Remembering Ike Turner

The first word that pops into your head when you hear the name Ike Turner is, undoubtedly, Tina. Fair enough. The second, perhaps, is wife-beater. OK, also fair. But chances are the third word is probably not genius. Simply put, the man's despicable and self-destructive offstage behavior toppled his reputation as a towering figure of 20th-century music. As a multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, promoter, songwriter and talent scout he had few peers during his five-decade career. But his appetites for drugs and women, and certainly his reputation as a physically abusive husband, reduced him to a caricature by the mid-'90s: rock-and-roll villain. His death came on the heels of his first Grammy since 1972—and in the first blush of something that was beginning to look a little like redemption.

Turner used to marvel that people were often surprised to learn that he had had a long and varied career before 1956, when he met young Anna Mae Bullock from Nutbush City Limits and rechristened her Tina. Born in segregated Clarksdale, Miss., in 1931, Turner got off to a rude beginning in life. His first memory was seeing his father, a local minister, brutally beaten by a white mob, sustaining injuries that would ultimately kill him. Music would become the guiding force—at just eight years old he became a fixture at WROX, the local radio station. Before long, apprenticeships to bluesman guitarist Robert Nighthawk and boogie-woogie pianist "Pinetop" Perkins followed. (And, possibly, his romantic apprenticeship began around this time too: he claimed to have lost his virginity at just six to a 45-year-old woman named "Miss Boozie.")

In his late teens he started his first band, the Kings of Rhythm, which gigged, recorded and appeared on television locally. The year 1951 alone would have been enough to enshrine Turner as rock royalty: he wrote and played guitar on the song many historians argue was the first rock-and-roll record (a slightly absurd claim, really, impossible to prove). "Rocket 88" hit the charts credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, and the fuzzy distortion on the guitar, a jarring new sound at the time, may actually have been a happy accident. Sam Phillips once admitted to NEWSWEEK that someone had dropped the amplifier in the parking lot prior to the recording. Ever the hustler, Turner became a talent scout for the Chess brothers in Chicago and for Phillips's Memphis-based label, which would ultimately gain fame as Sun Records, home to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Meanwhile, Turner recorded regularly, backing the likes of B. B. King, Elmore James, Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin' Wolf with his sharp, broken-glass guitar lines.

Then came Tina. Actually, then came Anna Mae, a teenage singer who grabbed the mike from Ike and belted a B. B. King number for him in a St. Louis nightclub in 1956. Before long she had joined the band, which in 1960 would be renamed right along with her after they landed their first hit, "A Fool in Love." (The four-year delay may be explained by the fact that she became pregnant by Ike's saxophonist and, later, by Ike himself, who had a habit of marrying his Ikettes.) Turner's next 16 years, until Tina walked out on him for good, were a hurricane of grueling work, fame, drugs and explosive rage. After a dispute over money, he once pulled a gun on the owner of the 550 Club in Jackson, Miss. He was allegedly beating Tina regularly by the middle of the decade. There is no real reason to disbelieve this—his own claims of innocence have been contradictory and halfhearted over the years. (From his autobiography: "Sure I slapped Tina. There have been times when I punched her to the ground without thinking. But I never beat her.") A punishingly demanding bandleader in the James Brown mold, he ruled his musicians through intimidation and perfectionism.

Yet for a while the hits, many of them brilliant, kept hitting. There was "It's Gonna Work Out Fine," "Poor Fool," "I Idolize You" and "Tra La La La La." After a druggy lull (during which Ike agreed to let Phil Spector, another troubled rock wizard, produce Tina on "River Deep, Mountain High") he hit upon the winning notion of covering pop tunes, including 1971's "Proud Mary," the Creedence Clearwater Revival song that won them their first Grammy. Turner's last great live coup came when he took his propulsive, water-tight show on the road as the opening act for the Rolling Stones on their 1969 American tour—an experience that did little to curb Turner's growing appetite for cocaine. But fed up with his brutality, Tina left in 1975 to launch her defiant solo career and never looked back. Her side of the story was told in an autobiography, "I, Tina," which was turned into the box office hit "What's Love Got to Do With It." Ike's side never really got told. There probably wasn't much to say, even if the movie did exaggerate his cruelty: over the following 15 years his studio in Inglewood, Calif., burned down, he was arrested 11 times, and he released just two albums and had zero hits (although his late-'70s single "Garbage Man" is dirt-funky).

Ike Turner was beginning to enjoy a reversal of misfortune when he died in his sleep this week. He had reportedly been sober for years. In 2001 his blues record "Here and Now" was nominated for a Grammy; this year he won one for "Risin' With the Blues." He played piano on the 2005 genre-bending Gorillaz album "Demon Days," which was produced by Danger Mouse—who had apparently been working with him on a record when he died, this time with the sludgy rock band the Black Keys.

It would be wrong to ignore the troubling aspects of Ike Turner's personal history. And it's hardly a great risk that anyone will: just this year the mayor of St. Louis declined a request to make September 2 "Ike Turner Day." But it would be equally wrong to use the uncomfortable fact of his brutality as an excuse to erase his contribution to our culture. "When people talk about rock and roll they talk about Chuck Berry. They talk about Fats Domino. They talk about Little Richard," writes, well, Little Richard in the foreword to Turner's 1999 autobiography "Takin' Back My Name." "Before all these people Ike Turner was doing his thing. He is the innovator." No one ever said innovations came without complications.