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Living legend
Ike Turner returns to rock and roll


It’s March 3, 1951, and Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm have just burned up about 50 miles of Highway 61 to get to Sam Phillips’s Memphis Recording Company studios on Union Avenue. They’ve set their gear up in the boxy space about the size of a one-car garage lined with cheap perforated paperboard tiles to keep sounds from bouncing around. Turner’s standing at the piano, Raymond Hill and Jackie Brenston are blowing a few warm-up notes through their tenor saxes, Willie Sims is tightening the heads on his drums, and Willie Kizart has plugged his guitar into a small amplifier that’s spent plenty of nights turned full up in the juke joints around the band’s home base of Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Maybe too many, because the damn thing’s distorting like crazy. Later a fable would be told about the amplifier’s falling off the top of Turner’s car on the way to the session. But nobody who was there seems to think this is true. At any rate, it takes an executive decision by Phillips — who’s used to hearing some pretty funky gear played by the black bands he’s begun recording — to go on with the session. When the red light flashes on, Turner dives into the keys, Kizart unleashes a dirty riff, Brenston steps up to the microphone to sing, and they make history. The song they cut, “Rocket 88,” is a smash for Chess Records, reaching #1 on the Billboard R&B chart in June. More important, its driving beat, pushy sax lines, wild-hammered piano, and greasy guitar would be widely copied a few years later by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. Thus “Rocket 88” is destined to become known as the first rock-and-roll record. “Man, we were just tryin’ to cut a record the way we thought one was supposed to be cut,” Turner would say years later. “I had the boogie-woogie bass movin’ on the bottom, Willie was tryin’ to play guitar like [blues legend] Robert Nighthawk, and we were fond of Joe Liggins in those days, so that’s how Jackie sang.”

Fast-forward from that tiny Memphis studio to a half-century later, March 16, 2001, and the tight stage at Antone’s club in Austin. Ike Turner is headlining a showcase at the South by Southwest music-industry conference. His new Kings of Rhythm are jammed on stage, and as the audience catches its breath, the youthful-looking 69-year-old leans over his piano and starts pounding. That familiar guitar riff kicks up, the saxes start to bray, and Turner begins to sing in a voice sculpted from pure Delta clay: “You women have heard of jalopies/You’ve heard the noise they make/But let me introduce my new Rocket 88.”

Turner and the Kings — guitar, bass, drums, three pianos, and a horn section — play on well past 2 a.m., spurred by the cheers of a crowd that includes members of the Mekons, Los Lobos, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Ron Sexsmith, Neko Case, Toni Price, and Marcia Ball. Within days the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, Rolling Stone, and the Austin Chronicle herald Turner’s rave-up performance drawn from his early-’50s repertoire as the sensation of the conference.

A few weeks later, Turner is still buzzing. “Man, them people were so into it I could hardly believe it,” he says over the phone from his home in San Marcos, California. “They were liking me for myself and my own music, not because of the girls on stage or anything else. I used to hide behind Tina [Turner] and the girls as, like a crutch, you know, because I wasn’t confident in putting myself out front. But now I found my own self again, and havin’ people like it — it feels good. Ha-ha. I’m playin’ my own self!”

Those of us who weren’t lucky enough to catch Turner in Austin can get a big dose of his new old sound on Here and Now (Ikon/Bottled Majic). The disc’s openers, “Tore Up” and “Baby’s Got It,” make it seem we’ve stepped out of Professor Peabody’s Wayback Machine into Sam Phillips’s studio. The latter is the kind of piano workout that made Little Richard’s hair stand on end — Ike’s cranked-up take on the pure barrelhouse-blues style he learned from the great Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins when he was a boy in Clarksdale. And the instrumental “Ike’s Theme” zooms straight back to his “Prancing” days; he builds an armory of sticky-fingered blues melodies on his Paul Reed Smith guitar, then blows them up with the dizzy whammy-bar shrieks that were his trademark back when Ike was among the first to discover what a Fender Stratocaster could do. Then there’s a spiky “Rocket 88” and a raw take on “Catfish Blues” that features, as Turner puts it, “the kind of pickin’ I learned to do playing around town with Sonny Boy Williamson.” Toss in more of the same plus a hearty dollop of primal funk and these 11 tunes go a long way toward clarifying Turner’s role in laying rock’s foundation.

