Although generally mentioned in relation to his one-time wife, Tina, Ike was one of the early pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll in his own right. His talents—which spanned many aspects of the music industry—also play a key role in furthering the careers of many other African American artists.
Turner formed a band while still in high school, the Top Hatters. Later known as the Kings of Rhythm, they worked the small clubs throughout the Mississippi delta. He secured a recording session at Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Studios in Memphis; his band cut the R&B chart-topper, "Rocket 88," cited by many experts as the earliest rock ‘n’ roll recording. Due to obscure contractual considerations, however, Chess gave label credit to saxophonist Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats, thereby denying him a notable footnote in pop music history. He also alleged that the company paid him only forty dollars for writing, producing, and recording the disc.
Turner continued as a highly regarded session guitarist, producer, and talent scout during the 1950s. His collaborations with the likes of Johnny Ace, Bobby "Blue" Band, Roscoe Gordon, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and Otis Rush were released on Chess, Modern, and RPM. By the mid-1950s, he was high profile club attraction based in St. Louis. One night in 1956, Annie Mae Bullock—who’d moved from Knoxville, Tennessee to St. Louis to try to build a career as a vocalist—was given a chance to sing with his band during a club date. Impressed with her performance, Turner asked her to join the group; they would get married in 1958.
The couple’s recording breakthrough came unexpectedly in 1959 when a singer tapped to record Ike’s composition, "A Fool in Love," failed to appear for the scheduled session. Tina (her adopted stage name) was substituted and the track (Sue 730) reached number two on the R&B charts (#27 pop) the following year. As a result, Ike decided to focus the act on Tina, bringing in a female backing group (the Ikettes), and working out arrangements and choreography to take advantage of her dynamic voice and stage presence. They recorded a long string of R&B hits for a variety of labels—including Kent, Loma, Modern, Philles, Warner Bros., Innis, Blue Thumb, Minit, and Liberty—in the 1960s, though few performed well on the pop charts. Producer Phil Spector had been particularly interested in packaging the duo for a wider audience through his renown "wall-of-sound," but the commercial failure of his reputed masterpiece, "River Deep, Mountain High" (Philles 131; 1966; #88 pop)—though it did reach number one in England—reputedly led to his decision to retire from the music business.
The late 1960s, however, brought a change of fortune as roots-based sounds once again began dominating mainstream pop. They received invaluable exposure by touring with the Rolling Stones and performing on major television programs and Las Vegas venues. Among their best-selling singles were "I Want to Take You Higher" (Liberty 56177; 1970; #34), "Proud Mary" (Liberty 56216; 1971; #4), and "Nutbush City Limits" (United Artists 298; 1973). Their albums also regularly made the charts, most notably Outta Season (Blue Thumb 5; 1969), In Person (Minit 24018; 1969), River Deep-Mountain High (A&M 4178; 1969; recorded 1966), Come Together (Liberty 7637; 1970), Workin’ Together (Liberty 7650; 1970), Live at Carnegie Hall/What You Hear Is What You Get (United Artists 9953; 1971), ‘Nuff Said (United Artists 5530; 1971), Feel Good (United Artists 5598; 1972), and Nutbush City Limits (United Artists 180; 1973).
Despite their commercial success, the couple’s marriage was in trouble. Tina ultimately decided to leave the act in Dallas during a 1975 tour; she obtained a divorce the following year. While she went on to both commercial and artistic success as a solo performer in the 1980s, Ike found nothing but problems. Not only did his recording activities fail to go anywhere, but he was dogged by a rash of drug and other personal problems. The one bright spot has been the public’s continued interest in the classic work of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, which has led to the release of many recorded anthologies as well as original albums such as Dance (Collectibles 5759; 1996), Don’t Play Me Cheap (Collectibles 5763; 1996), Dynamite (Collectibles 5298; 1994), and It’s Gonna Work Out Fine (Collectibles 5137; 1994).
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