I was really not aware of Tina Turner’s body of work or her journey as a musician and as a person when I first heard her sing Private Dancer and What’s Love Got To Do with It. I was a teenager fed on a diet of campus rock, and for all purposes, this was nothing more than glam pop pretending to be rock. Yet, something about her voice, her delivery, and the urgency of her singing made me sit up and listen to it carefully. This was at a time when other than the weekend pop time and the occasional top of the pops or Eurovision fillers on Doordarshan, all you had on music television was an hour of MTV in the late afternoon. When I first saw her perform on television, her energy and intensity bowled me over.
I grew out of my teens. Tina Turner drifted in and out of my musical horizon with Mad Max and 007 soundtracks and duets with Barry White and Bryan Adams. My growing propensity towards jazz and the blues saw her climb lower on my personal charts. As a student of popular music, I familiarized myself with her early work with Ike Turner and the Revue with masterpieces like River Deep Mountain High and of course, Proud Mary. Beyond that, I was ready to ignore her songs as ones that were going to go to the bottom of the shelf. What I could not ignore, however, was the electricity of her singing and her live performances, whether it was with Beyonce at a Grammy performance or with Cher for the Oprah Winfrey show. Of course, there were other rockers her age who were rocking too, but she was something special. I could not put my finger on it then, and I have not been able to put my finger on it now.
I bumped into Tina Turner again on a Herbie Hancock tribute album to Joni Mitchell on which she sang the smokiest and most brazen version of Edith and the Kingpin. I also learned around the same time that she, like Herbie Hancock, was a practicing Buddhist subscribing to the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin. The teachings of the latter years of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life as interpreted by the 13th century Japanese sage, Nichiren have been the greatest influence on my personal philosophy, and the discovery of this connection made me more interested in her work and life.
I got to watch the 1993 biopic, What’s Love Got To Do With It recently. Through it I learned about the spirit of this incredible performer and the courage with which she steered her life and her career. Tina was born as Anna Mae Bullock to working class parents on November 26, 1939. Obsessively passionate about singing, she entered the chauvinistic world of popular music as the discovery of Ike Turner, who she went on to marry. She lived through a marriage that was increasingly abusive and finally decided to part ways in the middle of a concert tour. Straddled with huge debts from the canceled tour, she struggled to move away from the pop R&B sound and build a more serious reputation for herself. She embarked on ambitious concert tours that quickly earned her a name as an electrifying live performer. She also successfully targeted the space between disco and hard rock.
With age, she went on to become the symbol of the successful woman rocker, and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stones for the eighth time for their 30th anniversary issue (#773, one of my prized possessions) on the women of rock. Though she personally attributes her courage and stamina to her Buddhist faith, at 73, the astounding energy that she portrays on stage will have most people scratching their heads as she sways and shimmies, runs across the stage and headbangs her way through the show.
For women who have had to deal with abusive partners and a chauvinistic social system, she is a symbol of determination and victory. As a singer, she has held her ground, stayed true to her inner voice, and dared to re-fashion herself when all around her suggested she stick to the familiar. She has had her share of musical downs too as she grappled with the intricacies of the new formats that she was experimenting with. But through it all, her powerful conviction in what she was doing has shone through and stood the test of time.
As Oprah Winfrey famously said to and of her, "We don't need another hero. We need more heroines like you, Tina. You make me proud to spell my name w-o-m-a-n.”
Update: As of April 2013, Tina is settling into her newly acquired Swiss citizenship (though she has been living there for the last couple of decades) and is preparing to marry (for only the second time in her life) her partner for the last 18 years, German record producer Erwin Bach.