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King of Rhythm

Despite his personal demons, Ike Turner's contribution to St. Louis music lands him the Slammies' Lifetime Achievement Award

Americans love a villain. Maybe it's our origin as an outlaw nation, or perhaps something we picked up along the way, like the myth of the gunslingers of the wild, wild West, or the gangsters that ruled Chicago in the 1920s. From pulp fiction to Pulp Fiction and from Public Enemy starring James Cagney to Public Enemy's "Miuzi Weighs a Ton," vice has been dissected and celebrated in American popular culture at least as much as virtue. "To live outside the law you must be honest," Bob Dylan once sang, and there's something about those who would cross that line that offers a truer picture, not of how life should be, or perhaps someday might be, but of how it is.

And yet Americans do not love Ike Turner.
There are reasons for this, of course -- Ike never fought the country's power structure on its own brutal terms, a la Frank and Jesse James, or sought to seize political control by any means necessary, like the Black Panthers. Ike's transgressions were all Ike-directed, such as going through enough women to make Wilt Chamberlain raise an eyebrow, or hoovering up more Bolivian marching powder than the titular character in Brian De Palma's Scarface.

Then, of course, there's what he did to Tina.
Chronicled with excruciating detail in her 1986 memoir, I, Tina, Ike's years of physical and emotional abuse against his then-wife included hitting her, burning her with hot coffee and a cigarette, and forcing her to perform while she was both pregnant and ill. She attempted suicide in 1968 and eventually escaped his reign of terror in 1976. "Yeah, I hit her," Turner once told Spin magazine. "But I never hit her more than the average guy beat his wife." Hardly a denial, but a textbook case nonetheless.

These are transgressions that can in no way be minimized, regardless of the reason they occurred or the significance of the person perpetrating them. But Ike has paid a heavy price for his out-of-control behavior. He never went to jail -- at least not for spousal abuse -- because that particular crime unfortunately didn't show up on our national radar until recently. But in the public's mind Turner has become its singular symbol, a fact that, along with personal irresponsibility and drug abuse, has all but destroyed his career.

What most folks fail to register, however, is just how prodigious a fall this constitutes. For though he may have at one time been a monster, Turner was also a genius whose contributions to popular music have gone all but unrecognized. What's Love Got to Do with It, the 1993 film version of Tina's autobiography, has contributed not a little to the poisoned atmosphere surrounding Ike. Laurence Fishburne's Academy Award-nominated performance as Turner was riveting, but it was also over the top: Even though Fishburne insisted that the script be toned down to humanize his character, the film ultimately portrayed Ike as a short-fused powder keg of violence -- Wile E. Coyote in psychedelic threads and a bad Afro.

Ike Turner's life is not a cartoon, however, but rather more on the order of Shakespearean tragedy. To say otherwise would be like summarizing Othello as "that play where the dude pimp-slaps Desdemona, then kills her lying ass." There's more to the story than that.

For Izeal Luster Turner, that story began on Nov. 5, 1931, in Clarksdale, Miss., a hotbed of blues music for its location in the heart of the Delta, where field laborers favored juke joints and fish fries to unwind on a Saturday night. Turner learned piano at a young age, following acts such as Sonny Boy Williamson, whose pianist, Pinetop Perkins, was Ike's particular hero. As a teenager, Ike found work at a local radio station, where he fell in with the musicians who stopped by, soon landing a gig with blues great Robert Nighthawk.

Eventually, he joined with a large ensemble, the Tophatters, which primarily played jazz standards. Preferring a rawer brand of R&B, Turner split from the group and formed his own, Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm. With the Kings, Turner played throughout the region, eventually landing a session at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in Memphis. There the group recorded "Rocket 88," which was credited (after the lead vocalist on the session) to Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats and leased to Chess Records, for whom it became a long-running No. 1 R&B hit. No less an authority than Phillips has called it the "first rock & roll record." It's a disputable point, and there's some question to its authorship, but it you want to start clocking Turner's positive contributions to the world, this is the place to begin.

In the early '50s, Turner became a talent scout and producer, recording such luminaries as Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Elmore James, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Otis Rush. He also kept his career as a bandleader afloat and learned to play the guitar, winding up on numerous sessions at Sun Studios.

The most significant turn of events, of course, was when Turner moved his base of operations to East St. Louis, where the Kings of Rhythm quickly became the area's hottest act, thanks to their acrobatic showmanship and obsessively rehearsed polish. The group recorded under a variety of names -- including, at one point, Icky Renrut -- with varying lineups, for several different labels. Turner's triumphant moment, of course, came with the discovery of Annie Mae Bullock, who sat in for a missing singer at a session that resulted in "A Fool in Love," a No. 2 R&B hit in 1960 that sparked the career of what became known as the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Throughout the decade, the group scored on vinyl with hits such as "I Think It's Gonna Work Out Fine," "Poor Fool" and "I Idolize You" and in concert with a mind-blowing stage show featuring a large band and the scantily clad backup singers, the Ikettes. By the '70s, by which time the group hit it big in England and toured with the Rolling Stones, the emphasis had switched to explosive soul covers of rock tunes, including "Come Together," "I Want to Take You Higher" and, of course, "Proud Mary." "We never, ever do nothin' nice and easy," Tina says in that song's spoken intro, and it was true.

If that were all there were to it, Ike's legacy would still be secure, but throughout his career, he was a pioneer on so many levels. He was one of the first to stretch the electric guitar's capabilities, playing long, loud solos and using the then-new innovation of the whammy bar to his advantage. He was a shrewd judge of talent and was an early proponent of synthesizers and drum machines. And, of course, his songs and arrangements inspired countless future practitioners of rock, funk and soul. Long story short: He's a cornerstone of rock & roll, if something less -- OK, much less -- than an Eagle Scout.

These days, Ike is traveling the comeback trail. With his new wife, Jeannette (a former St. Louisan, 31 years his junior), he's making occasional appearances (though, alas, he won't be on hand to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Slammies on Dec. 8 -- a strange story in itself) and recently released a new album, My Blues Country. A recent article in Vibe magazine painted Turner as living quietly in Southern California, somewhat bitter over his treatment in What's Love and subsequent vilification by the public but humbled by his prison stay (he served 18 months for cocaine possession and transportation, starting in 1990, and was inducted in absentia to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame the next year). The question of whether Turner has once and for all overcome his demons and the ill will it has brought him is an open one. But in taking measure of the man, it's unfair to think of him merely as a thug -- there is undeniable greatness there, too.

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