The hair. The strut. The voice. It could only be one woman: Tina Turner, the Queen of Rock & Roll. Here is the enduring story of this tough-as-nails legend.
Tina Turner's life is even more tragic, and incredible, than people know. For one, that's not her name: She was born Anna Mae Bullock on November 26, 1939, and grew up in Nutbush, Tennessee. Her parents were sharecroppers and she remembers picking cotton as a child. But when WWII started, everything changed.
Tina’s parents took jobs at a defense factory in Knoxville, Tennessee. However, they decided to leave three things behind, Tina and her two sisters! The parents separated the three kids and sent Tina to live with her strict religious grandparents. She wouldn’t see or play with her sisters for years.
It was only after the conflict in Europe was over that the children were once again allowed to live with their parents…but her most painful childhood trauma was yet to come.
When she was just 11, Tina Turner was scarred for life by a horrific incident. It was that year that her mother abandoned the family and left with no warning. Apparently escaping an abusive relationship with Tina’s father, her mother fled to St Louis and left her children behind with no goodbyes. The incident left her feeling unwanted and unloved, and it would have a jarring effect on Tina as she grew up.
The turmoil of Tina’s young life continued well into her teens. Two years after her mother left the family, her father remarried—but the kids weren’t part of the deal. Tina’s father and new wife moved to Detroit and once again, the children were left behind. Tina and her sisters were sent away to live with their other grandmother in Brownsville, Tennessee. But here, Tina came into her own.
While in Brownsville, Tina fell in love with a young teen named Harry Taylor. They were an item for a year. Tina said it was love at first sight. She was so excited about kissing him, that when the moment finally came, she forgot to kiss back, and kept her lips sealed. Harry, a little surprised, said, “You don’t know how to kiss?”
Tina was mortified, but eventually she got over it and the relationship progressed.
Tina and Harry lost their virginity together in the back of a Plymouth. Tina wanted to get married and have kids, and she thought Taylor was the one. Sadly, she was in for a terrible heartbreak. Things ended abruptly, and shockingly. Taylor, Tina’s first love, broke her heart when he married another girl…a girl who was pregnant with his child.
But this trial had a surprising effect on her.
Abandoned first by her mother, and then by her father, Tina had grown independent and started making her own way. In her teen years, Tina worked as a housekeeper for a wealthy family while living with her grandmother. A life in music and the name Tina Turner were years away. Instead, she had more heartache in store.
In her mid-teens, Tina went through an unimaginable nightmare. Her half-sister Evelyn and two cousins were in a car crash. As if that weren't enough, no one survived in the car survived the wreck. It was the beginning of an experience with a series of losses that would lead to a fateful change in her long life.
Tina’s grandmother in Tennessee passed on when she was 16. At the funeral, she was shocked to see the woman who abandoned the family so many years earlier: Her mother. Her mother asked Tina and her sister to move to St Louis and live with her. With no family and no caregiver to speak of, Tina felt alone, and joining her mother was her only choice.
It was time to leave small-town Tennessee for the bright lights and music venues of the big city.
While attending high school in St Louis, Tina Turner would frequent nightclubs and music venues with her sister. It was at one of these, called The Manhattan Club, that Tina would witness a musical act that would change her life—and her name. It was Ike Turner and his band, the Kings of Rhythm.
She was only 18 and had already overcome so many difficult challenges. Her big break was just around the corner.
Mesmerized by the music of Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, Tina decided she wanted to sing with his band, even though there were no women in the group. After Ike ignored her first requests, Tina decided to take her life—and the microphone—into her own hands. On a fateful night in 1957, during the band’s intermission, Tina snuck onto the stage and took the mic from behind the drum kit…
During her stolen performance, Tina Turner sang a blues ballad by BB King. This one moment changed everything. The performance blew Ike Turner away and he asked her to sing some more. She took over the show and sang with the band all night and afterward, Ike invited her to become a singer in the band. Ike’s Kings now had a queen.
Despite the infamy they would reach as a couple, Ike and Tina were’t romantically involved right off the hop. It took quite some time. In fact, the early days Tina was about as far from thinking about Ike as possible She began dating the Kings of Rhythm's saxophone player, Raymond Hill, while her sister dated the drummer. But this is where more problems started.
