When I heard of Ike’s Turners death in December 2007, I had several immediate thoughts: his accomplishments, his concerns, his reputation but more than anything else, his music.
It is different for each person as to how and when they come upon this music. I had first known about him through the success of the Ike & Tina Sue recordings that got plenty of play over WEZE/WILD in Boston. In my teens and twenties when I discovered someone I liked, it became an obsession: I had to hear everything. I soon discovered the instrumentals that he had recorded, notably for Pompeii, but also as one part of what he routinely did through the years. I also loved the live material Ike & Tina had done for Kent/Modern.
I didn’t start going back to hear his recordings from the 1950s until later. I can’t remember when I first heard “Rocket 88” but its greatness made me realize there was much I didn’t know or understand about Ike Turner. For one thing, he played piano. The intro on “Rocket 88″ is one of those perfect moments that stay with the listener forever.
While I was rummaging through cutout bins or chasing down reviewer copies of Ike & Tina”s LPs, Ike hit the big time with his Liberty deal. At that point, the records began selling in huge quantities and the group became nationally known. And then came the breakup, the burnout, the fire which destroyed his studio and the jail time, all fueled by cocaine.
Along the way Kurt Loder had written a best-sellingbiography of Tina, (“I, TINA”) which was made into a movie, “What”s Love Got To Do With It”. The film was a big hit and the portrayal of Ike by Lawrence Fishburne made him out to be a despicable human being. The performance was splendid drama but the difference in physical stature created an enduring problem: Fishburne is well over six feet tall, Ike Turner wasn”t more than five-seven. He may have been shorter than Tina. Film has a way of forming lasting impressions in the mind and the vision of Fishburne looming over Angela Bassett is probably the way most people think of Ike Turner.
Cut to the summer of 1996 when I was doing afternoon drivetime at WBGO. Word came down that the Blue Note, a major night club in New York, had booked a blues show featuring the groups of Joe Louis Walker and Ike Turner. Would I like to interview Ike Turner? I jumped at the opportunity.
Alas WBGO was not archiving interviews in those days so I have nothing other my memory of the event to consult. Most interview subjects, in my experience, want to discuss the gig, the record, the book or whatever else they are selling. If you can get a clean focus on those things, you”ll usually have a decent interview. In Ike”s case, he hadn”t had a record in many years and surely hadn’t played New York or its environs since the 1970s.
I started by playing “Rocket 88”. Off mike, he asked why I chose it. I told him that the audience would expect him to play it and he seemed genuinely surprised. His show, the Ike Turner Revue, was largely built along the lines of what he had been doing with Tina. His wife Jeanette would be the singer. He had a couple of piano features in the show and said he would think about adding “Rocket 88”. He began to open up.
He talked about his upbringing in the Mississippi delta. He spoke freely of the Bihari family and Sam Phillips, whom he had worked with before Sun was founded. He talked of knowing BB King when he was still called Riley. He talked about the move to St. Louis and the founding of The Kings of Rhythm. I suggested he revive the The Kings of Rhythm name.
We continued to play music from his past rather than just the hits. He stopped the thread of the conversation at one point and began to speak of his own mortality. He would be sixty-five years old later that year and he knew that sixty-five was the average life span of black men. He wondered whether his accomplishments in the development of modern blues would ever be acknowledged. He was concerned whether he would have enough time to complete the things he was working on. This was not your run-of-the-mill interview subject matter. I asked him, since he had been a bandleader, a songwriter, a pianist and guitarist, how he thought of himself. While not exactly answering the question, he responded without hesitation, “I can make a monkey out of a piano but I only do tricks on guitar”. As we were concluding the conversation he gave me a CD containing rough mixes of songs he was working on. He autographed a photo with a tag that said”stay strong”.
I saw the show at the Blue Note and it was pretty lame except for the piano things, including “Rocket 88″, which got a very good response from the crowd. I kept thinking about the conversation and the thoughts stayed with me. I didn”t think all that much about Ike”s music until the release of “Here and Now” (Ikon 8850) in 2001. The band was listed as Ike Turner & the Kings of Rhythm. Fifty years from the release of “Rocket 88”, Ike Turner was back where he belonged. The album got raves and Ike was given an award for Comeback Album of The Year by the Blues Foundation.
He took the Kings of Rhythm on the road playing festivals all over the world. He had a triumphant couple of sets at the Chicago Blues Festival in 2001. The first, on the main stage, was with his own band while the second was a reunion with Pinetop Perkins, his first piano teacher. This latterset got some of the most tumultuous applause in the history of the CBF. Then came the Zoho release, “Risin” With The Blues” (Zoho 200611) from 2006. While not quite up to the level of the Ikon album, there was plenty of solid stuff on this and it also won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Blues Album. Ike Turner had come all the way back.
The last time I heard him was in October 2006 on a cruise ship, in the Pacific Ocean, off the Mexican coast. He came on about midnight before an appreciative, well-oiled crowd that was expecting great things. That night they got them. The augmented Kings of Rhythm now contained three horns, three keyboards including his old friend from Mississippi Ernest Lane, full rhythm section and Audrey Madison, an energetic young lady doing the obligatory “Nutbush CityLimits” and “Proud Mary”. Ike played piano and guitar as well as he ever played them. It was a show that took no prisoners and simply blasted the blues from bar one. I thought to myself that this had to be the best blues band I had overheard. Thinking back to that interview in 1996, I”d say that Ike made the most of his time. He was able in the course of those last two albums to reestablish his blues credentials to everyone”s satisfaction. A thorough reexamination of his early years had provided more than enough evidence of his ability to bring a modern take on the blues out of the Mississippi delta. His own book, TAKIN” BACK MY NAME, sadly lacking an editor, was flawed but still contained fascinating bits and pieces relating to his whole career.
The general public, who read Tina”s book and saw the movie, would never get it but then I don”t think Ike cared about that. His people were blues people and music people who, now more than ever, knew what he had done and how well he did it.
There is an especially well-done farewell to Ike by Cilla Huggins in issue #65 of JUKE BLUES, the English magazine that had been very much in Ike”s corner for a long time. Here”s Ike”s original “Rocket 88” for your listening pleasure, thanks to HuckToohey from YouTube.