The Holy Bible and Ike Turner agree on one thing:“Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Judicious blues lovers are advised to check out “Here and Now,” Ike’s sizzling new album. He should be proud, Mary.
Izear Luster Turner, better known as “Ike,” was born November 5, 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Early in his musical career, Ike Turner worked for the Los Angeles-based Bihari Brothers (Joe, Jules and Saul) as an A&R man, scouting small Southern towns in search of would-be recording artists. With his own band, the Kings of Rhythm, Ike Turner entered Sam Phillips’ Memphis recording studio in 1951 and cut “Rocket 88,” a distorted-guitar ode to drinking and driving that is often credited as being the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Somehow, Jackie Brenston, the Kings’ baritone saxophonist, ended up with his name on the record.
In 1956, Ike recruited a female singer, Annie Mae Bullock, to join the band and gave her a new name: Tina Turner. She taught Mick Jagger to dance and well, you’ve probably seen the movie—the infamous movie. It is not Ike Turner’s favorite picture show.
Because of Laurence Fishburne’s menacing portrayal of Ike Turner in the 1993 film What’s Love Got To Do With It, the typical assumption is that the real Ike is something akin to a cross between Satan, Adolf Hitler and O.J. Simpson: a cocaine-crazed dominating wifebeater who smashed Tina’s face with a birthday cake. Ike’s biography, Takin’ My Name Back, authored by Nigel Cawthorne and published in 1998, was rife with explicit tales of adolescent sex and adult drug use. If ever an entertainer needed public relations rehabilitation, Ike Turner is the man.
Here and Now, Ike’s first new album since 1978, will do much to rehabilitate Turner’s image. Produced by Turner and completed at Willie Mitchell’s studio in Memphis with the assistance of Little Milton and Joe Bihari, who employed Turner 50 years ago as an A&R man for Modern Records (the label responsible for B.B. King, Roscoe Gordon, Elmore James, Pee Wee Crayton, John Lee Hooker and many others), Here and Now is the authentic, lowdown, bred-in-Mississippi blues—no jive, no filler.
As Little Richard told Nigel Cawthorne, concerning the genesis of rock ‘n’ roll, “It ain’t Little Richard, it ain’t Chuck Berry, it ain’t Fats Domino…no, we came on later. Before all these people, Ike Turner was doing his thing. He is the innovator.”
As for Ike Turner being a violent ogre, this interviewer discovered that he was an extremely charming subject. Virtually every response was punctuated with a hearty laugh. Furthermore, Ike Turner confided that this interview (and others arranged by his publicity firm) was part of God’s plan. Ike’s been divorced from Tina since 1976, done his time in prison, rid his system of the desire for white powder and wants to dedicate the rest of his life to the one true thing: blues music.
Ike, the new album is unbelievable. I’m so happy that you decided to record a “real” blues album.
I’m so happy to hear you say that. It’s the first time in my life I ever recorded what I really feel. I always teach people to sing—I don’t sing. But I know how to express what I’m saying.
I think you’re a great singer!
Yeah, everybody thinks so! I really love the album because that’s really me. I’ve always been afraid to be me on stage. This is the first time that I’ve ever just did what I feel and not do somebody else.
It’s incredible that you hooked up with Joe Bihari again after so many years.
Ooh yeah, yeah, yeah! Off and on, Joe and I stayed in touch because all the other [Bihari] brothers are dead. Joe is 76, man, and he still drives all over the country. I introduced him to Robert Johnson, who is the guy that owns Bottled MaJic, the record company.
You and Joe Bihari did some fantastic sessions during the early 1950s.
Yeah, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Junior Parker—we did everybody back in those days.
As an A&R man, would you actually go out and search for people to record?
I would go all over the South. I would go to a town and I would go to the poolroom and I would ask the guys if there were any singers around. And they’d tell me. And then I would go ask some church people if there were any good singers. And then I would go ask some singer out of church, do they mind singing a blues song if I came back through to record ’em with Joe? They would say, “Yeah, they would sing it.” Anyway, I knew they didn’t have no songs or material. So when Joe would come down a couple of months later, on our way to that town, I would be writing a song for that woman or that man on my way there.