She was still a teenager in her final year of high school when she became pregnant with Raymond Hill’s baby. Tina told her mother—and her reaction was utterly cruel. Her mother was so upset at the news she kicked her daughter out. It was the second time she and mother severed ties. Desperate, Tina moved in with Hill, who lived with Ike Turner.
She had the baby and named him Craig. Craig Turner would have to grow up without a father, though, as the sax player moved back to his hometown, never to return. Tina’s mother had already kicked her out, so she was abandoned yet again. Now she was a single mother with no family support network. Music, and the band, was her only lifeline.
Tina was probably alone and scared at this time, but she sure made every second count. At just 19 years old, and after some vocal tutoring from Ike Turner, Tina recorded her first song, called “Boxtop," sharing the credits with another male vocalist from the band. At that point, she went by the name “Little Ann". But a new transformation was coming.
Around this time, Ike Turner had written a song for Art Lassiter and had booked a studio for recording it. Tina was there as a backup singer, but when Lassiter was a no-show, she convinced Ike to let her do the lead vocal. Ike agreed, with the intention of erasing the track and inserting Lassiter later—but there was a surprise in store.
The performance was so strong, Ike sent the tape to a St Louis R&B record label Sue Records. The response was beyond anything Tina ever dreamed of.
Sue Records President Juggy Murray was so impressed with Tina’s vocals, he bought the rights for the song from Ike for a whopping $25,000. Murray also told Ike to make Tina the star of the show. With a big bag of cash as incentive, Ike agreed and named his female vocalist “Tina Turner". Tina’s first single, “A Fool In Love”—the song originally intended for another artist—was a smash hit.
Ike Turner controlled Tina from the very start. In fact, he even trademarked the name “Tina Turner,” so that if she ever left the band, he could get another female vocalist and use the same name. This was a disturbing red flag that she sadly ignored. It was the prelude to a tumultuous relationship where she would have to fight for her name, her music, and even her very life.
So how did Ike and Tina become Ike and Tina? It was at a party in 1960 when Tina and Ike first became intimate, about the same time as “A Fool In Love” was released. Another musician at the party was hitting on Tina, so she tried to escape. She took refuge in Ike’s bedroom. It was then they became “more than friends".
But there was just one problem with her new romantic situation.
Believe it or not, when this happened Ike was still with his common-law wife. This should have been yet another a warning sign for Tina that bad things were to come, as this would not be the last time he would be unfaithful. In fact, Ike never stopped philandering and would constantly and publicly date other women. But Tina had bigger fish to fry.
The band now had a new name, The Ike and Tina Turner Revue. They toured intensely across the US, with Tina taking the country by storm with her energy and spectacular shows, along with a group of backup singers/dancers called the Ikettes. Meanwhile Ike was in the background, leading the band.
The show was so popular, they headlined for non-segregated audiences in the Southern states, breaking through the barriers between white and black and Motown and rock.
Tina Turner wore wigs since her career began, and it became a signature trademark of her brand. Why wigs? Well, the style stems from insecurity, not vanity. Turner always thought she was ugly, and that her unique voice sounded strange. She compensated with over-the-top wigs, heavy makeup, and wild dresses that she would change several times per show.
It's also one of the reasons why she danced, as it set her apart from other female stars at the time, who only sang.
Tina and Ike had a son, Ronnie, in 1960. He was Tina’s second child before she was 22 years old. By 1962, they had moved into a home in Los Angeles. Ronnie, Craig, and Ike’s two sons from his previous relationship were together in the same house. The idea of having a family while touring concerned Tina, but her worries would fall on deaf ears.
You see, Ike was determined to make it in show business, and used violence to get his way.
The biggest warning sign that this was not going to be a fairy-tale wedding? Ike wanted to get married in the salacious city of Tijuana, Mexico. After a lackluster civil ceremony, Ike dragged Tina to a bordello where they watched a live show. It was an awful night. Tina was so embarrassed by the experience that she didn’t fully share the story until decades afterward.
Despite success with numerous top 10 hits, the upbeat singer was hiding a sinister and dark personal life. When they were first married, Tina Turner told Ike she didn’t want to change her name and said she worried about touring so much. In response, Ike struck her with a wooden shoe-stretcher. That was the first of many violent incidents.
Often, Tina performed shortly after getting beaten by Ike, with bloody lips and black eyes. It was a horrible way to live, and she was hitting the end of her rope.
