HomeLife StyleTina Turner’s 11 Essential Songs

Tina Turner’s 11 Essential Songs

Like all the greatest pop icons, Tina Turner, who died Wednesday at 83, had more than one life.

She started off as an R&B shouter and inexhaustible dancer who, alongside her husband Ike, put on the most exhilarating live show this side of James Brown. Then she was a rock heroine who toured with the Rolling Stones and served as the Who’s Acid Queen. And finally she became the ultimate survivor — the abused woman who left her man in the dust and, without apologies, claimed a crown all her own.

Here are some of Tina Turner’s greatest musical moments, on record and on film.

Ike and Tina’s early R&B hits are electrifying moments of raw musical power, but in retrospect they are also deeply creepy in their lyrical content. The duo’s first single introduces Tina’s larger-than-life howl and has her sing about a troubled relationship in which her man mistreats her and “got me smilin’ while my heart is in pain,” yet she still promises to “do anything he wants me to.” Those words were written by Ike Turner, who has sole credit as the songwriter.

More strange and uncomfortable lyrics: Tina professes not love but idolatry, and says that in return, “just a little bit attention you know will see me through.” Tina’s guttural cry atop a walking bass line was the sexiest, most unfiltered sound in music at the time, but it is all but impossible to hear these songs now without wincing at the horror show Tina would later describe about her marriage to Ike.

The biggest hit of Ike & Tina’s early years — it went to No. 2 on Billboard’s R&B chart and was Top 20 pop — is a lighter back-and-forth routine about a couple persevering through their troubles. Again, eww. But at least this time the song was not by Ike. It was written by Rose Marie McCoy along with Joe Seneca and James Lee, and the R&B duo Mickey & Sylvia were involved in the recording.

Phil Spector had seen the Ike & Tina Turner Revue — their incredibly high-energy live show, featuring Tina singing and dancing with the backup Ikettes — and recorded this single, written by Spector with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, for his label, Philles. It tones down Tina’s howls and replaces Ike’s tight band with a somewhat hazy version of Spector’s signature “wall of sound.” The single was a flop, which caused the album of the same title to be delayed by three years in the United States.

“We never ever do nothin’ nice and easy. We always do it nice and rough.” Thus Tina introduces her biggest hit with Ike, a rollicking Creedence Clearwater Revival remake that went to No. 4. After a stripped-down, “nice and easy” run through the first couple of verses, the full band, with horns and Ikettes, joins in to take it energetically to the finish line.

Tina, as the sole credited songwriter, tells her own story for once, detailing her upbringing in rural Tennessee, where “you go to the field on weekdays and have a picnic on Labor Day.” It’s played as acid funk, with period-appropriate electric keyboards and a Moog solo. But the song is still a reverie, never imagining a life beyond the small-town simplicities.

For the film version of the Who’s “Tommy,” Tina was cast as the Acid Queen, the “Gypsy” with a wild scream and quivering lips who uses sex and drugs to try to cure the boy. By this point, Tina was a world-famous sex symbol, and her name alone was shorthand for feminine power. It was also not long before she left Ike. But the world would not know her secret for years.

By the 1980s, Tina was in her 40s and long past Ike, and her brand was survival. The songs on “Private Dancer,” her breakthrough solo album, were mostly written by men, but they perfectly fit the role of an independent woman who isn’t resigned to being alone. “What’s Love Got to Do With It” is the story of a woman with a broken heart who’s tempted but afraid to try again with love, “a secondhand emotion.”

A confident and defiant demand to a man, this was co-written by Holly Knight and was originally released by her band Spider. But it has been Tina’s song ever since, giving her a chance not only to declare “I don’t have no use for what you loosely call the truth,” but also to unleash her raspy roar with “should I?”

Tina donned a white mane and postapocalyptic tribal garb for “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” in which she starred alongside Mel Gibson. The theme song is squeaky-clean ’80s torch pop, though Tina keeps her costume on for the music video.

Originally recorded by Bonnie Tyler, “The Best” is a song of praise to a lover. But if you squint, or sing along as a fan, it could be a paean to Tina herself: “You’re simply the best, better than all the rest.”

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