And then we would sign somebody with a piano in their living room and we would give them a bottle of whiskey or $5 and use their living room to record. We would record in anybody’s house, or a club, or a juke joint or whatever.
Who were some of your discoveries?
Elmore [James], I think we recorded Muddy Waters. Bobby “Blue” Bland, Howlin’ Wolf—we did some of everybody back in those days. I think we did Little Walter, too.
I’ve been researching your discography. One of the weirdest artists is Eki Renrut.
The record company was paying me as a writer, when I was a kid. Ike Turner would be one writer, then I would turn my name around backwards to Eki Renrut, which is Ike Turner backwards, and I would get another check!
And then you did some songs as Little Bones, the World’s Greatest Singing Cricket.
I know what you’re talkin’ ’bout. What happened is like before there was the Chipmunks, I did the Cricket. The Chipmunks is nothing but the Cricket really. I was the first one to do that and everybody was teasing me: “Hey man, you’re not going to mess up that record with that funny sound!” I was just ahead of myself again. You slow the tapes down and put the voice on it. First, you put the music at normal speed and then you slow the tape down and put your voice on it. Therefore, when the music comes back up to normal speed, the voice will be too fast. It’s hard singing like that when a record is slow. I did “What’d I Say,” “Ya Ya”—I did all that stuff way before the Chipmunks. A lot of things I missed my boat on.
Like I did the jet ski before there was a jet ski. I went on Johnny Carson’s show back in 1970 and I had a chopper motorcycle that my secretary gave me for my birthday. And I had a guy draw my chopper just like it was except where the front wheel goes, it had like a big wooden arrow that would go in the water and on each side it had a surfboard. When you started the motorcycle up and it started to take off, the two surfboards would slant inward and part the water. The front thing—the arrow—would keep the water out. I went on Johnny Carson’s show, telling him about my idea, and the next thing I know, there was a jet ski.
I did stuff like that all of my life. I’ve always been ahead of myself. It’s just like right now, they’ve got all kinds of outboard gear for guitars. We used to crack tubes in amplifiers to get the “fuzz” sound, to get it distorted.
Do you collect old guitars?
I have a lot of ’em, man. I have the guitar I played on “Rocket 88” in 1951. It’s a Gretsch and I have it here at the house now—I have the guitar and the amplifier. I said that once the CD is a hit, I’m gonna sell it.
Let’s talk about “Rocket 88,” which is famous as the first rock ‘n’ roll song. It’s credited to Jackie Brenston—he was the sax player in your band, the Kings of Rhythm.
Yeah, Sam Phillips put it under Jackie’s name because his reasoning was…you know, I recently asked him about it after all these years. I inducted Sam Phillips into the Engineering Hall of Fame about eight months ago. I asked him on stage, “Why did you put ‘Rocket 88’ under Jackie Brenston’s name?” Because it was supposed to be Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm featuring Jackie Brenston’s vocal. It’s amazing, man—I’ve never in life tried to change that and for some reason, the last eight to ten years, it’s just come out on its own who the record really was.
You deserve the credit.
On “Rocket 88,” the amplifier got wet. It was storming and then we got arrested going to Memphis and at Sam Phillips’ studio-—Sun Records—we dried it out. When we turned the thing on, it sounded like “duh-di duh-di duh-di duh-di.” So we just recorded it like that. The drums got wet, everything got wet. When the amp dried, it had a distorted sound. That’s the sound that’s on “Rocket 88.” On the new version I just did, it don’t sound as raggedy as the original one.
Which version do you prefer?
I don’t know. I like both of ’em.
I like “Nuddin’”—that’s a good song.
Oh man, I really like that! I was in New York, two doors down from the Apollo, at this record shop about two weeks ago. We started playing “Nuddin’” and everybody in the record shop started dancing, telling me, “Oh, I like this!” And then they put on “Tore Up” and they still was dancing. Then they played “Baby’s Got It” and a guy come busting in the door with a twenty-dollar bill in his hand, saying, “I want this damn record now! And don’t tell me you’ve got to order it!” He didn’t even know who I was or nothing. It was really inspiring to me. The way people have been responding to the CD has been unreal!
