A lifetime of promises, a world of dreams

My introduction to Tina Turner came in 1971, as it did for many other white suburban kids of my age, with these spoken words: “You know, every now and then, I think you might like to hear something from us nice and easy. But there’s just one thing: You see, we never ever do nothing nice and easy! We always do it nice and rough. So we’re going to take the beginning of this song and do it easy. Then we’re going to do the finish rough.”

And with that, Ike and Tina Turner launched into a slow, sensual reading of the first verse and chorus of John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary,” then abruptly segued into a frenzied double-time arrangement for the rest of the song. Holy smokes, I thought, this is way more interesting than Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ho-hum original!

Full confession: It would take me many years before I developed a full-blown appreciation for Turner’s gifts as a one-of-a-kind entertainer. I certainly knew her big hits from the 1980s — “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Better Be Good to Me,” “Private Dancer,” “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” “Typical Male,” “The Best” — and her reputation as one of the most electrifying live performers to ever take a stage.

But it really wasn’t until the past week, in the wake of Turner’s death May 24 at age 83, after reading all the tributes and listening more intently to Turner’s recorded legacy, that I came to understand how much she overcame and how much she accomplished in her 50 years in show business. I strongly urge you to scroll down to the Spotify playlist at the end of this essay and hit “play.” So many superb performances!

Anna Mae Bullock was only 18 when she met and first heard Ike Turner and The Kings of Rhythm perform at a St. Louis nightclub. Turner had been a formidable guitarist and songwriter in his own right, responsible for seminal rock ‘n’ roll records like 1951’s “Rocket 88,” and he knew how to present a riveting live act. But one night in 1957 during a break, the petite girl who longed to be on stage got her chance, belting out B.B. King’s “You Know I Love You,” and Turner was gobsmacked. “I would write songs with Little Richard in mind,” said Turner in his 1999 autobiography, “but I didn’t have no Little Richard to sing them. Once I heard Tina, she became my Little Richard. Listen closely to Tina and who do you hear? Little Richard singing in the female voice.”

Her potent, bluesy singing and supercharged dancing style soon made her the group’s star attraction, and Turner’s wife. The ensemble was renamed The Ike and Tina Turner Revue and became one of the premier touring soul acts of the early-to-mid-1960s in R&B venues on what was then called “the chitlin’ circuit.” Their work wasn’t yet embraced by mainstream audiences, but if you pay close attention to the first dozen tracks selected for the playlist (especially “A Fool in Love,” “Cussin’, Cryin’ and Carryin’ On” and the Phil Spector-produced “River Deep, Mountain High”), you’ll be reminded (or discover) what all the fuss was about.

Over in England, The Rolling Stones invited the group to open for them, first on a British tour in 1966 and then on an American tour in 1969, which caused rock audiences in both countries to sit up and take notice. (You could make a strong case that Mick Jagger was deeply influenced by Tina Turner’s stage presence as he developed his own in-concert persona.)

Tina with The Rolling Stones backstage in 1981

I’m reluctant to mention too much about the horrible abuse and violence Tina endured at the hands of her first husband, particularly once he developed a cocaine addiction and an irrational jealousy of her ever-increasing time in the spotlight. Suffice it to say that she suffered indignities and injuries that hurt her self-esteem and her career for many years in the ’60s and ’70s, and she deserves a huge amount of credit for eventually breaking free from his suffocating control.

“It’s very difficult to explain to people why I stayed as long as I did,” she said many years later. “I’d left Tennessee as a little country girl and stepped into a man’s life who was a producer and had money and was a star in his own right. At one time, Ike Turner had been very nice to me, but later he changed to become a horrible person.”

Desperate to be rid of him, she agreed to divorce terms that left her virtually penniless. She gave Ike nearly all their money and the publishing royalties for her compositions. “You take everything I’ve made in the last sixteen years,” she said. “I’ll take my future.”