Turner is so giddy with the rediscovery of the music he loved and played first that his joy is infectious, even over the phone. He sounds like a happy kid, but it’s not exactly as if the last 50 years didn’t happen, because he’s left an unignorable trail through popular music. After that first session with Sam Phillips, he continued to record and write instrumental hits and vocal tunes for himself and various singers — “Peg Leg Woman” for Willie King in ’56, “I Miss You So” for Dennis Binder in ’54, his own “Down and Out” and his guitar tear-up “Prancing” in ’59 and ’61 — and became one of the first A&R men of the rock-and-roll era. He brought many bluesmen, including B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Otis Rush, into the studio, where he sometimes doubled as arranger and pianist or guitarist. It’s Turner who actually plays the epochal solos on Rush’s seminal hit “Double Trouble.” Turner also brought a host of first-generation doo-woppers to Chicago’s Cobra Records, and a variety of talents to the Bihari brothers’ Modern label in Los Angeles.

Then, of course, there’s the 20-year partnership he had with Annie Mae Bullock, who became Tina Turner when they married. By the early ’70s, the Ike and Tina Turner revue was the most popular R&B outfit in the world. Equally unforgettable is the reputation for cruelty that was stamped on Ike’s history by the Tina bio-pic What’s Love Got To Do with It. And how his career came to a cocaine-fueled cadenza in the late ’80s that put him behind bars until 1993.

“You know, I think the best thing that happened to me was going to jail,” he says. “I got my life back. ’Cause using drugs, I had brought my life down to zero.”

With the help of his 13th wife, Jeanette, Turner assembled a new revue and returned to stage a few years after his release. But it wasn’t until 1999 that he began to unearth his deepest musical roots. He brought his revue to Clarksdale that summer, performing in his home town for the first time in nearly 40 years as part of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival. Although he hadn’t taken the lead on stage in decades, he was urged by festival organizers to play a few of his trademark piano instrumentals, “Rocket 88” and some incendiary old-school blues guitar. His friend blues singer/guitarist Little Milton Campbell was there, and Milton invited Turner to the piano during his own headlining set. The results were inspired — hot as the Delta night.

“That felt so good, but it was just the beginning,” Turner recounts. “Then [modern bluesman] Joe Louis Walker asked me to tour Europe, and he wanted me to play the old songs. He said, ‘Man, I bet most people don’t even know you play piano.’ So I figured I’d better study up on me. When I first dug up some of my stuff from the ’50s and tried to play it, like ‘Prancing,’ man, it was so difficult. I had been keeping up with the stuff that the industry was doing in the ’60s, ’70, ’80s — and the Ike & Tina stuff. So I had to relearn how to play my own self.

“Once I got back and started woodshedding, man, I began to love what I was doing. ‘Why did I ever leave this?’ I guess the answer is, I had four kids to feed, and I was keeping up with the times. Just last night I was up until 3 a.m. writing new songs. I got another album already in the can. It’s all solo piano, playing the real old-style stuff like I do in ‘Baby’s Got It.’ I was mostly known for guitar and bass, so a lot of people don’t realize piano was my first instrument.”

Indeed, though Turner played mostly bass on stage during the high-profile Ike & Tina years, guitarists who know his early work consider him a innovator for his whammy-bar dissonances and his fusion of blues and country licks into epic solos like his “Double Trouble” turn and his take on the old Western swinger “Steel Guitar Rag,” which was a hit for Ike in 1958.

Now, 43 years later, Tuner says he’s not only back on stage but on a mission. “Now we got rap and hip-hop music, but we lost what we had in black music. There are no more Sam Cookes or Ray Charleses or Coasters. You got ugly music where they just make a loop and call women bitches and say they’re gonna get a gun. It’s the quick fix: no melody, no harmony — just rhythm. I’m gonna give it my all until my last breath to get good music back on the radio, ’cause kids don’t know shit about it.”

Issue Date: May 24 - 31, 2001