Ike’s constant use of substances and his emotional and physical brutalization took its toll on Tina. Later, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At the time, it didn’t help that Ike never hid his constant infidelity and strutted around publicly in the company of other women. It was all too much. It sent Tina hurtling off the edge. She tried to overdose on Valium in 1968.
Tina survived, but the incident gave her clarity about her situation and her need to escape, just like her mother had.
The Ike and Tina Turner Revue had their biggest hit in 1971 with a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary”. The song went to number 4 on the charts, earned a Grammy Award, and shot Tina Turner into stardom with sold-out shows and appearances on television. The success was about to end, however. Abruptly.
When Tina finally divorced Ike, the bitter relationship between Tina and her mother was only exacerbated. Her mother took Ike’s side when she left him. Tina recalled her mother disagreeing with the move because Ike was the one who gave her success. “She never wanted to give me credit for anything,” she said.
When Tina left Ike, she had nothing, not even her name. She lived with the four boys and a personal assistant and used food stamps to survive—and that’s not the worst part. At night, local thugs would shoot at her car or her home. It was so terrifying that she would sleep in a closet and the assistant would sleep in the children’s room.
However, this terrifying period only strengthened her resolve.
Tina Turner’s divorce from Ike Turner went through in 1978. She had severed the ties to her stormy past, and to her horrible relationship. Her only demands in the breakup? Two Jaguar cars, some furs, and jewelry. And most importantly? Her name, Tina Turner. It was this name that would eventually become her greatest asset.
But that would be a long time in the future. For now, she was at the bottom of a great big hill and determined to climb it. She would make one of the greatest comebacks in rock history.
Ike Turner never got his life back on track in the years after Tina left him. His addictions and wild behavior landed him multiple times behind bars and in and out of rehab. In 2007, he fatally overdosed while suffering from a terminal form of emphysema. Tina Turner didn’t go to his funeral. A publicist wrote: "Tina hasn't had any contact with Ike in more than 30 years. No further comment will be made".
Tina Turner grew up with the faith of the Baptist Church all around her, both at home and in her communities. So how and when did she become Buddhist? It was in Los Angeles in 1973, during some of Tina’s darkest days. A friend of Ike’s introduced her to the Buddhist practice of chanting. She found clarity and the wisdom to know her path.
Tina chanted up to four hours a day when things were bad in the 1970s. She even met the 14th Dalai Lama in 2004.
Tina languished in musical obscurity after her divorce. She still toured, but audiences saw her as a throw-back act. She played cabarets, hotels, and small clubs, all the while fighting lawsuits from her canceled dates and contracts when the Ike and Tina Turner Revue exploded. It seemed no one in the music biz wanted to hire or help a Black woman in her 40s.
While struggling, Tina Turner made a decision that would haunt her for years afterward. She toured South Africa in 1979 in the height of the apartheid regime that separated the country by race. As a Black performer, Tina was heavily criticized for visiting a country that was sanctioned by much of the world. She pleaded ignorance, saying she was "naïve” about the politics in South Africa.
A new craze would help dig Tina out of the shadows of the entertainment world. Music videos started to become popular in the early 1980s. With a new manager, Tina released a single, “Ball of Confusion,” that had some success, and a music video ensued. She was one of the first Black female artists to appear on MTV. Things were finally building again.
In 1983, Tina had a single that had some big airplay, but not in the US. Tina was growing in popularity in Europe, notably the UK, and record companies were watching. The UK was at the forefront of 80s music, and Tina was about to ride the wave. And in Europe, she was an independent artist—no one knew or cared who Ike was.
It was the beginning of what would be a year to remember for Tina Turner.
Turner was finally riding her own name to the top at 45 years old. Capitol Records asked her to record an album, and to do it in a UK studio in 14 days! British musical contributors such as Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits wrote and arranged the tunes. It was about to catapult Tina Turner into a realm of stardom she had never known before.
The album Private Dancer made Tina Turner one of the biggest stars in the history of rock. It is one of the most inspiring stories in modern music. The album’s title track, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” and at least five more singles rocked the charts worldwide. The album sold millions. She had battled her past and she had triumphed.
Long before Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl infamy, Tina made scandalous headlines of her own. In 1985, she performed for the global mega-concert Live Aid. She was singing with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones when Jagger ripped off his own shirt and then danced up to Tina and yanked her skirt off. She performed the rest of the song in a black leotard.