Ike, why do you think the blues has such a timeless, universal appeal?
In my opinion, man, it’s like blues is in the same damn place ever since I was little with Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk and them. I just think this—one of the songs is not even on the album, it’s called “Safe Sex.” It’s a hip-hop song. It can be hip-hop and it can be the blues. It can be rock and be the blues. It can be rock ‘n’ roll and be the blues. You can make it bluesy, you understand what I’m talkin’ about? It’s about the way you play the piano or the way you play the guitar or just the feeling of the song. It can still have a hip-hop beat and have a blues guitar, understand? I don’t agree that blues has to be that same old crying in your milk, crying in your beer, and your woman’s gone and you’re all beat out. I just think blues can be happy. I think blues can be presented any kind of way. I think it’s a real powerful thing. I think you can take reggae and make a reggae-blues. I think you can make a country-blues. I believe blues is so powerful it spreads over all types of music. I think if you’re just going to do B.B. King or Bobby “Blue” Bland blues, well, that’s what it’s going to be. If you’re going to do Clapton blues, it’s blues. If you’re going to do jazz, it’s blues. I don’t think blues has a limit. Before I die, man, I want to make sure we get blues music back on the radio.
That’s a noble mission.
I think I have a lot in me to give. You know, they wanted me to go to colleges and talk to kids and show them how to use computers. Some of that stuff you hear is done with computers. I can do stuff like that in, what, like ten minutes, where it would take me three months to do it before. It don’t have to be mechanical. You don’t have to make a little loop like kids are doing today—they make a loop and they sit there and rap to a loop. You can put your real feeling in there, man—you’ve just got to understand how to do it. There’s just so much I want to give before God takes me out.
I’ve read the lyrics to “Safe Sex”—they’re really great.
“Sex is sometimes my best friend—without condoms, I ain’t goin’ in!” I think they’re going to release it as a single, to all the colleges.
In your biography, you say you started having sex when you were six-years-old.
Yeah, yeah—Miss Boozie.
You were an early learner!
[laughs] Yeah, I was. It was an experience, man. You can take any experience in life and make a positive out of it. I went to jail, I made a positive out of it. I got myself clean. I went to the bottom, straight to the bottom, and I came back up out of there. I’d already been to the top and I went all the way down to the bottom and I came back. So I think I’m a good role model for a lot of people.
I don’t think anybody that’s doing drugs today realizes it’s a sickness. You start off having fun doing it and then I think you end up relying on it. It’s like having a clear vision and then you put something on your glasses to make you see clearer but when it dries, it’s not clear anymore and then you’ve got to put some more on there to make it clear again.
Why do you think so many people use drugs?
I think being inquisitive, they start off trying it and they like it at first, like I did. And then you want some more and the next thing you know, you’re living for it. I can say this in total fairness, man—anybody that’s doing drugs, they all want to be off, I swear to God. They really do. I know they do.
They want to be off but they don’t have the will to get off. You have to be strong, man. I used to pray to God, “Please let me get three days without it. And I would never look back.” And I would lie to myself every time and say: “Joe is coming over or Bunny’s coming over—he’s gonna want some.” And I would order some.
Only when I went to jail did I get myself clean. That was a positive. You have to have the will to want to and then the will to do it. And then you can come out of it ’cause, boy, I’m a good example. I did as much cocaine—that’s all I ever done was cocaine—I did as much as anybody in the world. And I went all the way down and I came all the way back out of it, man. I don’t even smoke cigarettes today.
I feel so sorry for this guy Robert Downey, Jr.—God knows I wish I could find him. He’s a super-talented dude but his life is shot because of drugs. People shooting him down—it’s really not him doing it. I won’t say he can’t but he won’t help him himself. He’s too weak to help himself. I believe if I could find him, I could help him. I’ve got people looking for him.
You were a big hit at the South by Southwest music conference. Tell me about your band.