Turner’s solo career was slow to take off. Her first few albums didn’t sell, her record label dropped her, and she was back to playing small clubs and in ill-advised cabaret acts for a time. When Olivia Newton-John’s manager, Roger Davies, began guiding her in 1980, Turner readopted the gritty, hard-rocking style that had made her a crossover star, which led to a startling cover version of The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” on an album of rock and soul covers called British Electric Foundation. That in turn led to a stupendous remake of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which reached #26 on US pop charts in 1983. That success attracted Capitol Records, who approved an album with the caveat that it be recorded and released in less than a month.

A number of prominent songwriters and producers — Rupert Hine, Mark Knopfler, Ann Peebles, Terry Britten — came forward to offer their songs and their services, and the result was “Private Dancer,” one of the biggest albums of 1984 and, indeed, of the 1980s, selling upwards of 10 million copies worldwide. The LP was described by one critic as “innovative fusion of old-fashioned soul singing and new wave synth-pop.” Seven tracks were released as singles in either the US or the UK, with “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Better Be Good to Me” and “Private Dancer” all reaching the Top Ten here.

At age 44, Turner had finally attained the superstardom she’d dreamed of since first stepping on stage. Four more albums over the next 15 years achieved platinum status (especially the 1986 follow-up “Break Every Rule,” which reached #4), and she cemented her reputation as one of the top concert draws in the world. She also showed her chops in film, playing the ruthless Aunty Entity in the 1985 blockbuster dystopian action hit “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” which spawned another #1 hit, “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”

One of the things I most admire about Turner is her ability and willingness to record covers of popular R&B songs and rock tunes with equal flair. Check out some of the titles you’ll find in her catalog: “Come Together” and “Get Back” (The Beatles), “Living For the City” (Stevie Wonder), “In the Midnight Hour” (Wilson Pickett), “Reconsider Baby” (Elvis Presley), “The Acid Queen” (The Who). I’m even more impressed by the number of major rock stars who have partnered with Turner on various duet projects over the years: Eric Clapton (“Tearing Us Apart”), Rod Stewart (“It Takes Two”), Bono (“Theme from ‘Goldeneye'”), Bryan Adams (“It’s Only Love”), David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”).

Her tempestuous first marriage provided much of the material for the 1993 film “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” with Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne in the lead roles. Turner re-recorded some of her hits, and one new song, “I Don’t Want to Fight,” but otherwise declined to participate. “Why would I want to see Ike Turner beat me up again?” she said at the time.

Turner (left) and Bassett as Turner (right)

The best indication of how much respect artists have earned is the number of major players who praise them, both in life and in death. “How do we say farewell to a woman who owned her pain and trauma and used it as a means to help change the world?” Bassett said last week. “Through her courage in telling her story, and her determination to carve out a space in rock and roll for herself and for others who look like her, Tina Turner showed others who lived in fear what a beautiful future filled with love, compassion, and freedom could look like.”

Beyoncé, arguably the most popular singer on the planet at the moment, said, “My beloved queen. I love you endlessly. I’m so grateful for your inspiration and all the ways you have paved the way. You are strength and resilience. You are the epitome of power and passion. We are all so fortunate to have witnessed your kindness and beautiful spirit.”

The Who’s Pete Townshend, who had suggested Turner for the part of The Acid Queen in the 1975 film version of “Tommy,” described her as “an astonishing performer, an astounding singer, an R&B groundbreaker. If you ever had the privilege of seeing Tina perform live, you will know how utterly scary she could be. She was an immense presence. She was, of course, my Acid Queen in the ‘Tommy’ movie, and it is often my job to sing that song with The Who, so she always comes to mind, which isn’t easy to deal with. The song is about abuse at the hands of an evil woman. How she turned that song on its head! All the anger of her years as a victim exploded into fire, and bluster, and a magnificent and crazy cameo role that will always stay with me.”

