind eye to the debris on their weekly rounds.
While the physical remnants of Ike Turner’s life have been disrespected and neglected, the significance of his musical contributions remains undisputed. It’s continually overshadowed, however, by his reputation as a cocaine addict and alleged wife beater. Born and raised 70 miles south of Memphis in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Ike was indoctrinated into wickedness at an early age. He witnessed his father’s painfully drawn-out death, the result of a racial assault. Neighbor women molested him, and his drunken stepfather dispensed vicious whippings on a regular basis. But somehow, Ike flourished: Like the protagonist in a fairy tale, he collected scrap metal, raised baby chicks, chopped stove wood, brewed moonshine, and, when all else failed, posed as a deaf-and-dumb beggar to earn a few coins for his seamstress mother.
Music – initially delivered via boogie-woogie pianist Pinetop Perkins’ able hands – liberated him. Perkins was practicing for the King Biscuit Time radio show; Ike just happened to overhear. He drew closer to the house and, discovering an open window, stood rapt beneath it. Watching Pinetop, Ike later proclaimed, “put a burn in my mind.” In second grade, he began piano lessons himself, and by high school, he’d formed the Kings of Rhythm.
Bigger things beckoned, and in March 1951, Ike brought the Kings of Rhythm to Sun Studio, in Memphis. The band’s equipment was primitive – as legend has it, a guitar amp fell off the roof of the borrowed car, breaking the speaker cone, as they made their way up Highway 61 – and their fortune was pinned on an admittedly corny ditty about the Oldsmobile 88.
At Sun, Ike began pounding the piano keys as if his life depended on it, as drummer Willie Sims hurried to catch up. Willie Kizart struck the guitar strings with a closed fist, and wild fuzz ensued. Throwing any sense of dignity out the window, Raymond Hill blasted chaotic, brain-piercing sax notes. Over it all, Jackie Brenston grabbed the mic, bellowing a guttural rhyme, praising the Olds’ V-8 engine and convertible top. American music would never be the same.
After “Rocket 88” hit, Ike returned to Clarksdale briefly, then moved into that blue shotgun house in Memphis. Phillips’ friend, Joe Bihari, paid the rent, giving Ike a job title—talent scout for Modern Records—and a handsome salary of $225 a week. Ike scoured the Delta for musicians, herding them into Bihari’s open arms. When necessary, Ike – by now a savvy studio musician – sat in with his finds, playing piano on Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years” and B.B. King’s “Three O’ Clock Blues.” In a remarkably short period of time, an unfathomable selection of hits, including Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Stormy Monday,” Rosco Gordon’s “No More Doggin’,” Wolf’s “Moaning at Midnight,” and a creepy two-fer by the Sly Fox, “Hoo-Doo Say” and “I’m Tired of Beggin’,” were all shaped by his intuitive musicianship.
Memphis proved too small to hold Ike. He relocated to Chicago, then St. Louis, then Los Angeles. In 1955, Ike switched from piano to guitar, briefly reinventing himself (due to a contractual dispute) as Icky Renrut. In 1960, he joined forces with Anna Mae Bullock, whom he initially christened Sheena, then Tina.
For a decade, Ike and Tina Turner channeled chitlin’ circuit blues and pop into a chart-topping formula made carnate via hits like “A Fool In Love,” I Idolize You,” “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” “The Hunter,” “Proud Mary,” and “River Deep, Mountain High.”
Beginning in L.A. in the late 1960s, Ike’s personal demons began catching up with him. Holed inside his La Brea Avenue recording studio, Bolic, Ike snorted pounds of coke and stayed awake for weeks at a time working on conceptual masterpieces like 1969’s A Black Man’s Soul and 1972’s sinister, yet humorous “Right On.” According to Tina’s autobiography, What’s Love Got To Do With It?—and numerous stories I’ve heard firsthand from musicians ranging from Sir Mack Rice to Reverend Al Green—Ike’s personality descended into tyrannical madness.
“One time, Teenie Hodges and I went out to California to record with Ike Turner,” Green told me. “Ike was at the piano, and we sat for hours as he took these girls over their routines, right there on the floor. I’m going like, ‘Couldn’t they do that separately? Don’t you want to write a song?’ And Ike’s like, ‘Nah, while you write it they can do it – now turn, turn.’ Miss Tina’s over here and three more girls are over there, and they’ve gotta do these routines. Ike’s [clapping] da, da, da, and I’m going, ‘Oh…’”
“I was still sitting there with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, and Ike said, ‘Man, get that guy out of here! That guy can’t write no song!’” Green recalled, shifting his voice down the scale to do a fair impersonation of Ike’s bass. “I came back home to Memphis, and I wrote ‘Tired of Being Alone.’ When it came out, it was a hit. So Ike called Teenie up and said, ‘Hey man, bring him back! Bring him back!’ But we never did get a chance to go back…”
During the 1970s, Ike was arrested numerous times on drug charges, and lost his physical possessions, including his home, to creditors. Tina divorced him. In the midst of the insanity, Bolic burned down.
By the time he and Tina were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, Ike was behind bars at the California Men’s Colony after a cocaine bust. Ike survived his 26-month prison stint by peddling candy bars to his fellow inmates. Once paroled, he launched a massive “I still like Ike” campaign against Tina’s book (turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne), that included an autobiography, Taking Back My Name, and a 900 number that told his side of the story.
I met Ike in May 2000, shortly after he’d signed a deal with Rooster Blues to relaunch his career— which, after 2 decades of ostracization, this prodigal son was anxious to get back on track. Ike and his old friend, Joe Bihari, came to Memphis to cut a comeback album, Here and Now, at Poppa Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studio. As Rooster Blues’ Memphis-based publicist, I was onsite.
Ike was nearing his seventieth birthday, yet he acted like a teenager. Despite his emphysema, he loved cruising up and down Beale Street, darting into club doorways to take in the gentrified sounds of white guys doing Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, B.B. King that emanated from smoky stages. I hardly understood the appeal, but Ike would catch an earful of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and rock back and forth appreciatively. I’d cringe at the ignominy, but Ike remained convinced that his currency was the future, not the past, of American music.
At Royal, Ike was all business. Buoyed by the thought that 30 years previous, he’d cut the epic album The Hunter in the same space, he shifted from the control room to the studio’s sloped floor, painstakingly arranging the horns, replaying piano parts, and grinding out guitar chords on sessions that he’d begun recording in California years earlier. It was summer, and Ike’s shirt was soaked with sweat—partly because of the stress, and partly because the noisy studio air conditioner was shut off whenever engineer William Brown rolled the tape.
Here and Now failed to hit, but personally and professionally, Ike kept moving forward, finally winning a 2007 Grammy for his last album, Risin’ With the Blues. We last spoke in mid-May, when Ike was back in the news, following an arrest on a drug warrant. Apparently, he’d been clocked doing 80 on a California freeway, and was thrown in jail on an outstanding narcotics charge that pre-dated his prison stint. Two seasons later, Ike was gone, felled, according to the coroner’s report, by a cocaine overdose.
Defending Ike has been occasionally tough. I wasn’t there to witness his worst, and no matter how far I let myself burrow into the deep funk of A Black Man’s Soul, I can’t begin to condone or understand the misogyny that erupted during his darkest years. The Ike Turner I knew was an incredibly talented, energetic musician, unfortunately pegged as a villain early on though he strove for redemption throughout his later life. “I can’t undo the past, but I think I was a good man,” Ike once told me, secure in the knowledge that via his indomitable musical legacy, he’d eventually overcome the impossible and be welcomed back into the fold.