We Like Ike

The true confessions of über-pimp, badass mother and rock & roll legend Ike Turner

Ike Turner strides across his suite at the Intercontinental Hotel in Austin, Texas, and delivers a wide smile and a warm handshake: "How you doin', man? I'm Ike Turner."

So he is. Turner will be 70 years old this November, but he's incredibly fit and trim and looks years younger than the calendar would indicate. As for his clothes, he is, in the parlance of Miles Davis -- another famous area musician who had, shall we say, a reputation -- clean as a broke-dick dog. Turner is wearing gray slacks, a gray cashmere sweater and a jewel-encrusted watch. Around his neck, somewhat surprisingly, is a shining silver-dollar-sized Star of David.

No, he hasn't converted. Turner has been wearing such a necklace since 1958, when he was given one by the Bihari brothers, the record-label owners for whom Turner produced artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James. "The one they gave me had diamonds on it," Turner says, "but somebody snatched it, so I got another one. I [wear] it for luck, man."

Ike in 1993 at a San Diego nightclub: "The mistake I made was those years I was away, scared to go play."
Jon Freeman/Getty
Ike in 1993 at a San Diego nightclub: "The mistake I made was those years I was away, scared to go play."
Ike Turner: Clean as a broke-dick dog
Paul Harris/Getty
Ike Turner: Clean as a broke-dick dog

These days, Turner is on the comeback trail; at the time of the interview, he was using the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference to help get back into the spotlight. Though SXSW is ostensibly a place for the music industry to discover new talent, Turner's showcase performance the previous night at Antone's was definitely the place to be. It was packed wall-to-wall with such luminaries as David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, country singer Rick Trevino and reporters from many major newspapers and national magazines, each of them eager to see the infamous Ike, as notorious for being a badass mother as he is for quite possibly inventing rock & roll.

Turner knows there are obstacles to overcome. First, there are all the years of inactivity. His new album, Here and Now -- due to be released next week, two days after he is inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame and performs that night at the Pageant -- is his first proper U.S. release in more than 20 years. He lost a lot of that time to cocaine abuse, which eventually landed him in prison at the very time he was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he has simply been away too long. On a plane flying into Austin before the conference, one music critic struck up a conversation with members of the Beatnuts, a well-known rap group, and Turner's name came up. "Ike Turner?" they said. "Who's that?"

"A lot of kids, they don't know my music," Turner admits. "They might know me. They know my name. But the mistake I made was those years I was away, doing nothing, scared to go play. I ain't scared no more. I want to give what I got before I leave here, man. That's what I'm trying to do. It ain't about money; it ain't about nothing. It's a form of giving for me."

Such talk might raise some eyebrows, coming from Turner, who was portrayed in Tina Turner's scathing memoir, I, Tina, and the biopic What's Love Got to Do With It as a trash-talking, bitch-slapping über-pimp. Turner is understandably reluctant to hash over such matters but finally waves his hands and says, "OK, I'll go there for you. You have to understand, my personal life is really my personal life. And a lot of that is old news. But what I really regret, man, is that during the time I was doing drugs, I signed a contract with Walt Disney, thinking it was for somebody to play me in the movie with Tina. I thought she was going to play herself. And she didn't want to do it with me, so I didn't care who she did it with. So I signed the contract for a measly $45,000. Until I got clean and got my head on like it is now, I didn't realize that the paper that I signed -- my own lawyer got me to sign it -- I was signing away my rights to sue them, and they could portray me any way they wanted to. So they made a villain out of me. I'm nothing like that movie."

Healthy and happy -- Turner punctuates his conversations with a rooster's crow of a laugh that is always at the ready -- he does indeed seem a changed man. Musically, he's revivified as well. During his show at Antone's, Turner fronted a smoking eight-piece band featuring two keyboardists -- three, once Turner sat down to play piano. Dressed in matching suits and wide-brimmed fedoras, they played old-school R&B that crackled with the intensity of early rock & roll. Turner also played guitar, throttling his whammy bar in his distinctive style, and sang with abandon, something he always seemed reluctant to do during the Ike & Tina years.

It was a long road back for Turner to rediscover the kind of music that made him famous. Even back in the old days, he was always intent on keeping up with every musical style, making his band a living jukebox, pumping out the hits of the day by the Coasters, the Supremes, the Marvelettes, Aretha Franklin and so on (even "Proud Mary," recall, was a cover version). Eventually, though, contemporary music passed Turner by, and, by that time, so had the original style he had forged many years before.

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