The multi-talented Oprah Winfrey noted, “I started out as a fan of Tina Turner, then a full-on groupie, following her from show to show around the country, and then, eventually, we became real friends. She contained a magnitude of inner strength that grew throughout her life. She was a role model not only for me but for the world. She encouraged a part of me I didn’t know existed.”

The time Winfrey was invited on stage in Los Angeles to dance with Turner “was the most fun I ever had stepping out of my box. Tina lived out of the box and encouraged me and every woman to do the same.”

The industry has given Turner many accolades. Twice she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with Ike in 1991 and on her own in 2021); she received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2005 and a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2018.

Rest in peace, Tina. Your place in music history is iron-clad secure.


She’s a woman who understands

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about women.

Not my wife and daughters in particular, although I already think of them all the time. Not even female friends, necessarily. I’ve been thinking about women in terms of their position in society, their impact on life, the influence of their personalities.

I have been tardily immersing myself in the dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is brilliantly written and acted but oh so very bleak and pretty frightening. The subtle and not-so-subtle parallels between the subjugation of women in that story and the impact of the right-wing Supreme Court’s outrageous gutting of Roe v. Wade are more than a little disturbing.

I rarely address political issues in this rock music blog (except for occasional overviews of protest songs as a sub-genre), but this week, I am moved to explore songs that celebrate women — strong women, smart women, kind women, independent women. I have selected a dozen songs with “woman” in the title that go beyond the superficial or pejorative generalizations all too common in pop songs of the classic rock era.

In addition to these 12 songs, the Spotify playlist at the end includes several “honorable mentions” that have lyrics less relevant to my intended message but still worthy of inclusion because the music warrants it.

This Independence Day weekend, I shall be deep in thought about how our country is in trouble when it summarily removes established rights from half its people. This cannot be the way forward…


“Woman in Chains,” Tears for Fears, 1989

For “Woman in Chains,” the leadoff track on the excellent “The Seeds of Love” LP, Tears For Fears singer/songwriter Roland Orzabal was inspired by two different lines of thought when he wrote it. “The song is about how men have traditionally played down the feminine side of their characters, and how both men and women suffer for it. I think men in a patriarchal society have been sold down the river. We’re told that we’re in control, but there are also a hell of a lot of things that we miss out on, which women are allowed to be.” He also revealed he was writing about his mother’s unhappy life as a nightclub stripper, and the abuse she took from her husband (Orzabal’s father): “Well, I feel deep in your heart there are wounds time can’t heal, /And I feel somebody somewhere is trying to breathe, /Well, you know what I mean, /It’s a world gone crazy keeps woman in chains…”

“She’s Always a Woman,” Billy Joel, 1977

I find this song to be one of Billy Joel’s most delightful, beautiful melodies, but the lyrics have always perplexed me. If she “steals like a thief” and “can ruin you faith with her casual lies,” why is she also the recipient of his love and affection? It’s actually autobiographical. In the ’70s, Joel was married to Elizabeth Weber, who managed his financial affairs and handled his contract negotiations with a toughness bordering on ruthlessness. Male business adversaries naturally labeled her as “unfeminine,” but Joel saw she was fighting for his interests, and he loved her for it: “Oh, she takes care of herself, she can wait if she wants, /She’s ahead of her time, /Oh, and she never gives out, and she never gives in, /She just changes her mind…” The marriage didn’t last, though, and he sees his part in the failure: “She’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be, /Blame it all on yourself ’cause she’s always a woman to me…”

“Kind Woman,” Buffalo Springfield, 1968

Buffalo Springfield didn’t last long because the two major talents in the lineup, Stephen Stills and Neil Young, were too competitive for their own good, both as songwriters and as performing guitarists and singers. Overshadowed in the mix was third singer-songwriter Richie Furay, a much gentler soul who later founded Poco and ultimately gave up the business for life in the clergy. One of his finest efforts in the Springfield was “Kind Woman,” a plaintive country-based tune in which the narrator sweetly asks the nice woman he has just met if she’ll keep him company: “Remember once before, you’re hearing the old folks say, ‘Love’s an ageless old rhyme,’ /But nowadays, you know the saying depends so much on the kind of woman that you find, /Kind woman, won’t you love me tonight? /The look in your eyes, kind woman, /Don’t leave me lonely tonight…”