I’ve got some guys that can really, really feel. It doesn’t matter how well you can play—it’s how well you can feel ’cause music is all about feelings to me. I have some great, great guys. Now, instead of using girls like I used to, I use three piano players on stage. If you picture the motor of an airplane, that would be me at the motor on one piano and on my right, I have another piano player, which is Ernest Lane, and on my left, I have another one, which is Paul Smith. Then I have the Memphis Horns, three horns on the left. And then the guitar player right next to my piano and then the drum set directly behind me. And then on the other side is the bass player, Kevin Cooper—awesome! I have some good guys, man, and they all live it and they love it!
We’re all looking forward to seeing you perform.
I can’t wait to get down there. I love New Orleans period. I used to go down to Cosimo’s [Matassa]—is he still down there?
Oh yeah. He doesn’t have a recording studio but his family has a market in the French Quarter.
Really. I’m gonna stop and see him when I come down there.
He was a musical pioneer.
Yes, he was. That studio—whatever it was, hits was coming out of there.
Ike, I know you were unhappy with your portrayal in Tina’s movie, What’s Love Got To Do With It.
I’ll speak about that but that’s old news. The only thing I can say, man, is that I did a lot of things that I’m proud of in my life and I did a lot of things that I regret in my life. I would say this: that movie is in no way close to me. Tina didn’t like the movie.
A lot of the public thinks, Well, if the movie wasn’t true, then how did they get away with it? This is how they got away with it and you can print this in bold: I signed a contract with Walt Disney, thinking that this is a family channel and that I could trust them. My attorney coaxed me into signing a contract saying that somebody else would play me in the movie if they decided to do the movie. This is what I thought I was signing. I had no idea that I signed some papers where they could portray me any way they wanted to and I couldn’t do nothing about it. That’s what I signed and that’s how they got away with the movie. That’s why some people believed it.
For a lousy $45,000—ain’t no way in the world I would sign nothing to let you assassinate my life—my career, which is my life. Music is my life and I love people. You couldn’t give me a hundred-million dollars—a billion dollars—to assassinate my career. Music is my life and you can’t give me nothing to take away my music. That’s what I did and that was a mistake that I made. That’s all I can contribute to that.
Are they going to do a film version of Takin’ Back My Name, your biography?
[laughs] Yeah, they’re talking about it, man. They’ve been talking with a guy named Eddie Murphy.
Eddie Murphy?! The Eddie Murphy?!
Yeah, him and Andy Griffith. It will happen because now what people are finding out, let me give you an example: kids today that’s 20-years-old, Tina and I have been broken up for almost 25 years. Kids that weren’t even born when we broke up, they know about Ike Turner but they don’t know what I do. All they know is what they heard. They don’t know anything about my talents.
Guys like you and other people, I’ve been doing a whole lot of interviews. God is sending people and I’ve got no reason to butter you up or nothing but people are coming out of the woods to show the world what I am and what I have to offer and what I have given to the world.
I’m always telling people that Ike had many musical accomplishments long before Tina.
It’s like God put a crew of people in the world and their thing is to show the world what I really am in my heart, not what I was portrayed to be. It’s a good feeling. My feeling is this—if you try to say that you didn’tdo something, the more you say you didn’t, the more they think you did. You’re caught between a pillar and a post. You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. It’s best to just say nothing—the truth will come out in the end. The same thing with “Rocket 88”—I didn’t go around on no crusade to try to prove that it was me. The truth is just showing up on its own, man.
I don’t think most people realize that Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Shoop” is one of your songs.
The “Shoop” song was a song I did in 1960 on the Ikettes called “I’m Blue” on Atlantic Records. They took the “Shoop dooby dooby dooby doo” and did the “Shoop” song.
You made a lot of money off of that.
Yeah, I made like three-quarters of a million dollars off of it.
Ike, what’s your advice for a young musician?
The only thing I can say for young musicians, old ones, for anything that we do, you’re only going to get out of it what you put in it. I live and speak music. Like I said, God sent you and a whole crew of people to show the world who and what I am. If you love music and you give it your all, you’re only going to get out of it what you put in it. Regardless of how people put you down about your music and make you feel insecure that what you’re doing is nothing, man, just keep the faith. Long as it makes you feel good, you can relate that feeling across to other people. Just be realabout it.
I read you were autographing pictures, “What’s love got to do with it? Not a damn thing!”
[laughs] Yeah, I did it. It’s just something to say.