Tina Turner never felt she was a rock goddess, even though the public saw her that way. In interviews, she said she is built like “a pony”, and that her legs and arms were more weird than attractive. She said she would never turn a single head in her hometown of Nutbush. The rest of the world disagreed.
Even after success, Tina’s career had setbacks. Take 1991, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame snubbed her. They inducted Tina in 1991—with one brutal twist. The Hall didn’t recognize her as a solo artist. Instead, the Hall inducted the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. Luckily, Ike missed the ceremony. He was behind bars after one of his many intoxicated adventures.
As for Tina, she also passed on attending. Unsurprisingly, the idea of sharing the spotlight with her abuser wasn’t her idea of a good time.
When you are more interested in decorating your house than you are in performing, it’s probably time to hang ‘em up. That’s what Tina realized during a tour in 2009. Her heart just wasn’t in it. After a lifetime of battles and victories, is it any surprise? In media interviews, she repeatedly claimed that she had no desire to perform or tour ever again.
In 1986, Tina arrived at Heathrow Airport in London. A German music exec by the name of Erwin Bach was there to greet her. The two hit it off, and it was finally time for Tina to enter another meaningful romantic relationship. Bach and Tina were together for more than three decades, and they married in 2013. But that's when disaster first struck.
With Bach, Tina finally got her happily ever after—but a terrifying incident nearly took it all away. Three weeks after her marriage to Bach, she suffered a serious stroke that left her without the ability to walk. But is it any surprise that after all the ordeals Tina conquered, that she learned to walk again? Yet still, trials came for her.
Tina Turner wrote a memoir in 2018. Called My Love Story, Tina wrote about her battle with intestinal cancer in 2016. She opted for homeopathic treatment instead of modern medicine, but it led to kidney failure. In the end, surgeons removed part of her intestine, but the kidney problems remained.
Tina’s journey during this time was an incredibly dark one. She needed a kidney transplant and thought the situation hopeless. Her thoughts turned toward an assisted end of her life, much as they did in the 1960s. She put her name on the list of an organization in Switzerland and waited for the end. Instead, she got a beautiful gesture.
The heart isn’t the only part of the body linked to love in Tina’s life. Her husband Erwin Bach actually offered her one of his kidneys during this time, and the successful surgery took place in 2017. That's right, Tina Turned quite literally carried a piece of her husband around with her.
Few people know this, but Tina renounced her US citizenship in 2013. She had always been popular in Europe, even more so than in America in her later years. Her husband was European and Tina lived in Zurich starting 1994. In 2013, she applied for and obtained Swiss citizenship, and gave up her US citizenship.
The horrific marriage between Ike and Tina Turner is infamous—but few know the harrowing story of her escape. In the middle of a tour in 1976, Tina and Ike were fighting at a hotel in Dallas, where they had a show that night. Ike was beating Tina and she picked that moment to escape.
With bloody clothes, a little over 30 cents in her pocket, and a gas station credit card, she fled to a friend’s home. Shortly after, she filed for divorce.
How can anyone forgive the one person who brought them so much pain? Doing interviews as part of her memoir promotional tour, Tina told The New York Times that she had forgiven Ike Turner. However, it wasn’t a case of forgive and forget. She said, "He asked for one more tour with me, and I said, 'No, absolutely not.' Ike wasn’t someone you could forgive and allow him back in".
Just after she beat cancer and recovered from a kidney transplant, Tina’s life was rocked by another devastating tragedy. In July 2018, her son Craig took his own life. Craig Turner was Tina’s first son by the saxophone player in Ike Turner’s band in St Louis. He was 59. Tina scattered her son’s ashes to the ocean off the coast of California, where her son lived and worked in real estate.
Tina Turned passed on May 24, 2023 at the age of just 83. But although her death shocked many, once you know the context of all her trials and tribulations over the past two decades, it's incredible she made it this far. Tina truly was a fighter, and her final days were filled with one beautiful detail.
Tina Turner spent her later life relaxing in her mansion overlooking Lake Zurich in Switzerland. On the gate outside her home, there was a sign in German that read “Do not ring the bell before noon". You’re were simply the best, Tina Turner. Relax. You deserve it.
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