“Just Like a Woman,” Bob Dylan, 1966

On the face of it, this classic tune from Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” double album appears to traffic in stereotypes, describing actions that are supposedly “just like a woman” would do. There is some of that in there, to be sure, but I interpret the lyrics to be more universal. We all ache, we all have pain, both men and women, especially the emotional variety from unsuccessful relationships, and we all break “just like a little girl” (or boy). He’s throwing in the towel: “Your long-time curse hurts, but what’s worse is this pain in here, /I can’t stay in here, ain’t it clear that I just can’t fit, /Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit…” Some observers think the song is about former lover Joan Baez, who was once a bigger star than he was: “When we meet again, introduced as friends, /Please don’t let on that you knew me when I was hungry, and it was your world…”

“American Woman,” The Guess Who, 1970

This #1 single by the Canadian band that has had the most success on US pop charts was widely misinterpreted at the time of its release in the spring of 1970. With American involvement in the Vietnam War at its fullest, many listeners saw the song as an anti-American slap by a foreign group, but that’s simply not the case, according to singer Burton Cummings. “The lyrics were written on the spot during an onstage jam after we’d returned from a U.S. tour,” he said in 2013. “What was on my mind was that girls in the States seemed to get older quicker than our girls, and that made them seem dangerous. When I sang, ‘American woman, stay away from me,’ I really meant, ‘Canadian woman, I prefer you.’ We weren’t used to strong, outspoken women.”

“Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” Harry Belafonte, 1956

This provocative song’s authorship is somewhat unclear, but the prevailing opinion is that it was written by Norman Span, a popular calypso musician who first recorded it back in 1936. Belafonte made it popular as an album track on his #1 LP “Calypso” in 1956, and artists including Chubby Checker, Roseanne Cash, The Grateful Dead, Robert Palmer and The Carpenters all recorded it over the years. It was featured on an episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy put a band together to outfox Ricky and show him he wasn’t the only one with talent. The lyrics advance a theory regarding superior intellect: “Ah, ever since the world began, woman was always teaching man, /And if you listen to my bid attentively, I goin’ tell you how she smarter than he, /And not me, but the people, they say that the men are leading the women astray, /But I say, that the women of today, smarter than the man in every way…”

“Woman’s Gotta Have It,” James Taylor, 1976

Taylor wrote so many great songs but also loved recording cover versions of R&B-flavored numbers like Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” and The Drifters’ “Up on the Roof.” On his underrated 1976 LP “In the Pocket,” Taylor did a spectacular job with Bobby Womack’s 1972 song “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” a funky soul tune written by Womack and his stepdaughter Linda Womack. The lyrics, which center on a woman they knew who was thinking of going elsewhere for intimacy because her husband had grown neglectful, serve as a warning to pay attention: “Do the things that keep a smile on her face, say the words that make her feel better every day… /Woman’s got to have it, I believe that I should know, she’s got to know that she’s needed around, /When you kiss her, you got to make her feel it everyday, boy, /She’s got to know that she’s not walking on shaky ground, /Think it over…”

“(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” Aretha Franklin, 1967

One day in 1967, Atlantic Records producer/mogul Jerry Wexler stopped Carole King on the street and said he needed her to write a song for his new artist Franklin, to be entitled “Natural Woman.” King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin collaborated that very evening, and you would think the lyrics would’ve been written by a woman, but in fact, King wrote the music while Goffin came up with the words. It became one of Franklin’s signature songs, a song of gratitude to a man who offers so much devotion and kindness, from a woman whose “soul was in the lost and found”: “Before the day I met you, life was so unkind, but your love was the key to my peace of mind, /’Cause you make me feel, you make me feel, /You make me feel like a natural woman…” King ended up recording the song herself four years later on her multi-platinum “Tapestry” LP.

