Tina Turner: How a quiet country girl from Nutbush became the Queen of Rock and Roll

Music legend Tina Turner, who died on Tuesday at the age of 83, was a survivor. She will be remembered as much for her distinctive raspy voice as for her strength and resilience

Tina Turner
Tina Turner (1939-2023)

Tina Turner, who passed away at 83 after a long illness in her home near Zurich (Switzerland), was ‘a girl from a cotton field’ who pulled herself above what was not ‘taught’ to her. Born Anna Mae Bullock in a tempestuous family of Nutbush, a ‘don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it little town’ in Tennessee, she grew up with instability and pain. However, she remained a resilient child, always finding the silver lining in every situation, as she grew up throughout the southeastern United States.

“I guess you could say I was born with a Buddha nature inside of me, because the miracle is that I didn’t give up,” she writes in her memoir My Love Story (Simon & Schuster, 2019), written with Deborah Davis and Dominik Wichmann. Though she had a troubled relationship with her mother, she stayed carefree — an attitude she kept her whole life.

Carrying the torch passed on to her by her predecessors like Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, and Big Mama Thornton, she inspired generations of artists — from Janis Joplin to Beyoncé, and Mick Jagger to Mary J. Blige. The artists she collaborated with included (besides Beyoncé) a roll-call of legends: The Rolling Stones, Bryan Adams, David Bowie, Elton John, and Rod Stewart.

The hall of fame

Recognized as one of the greatest singers of all time, Turner will be remembered as the Queen of Rock and Roll. Or Rock and Soul. Her talent and eminence were immortalized by Rolling Stone, when she appeared on the second cover of the magazine in November 1967, becoming the first woman to have achieved that honour.

Also read: Tina Turner, unstoppable superstar and winner of 11 Grammys, dead at 83

In 2021, she was honoured with induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for the second time, an accomplishment shared only by two other women: Carole King and Stevie Nicks. In her career spanning six decades, the winner of 11 Grammy Awards left an indelible mark on the music industry with an enviable discography. With 10 studio albums, 2 live albums, and 6 compilation albums, she crafted a sonic landscape that traversed genres and resonated with audiences worldwide.

Her artistry extended beyond audio recordings, as evidenced by her 17 video albums and 46 music videos. With 72 singles to her name, Turner’s voice became the soundtrack of countless lives. Even on the silver screen, her impact was felt, with two soundtrack albums showcasing her versatility. Songs like The Best, What’s Love Got To Do With It, and We Don’t Need Another Hero will continue to resonate with music lovers everywhere.

The legend’s persona

“If Tina Turner had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent her. And, strangely enough, that’s exactly what did happen in reality,” writes Donald Brackett, an art and music critic based in Vancouver, who recently wrote the biography of Yoko Ono, highlighting Turner’s talent, persona, and the undeniable influence she had on the industry in Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner (2020). In simpler terms, it means that if she had not naturally come into being, someone would have had to create a similar persona to fill the void.

Brackett writes how, like many other future soul music queens, Turner first experienced the joys of singing in the heated reverence of local Baptist church choirs. Also, like many other future funk divas, such as Aretha Franklin and Sharon Jones, among others, she didn’t linger for too long in the ‘pews of prayer’. Instead, she preferred a different kind of soul-stirring rhythm, and she found it throbbing in the secular swagger of rhythm and blues-infused soul and bluesy rock music.

A story of struggle and triumph

Behind Turner’s legendary persona lies a story of struggle and triumph. Her life took an unexpected turn when she moved to St. Louis and encountered Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm. Drawn to Ike’s musical prowess, she found herself enchanted by his talent. Their friendship grew; when her voice caught Ike’s attention, it led to an opportunity that would change her life forever.

She first stepped into the spotlight in 1960, debuting with the soulful ballad, A Fool in Love as part of a duo with Ike Turner, whom she later married in 1962. As Tina’s singing career took off, she became the centerpiece of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. However, behind the scenes, Ike’s true intentions began to emerge. Through manipulation and control, he turned Tina into his economic and psychological possession. As difficulties mounted, Tina fought courageously to attain independence.

The name change from Anna Mae Bullock to Tina Turner symbolized her transformation into a stage persona, but it also increased Ike’s hold on her both economically and psychologically. The abusive dynamics within their relationship (Ike’s volatile temperament and abuse) became more pronounced, and Turner endured physical and emotional pain as she strived to protect her promise of loyalty to Ike.

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Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, the duo became synonymous with an unforgettable stage presence, and delivered a string of hit songs. Her electrifying performances and powerful voice captured the hearts of audiences worldwide. Yet, as her star ascended, the personal toll it took on her became increasingly apparent. The turbulence in their relationship led to Turner filing for divorce from Ike in 1976; in March 1978, their marriage officially ended.

Finding her voice

As Turner’s career progressed, she began to develop her own musical style and identity. Influenced by artists like Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and James Brown, she yearned to express herself more authentically and melodically. She longed to break free from the constraints imposed by Ike, who favoured a preaching style of singing. Her passion for music drove her to assert her individuality and carve her own path as a performer.

Following the divorce, Turner found herself navigating a turbulent chapter, searching for her artistic footing amidst personal upheaval. However, she staged a remarkable comeback in 1984 with her solo album Private Dancer. The album achieved immense success, attaining five-time platinum status and producing the chart-topping hit What’s Love Got to Do With It. Turner’s resurgence established her as a powerhouse solo artist and earned her critical acclaim.

One of Turner’s lesser-known records, Nutbush City Limits, was released in 1973 while she was still collaborating with her partner. Though not her most popular or beloved track, Nutbush City Limits was a turning point for Turner. It was the first song she wrote by herself, for herself, and about herself. As she bared her soul in the lyrics, celebrating her rural roots and embracing her true self, the song took on a deep sense of intimacy and personal nostalgia.

The significance of the song was evident in the multiple versions Turner released over the years, each capturing her evolving journey. From a live recording in 1988 to dance remixes in 1991 and another rerecording in 1993, Turner’s connection to Nutbush City Limits remained strong. It became an anthem that spoke to her past and continued to resonate as she achieved stellar success as a megastar in her own right.

Nutbush was established in the early 19th century by European American settlers, who brought along enslaved African Americans as workers to develop the area’s cotton plantations. The town had been devoted to the cultivation and harvesting of cotton. Historically, the town has also been a hotbed of musical talent. Before Tina Turner, a string of notable blues recording artists emerged from this unlikely zone, including legends like the Sleepy John Estes, Hambone Willie Newbern and Noah Lewis whose contributions to the blues genre continue to resonate with audiences to this day.

In the 2021 HBO documentary titled Tina, Turner reflects on her extraordinary journey, revealing her ambitious dream ‘to be the first Black rock ‘n’ roll singer to pack places like the [Rolling] Stone.’ ‘Look what I have done in this lifetime with this body. I’m a girl from a cotton field. I pulled myself above what was not taught to me,’ she says at some point. From a quiet girl who hated working in the cotton fields Turner broke free and rewrote her own narrative as the Queen of Rock and Roll.