Ghosts of Christmas Past

The Skeletons reunite, we gift some of St. Louis' best bands and remember Ike Turner.

 Ike Turner: 1931-2007

Ike Wister Turner died on Wednesday, December 12, in San Diego, California. He was 76.

Every obit, blog post, and newscast will not fail to mention his despicable treatment of his ex-wife Tina Turner ­— so consider it mentioned.

Ike Turner, shown performing with Tina Turner, in November, 1972.
Pelletan/SIPA
Ike Turner, shown performing with Tina Turner, in November, 1972.

What those voices will not tell you is what you can only hear and feel in the urgency and ambition of his music. From his triplet-driven boogie piano on "Rocket 88" to his psychedelic gospel funk; from his unvarnished tremolo on uncountable electric blues singles to the black-power groove of the instrumentals he recorded with another St. Louis master, Oliver Sain; from his transformation of rhythm & blues into rock into soul (and then back again), to his electrification of the wildest stage spectacles that pop music had ever seen, Ike Turner deserves the appellation visionary — and can hold his own with touchstone figures such as Scott Joplin, Chuck Berry and Miles Davis.

St. Louis — nay, the nation — owes him a debt. And not just for his music, but for his contributions to our cultural life. During the '50s, he refused to play segregated venues in East St. Louis — and as a result, those venues were desegregated. Ike helped Tina choreograph her moves — and then got the hell out of the way so she could move on her own. (Mick Jagger, among countless others, would never be the same.)

Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he could have been a commanding blues figure (he had the guitar chops and the repertoire), but despite his reputation for egomania, his musical ideas were ultimately collective and collaborative, and couldn't be bound by pure blues. He was a force that could bring out greatness in others — whether it was Otis Rush, Howlin' Wolf, Fontella Bass or Tina.

Tom Ray, DJ and co-owner of Vintage Vinyl, described Turner's appearance at the 50th anniversary show for the Oliver Sain Soul Revue at the Pageant: "He stole the show the moment he sat down at the piano. Oliver had this big band — ten, twelve pieces. We were watching Ike direct the band with his shoulder blades, his nose, his eyebrows, his fingers, his mouth. He was cueing every section, and they were following him."

The myth of Stagger Lee dies hard, but Turner was no myth. He was the baddest of the baddest black men, and no one should (or will) ignore the brutality of his record. But that brutality should not (and cannot) drown out the wild, soulful, electrifying sounds and style of a true American original.— Roy Kasten

Them Bones

The Skeletons are getting back into the gigging swing, but it's the antithesis of rusty. The legendary Springfield, Missouri, band started in 1979 and then wound down in the late '90s. Since then, it's done one-offs and quickie tours, or backed up people such as Dave Alvin and Syd Straw. But as of late, Lou Whitney, D. Clinton Thompson, Joe Terry and Bobby Lloyd Hicks have been channeling their incomparable command of the great, garagey mess of American music elsewhere — though they've never really stopped playing together. On the phone from his Ozark home, songwriter, bassist, singer and producer Whitney explains that rehearsal is the lifeblood of the Skeletons — and "reunion gig" needn't be the two scariest words in the English language.

B-Sides: Was heavy rehearsing a rule for the Skeletons?

Lou Whitney: In most of our bands, Donnie and I, we'd rehearse nonstop, full-time, eight hours a day, like a job. But you don't really grow until you do the gigs, start delivering in front of people and take score.

When you think of garage rock, you don't really think of rehearsal.

I think that term came about from playing in a hollow space. Those early '60s rock, surf, psychedelic records had that sound. But, yeah, rehearsing was the whole deal. You practiced your ass off to become a better band. We're parts guys. We learn the song, but you gotta learn each part. We don't really jam that much. When you know the song well enough, you can lean into it in a different way. We're just old-school codgers. We grew up that way.

Did playing with the Skeletons inspire you to write?

I was writing as early as the late '60s; I even had a few songs cut in Motown, Nashville. But Springfield is really the catalyst. You've heard of Ronnie Self? Wayne Carson? These guys were big-time writers. The publishing here was a real business. This guy, Si Siman, he was here, and he had top-ten hits. If you were a songwriter, you made a stop at his publishing office. There was a creative scene connected to the big time; so bottom feeders like me could see how it worked. It gave us a paradigm. Just swimming around down in the water here gave you a leg up, a model to learn from.

Will your gig this week have holiday overtones?

We always learn a Christmas tune or three. Holiday overtones? Are we going to come out dressed as Santa? No. We just do gigs in the holiday season, and they wind up being whatever they are. We've been known to do "Do You Hear What I Hear?" with a "You Really Got Me" medley. And "Jingle Bell Rock" and things like that. I wrote a Christmas song once. Now Kay [Lou's wife] and I do it for the kids. They stand there and get frozen, just looking at us, like a rhinoceros looking at a laptop.

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