“Woman,” John Lennon, 1980

The former Beatle, abandoned by his mother (and father) at a young age, developed an unhealthy defense that included berating and even physically abusing women who he felt had done him wrong. Therapy and Eastern philosophy helped quiet Lennon’s demons, such that, by 1980, he was able to acknowledge the huge importance of women in not only his life but in the universe. “Women make up half the sky, half the world, half of everything,” he noted. He wrote a mea culpa song like “Woman” to try to make amends for past behavior: “Woman, I can hardly express my mixed emotion at my thoughtlessness, /After all, I’m forever in your debt, /And woman, I will try to express my inner feelings and thankfulness for showing me the meaning of success… /Woman, I know you understand the little child inside the man, please remember my life is in your hands…”

“Woman,” Peter and Gordon, 1966

I couldn’t resist putting this song in the mix, which credits Bernard Webb as the songwriter, but that was a pseudonym for Paul McCartney, who wanted to see if a song he wrote could be successful if no one knew he wrote it. Peter Asher, as the brother of McCartney’s then-girlfriend Jane Asher, had benefited greatly from Lennon-McCartney songs the duo had given to Peter & Gordon — “A World Without Love,” “I Don’t Want To See You Again” — but “Woman” also did well for them (even though it wasn’t long before we learned who really wrote it). A line like “be my woman” may seem rather possessive these days, but it was well-intentioned for its day, and he’s hoping for mutual love, need and want: “Woman, do you love me? /Woman, if you need me, then believe me, I need you to be my woman…”

“No, Woman, No Cry,” Bob Marley and The Wailers, 1974

Following the success of “Burnin’,” The Wailers’ 1973 LP with future reggae classics such as “Get Up Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff,” Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer left to pursue solo careers, and Bob Marley assumed the mantle of frontman of the group. “Natty Dread,” the first album by Bob Marley and The Wailers, included “No Woman, No Cry,” which became a huge favorite in concert and was a featured track on the group’s 1975 “Live!” album. Although some misinterpreted the title to mean “If there’s no woman, there’s no reason to cry,” Marley said he meant it in Jamaican lingo as, “No, woman, nuh cry (don’t cry).” He was offering comfort in times of sadness: “Good friends we have, oh, good friends we have lost along the way, yeah, /In this great future, you can’t forget your past, so dry your tears, I say, /No, woman, no cry…”

“I Am Woman,” Helen Reddy, 1972

In 1972, Australian singer Helen Reddy had grown so tired of the demeaning treatment she and other female artists had to endure in the music business that she was motivated to write some defiant lyrics about it.  She handed them off to songwriter Ray Burton, and the result was the multi-million-selling “I Am Woman,” a somewhat cheesy but game-changing song that Helen Reddy played on every TV variety show she could. For better or worse, it gave many women the confidence to defy the odds, to chase their dreams, to press harder for more favorable contracts, to resist men’s unwanted advances, and to go where only men had gone before: “You can bend but never break me ’cause it only serves to make me more determined to achieve my final goal… /Oh yes, I am wise but it’s wisdom born of pain, /Yes, I’ve paid the price, but look how much I gained, /If I have to, I can do anything, /I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman…”


Honorable mentions:

More Than a Woman,” The Bee Gees, 1977; “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” Derek and the Dominos, 1970; “Gold Dust Woman,” Fleetwood Mac, 1977; “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Percy Sledge, 1966; “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman,” The Doobie Brothers, 1973; “Witchy Woman,” The Eagles, 1972; “Black Magic Woman,” Santana, 1970; “Long Cool Woman,” The Hollies, 1972; “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Roy Orbison; “L.A. Woman,” The Doors, 1971; “Evil Woman,” Electric Light Orchestra, 1975; “Kentucky Woman,” Neil Diamond, 1967; “Parachute Woman,” The Rolling Stones, 1968; “She’s a Woman,” The Beatles, 1964.