Ike ImageDeath never quite seemed in the cards for Ike Turner. It always seemed as if he could survive anything, as he soldiered through five decades of music-making -- surviving institutional racism, drugs, jail, all manners of bad decisions and bad behavior, and culminating, of course, with his reputation as a wife-beater overshadowing it all. Not that this rep was undeserved, of course -- in his 2001 autobiography Takin' Back My Name, he admitted that he hit his wife and musical partner Tina, taking pains to draw a distinction between slapping and beating, as if such semantics mattered -- but after Tina's autobiography was turned into a major motion picture called What's Love Got to Do with It in 1993, Ike became shorthand for spousal abuse. An entire generation or more knew of Ike only from that film, dismissing his music as a mere historical footnote. Just a year after that movie, Rhino released a compilation of early Turner sides called I Like Ike! -- its title not just an endorsement of the music but a statement of defiance in light of all the bad press engendered. It was an early stab at pushing Ike's music in front of his behavior, an attempt that didn't quite stick. Even now, nearly 15 years after the film, his off-stage reputation precedes his music -- the first Associated Press obituary that rolled out yesterday, just after the announcement of his death at the age of 76, mentioned the abuse in the first sentence, and there are still plenty of listeners raised in the wake of What's Love Got to Do with It who refuse to even listen to the man's work.


In a certain sense, this tarnishing of his reputation may have been poetic justice for his behavior -- he had to reap what he sowed -- but now that Ike no longer walks the earth, this demonic image will fade a bit, leaving behind his true legacy: his monumental music. Ike Turner is one of the few men that could credibly be called the father of rock & roll, revving up the rhythms behind the blues and cranking his guitar so it crackled. All this was heard on "Rocket 88," the 1951 Sam Phillips-produced single credited to Jackie Brenston, who was the singer and saxophonist in Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm, a group that featured Ike on piano. Brenston got the credit and the band was renamed the Delta Cats on the single, thereby obscuring Ike's contribution for years, but he wrote the song and led the band, establishing a credible claim to constructing rock & roll; it may have arrived two years after Fats Domino's "The Fat Man," whose rhythms arguably are the first rock & roll beats, but "Rocket 88" with its gnarled, nasty guitar tone – the result of a dropped amp, but beautifully harnessed by Willie Kizart -- is the first early rock & roll album to feel dirty, which is only fitting for Ike Turner.

If Ike had just been the driving force behind "Rocket 88" that'd be enough to cement his place in history, but Turner was above all a working musician, so he kept playing and innovating in the decades after that breakthrough. He settled in St. Louis, switching from piano to guitar, and soon became a regular session musician in Memphis, where he regularly played on blues and R&B sessions, appearing on classic sides by Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson II. He worked for Modern Records, where he helped bring B.B. King to national attention. He kept leading bands, recording for label after label -- sometimes under the fabulous mirror-image pseudonym Icky Renrut -- and eventually bringing Anna Mae Bullock into the revue around 1956.

By the end of the decade, Anna Mae married Ike and became Tina Turner, while his band became the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. The '60s opened with "A Fool in Love," a dynamic down-'n'-dirty R&B number that brought Ike Turner national success for the first time since "Rocket 88." Ike & Tina kept churning out R&B hits throughout the decade, earning a reputation for their explosive live shows, but never quite crossing over to the pop market, even when Phil Spector took them under his wing for the operatic "River Deep-Mountain High," a bombastic 1966 single Ike never liked. After that, Turner turned Ike & Tina's sound toward thick, funky urban soul, rooted in the grit of the south but never, ever sounding rural -- even when Tina sang the praises of Nutbush or a steamboat called Proud Mary. This was Ike Turner's last great hurrah as a rock & soul visionary and a hitmaker, and it's still vivid, colorful, seriously funky music, as Raven's 2006 two-fer Nutbush City Limits/Feel Good made plain. (For as thorough a history of Ike & Tina's music as you can currently get, turn to Time/Life's recent box The Ike & Tina Turner Story 1960-1975.)

After that last burst of creativity and hits, the bubble burst on Ike & Tina's marriage and Ike sank deep into addiction, financial distress and, eventually, jail. He was close to rock bottom at the time What's Love Got to Do with It hit the theaters -- indeed, he was in prison when the duo was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 -- but after that, he worked steadily to restore his musical reputation, along with a shred of his personal rep, too. He played in the '90s and in the new millennium, and he returned to recording with Here and Now in 2001, which wound up winning a prestigious W.C. Handy award. After a surprising cameo in 2005 on Demon Days, the apocalyptic second album by Damon Albarn's Gorillaz, he released Risin' with the Blues in 2006, which defied all odds and won the 2007 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. It was the capper on an unlikely comeback that saw Ike beginning to turn attention away from his monstrous reputation and toward his monstrous music. Now that he's gone, perhaps that shift will continue, so eventually the music will be heard on its own terms and not overshadowed by his reprehensible behavior, for if there has ever been an example of an artist that should be judged by his art and not his life, it's Ike Turner.


  • Jackie Brenston - "Rocket 88"

  • Ike & Tina Turner - "A Fool in Love"

  • Ike & Tina Turner - "River Deep-Mountain High"

  • Ike & Tina Turner - "Bold Soul Sister"

  • Ike & Tina Turner - "Proud Mary"

  • Ike & Tina Turner - "Nutbush City Limits"

  • Ike Turner - "A Love Like Yours"

  • Ike Turner - "Eighteen Long Years"