Watching Tina Turner perform is something you never forget – a combination of joy and chutzpah with an almost spiritual rush of emotion. Or as lifelong fan Oprah Winfrey recalls of her reaction to Tina’s early break-out shows: “Whatever that is … I want some of that. I got the spirit, no different to being in a church and you are moved.”
It wasn’t just the songs – powerful punchy rock anthems that swim around your head – but Tina’s incredible energy, a fountain of undiluted girl power that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside. And Tina bristled with a searing authenticity, too, her battle scars on show as she built the finest part of her career as a middle-aged woman with the courage to overcome the traumas and abuse of her past. This was something special.
Tina’s journey from a troubled little girl in Nutbush, Tennessee, to musical partner and wife of the talented and abusive Ike Turner, to solo rock goddess, is certainly awe-inspiring.
And seeing that story breaking box office records in famous theatres around the world in Tina – The Tina Turner Musical has been a profound experience for her. “It has given me new-found peace about my early life, which I didn’t expect when I agreed to making the musical,” she tells The Weekly from her home in Switzerland. “Bringing it all together has made it whole and given me harmony. I wish Ike and my mother had been able to see the show.”
That Tina at 83 invokes the two people who hurt her most as she celebrates the success of the musical of her life is testament to the gentle humility that truly makes her tick. It seems incredible that this soulful woman who has been so abused, eschews any sense of bitterness.
But as I learn more about her, I see it goes to the heart of who Tina really is. Away from the razzamatazz of her performance persona, Tina is a quiet role model to women with a natural centre of positivity. Her talent was always innate, but the road to fulfilling that destiny was much more complex.
Tina was born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939, the youngest daughter of Zelma and Floyd Bullock. Her father was a sharecropper in the segregated South and from a young age she picked cotton with the rest of her family as they struggled to eke out a living. It was a hard life and back home things were no better. “My mother and father fought from the very beginning, but my mother always fought back,” she recalls in her candid 2021 TV documentary Tina.
“I remember, she used to sit in the window of the kitchen when she was making dinner on Sundays and always stare out. I thought she was so pretty, I used to just watch her. [Then] one day she wasn’t in that window. She was never in it again. Daddy came home and sort of panicked and then he left.”
Tina was 11 years old and ached for her mum to return for her, but she never did. That abandonment was formative and left a hole in her childhood, but today Tina’s more able to rationalise the experience.
“I’m very lucky that my grandma GG took me in, loved me and believed in me,” she says. “Nutbush feels a world away from now. But I’m the same girl – I have the same soul; my values are the same, I always want to do the right thing, and love has always been core to everything about me.”
In later life, mother and daughter reconnected and Tina even bought Zelma a house. But while clearly thrilled that her daughter was a successful star, the love Tina craved was notably absent. There was an emptiness between them. “I did all kinds of things for her. She was my mother! But she still didn’t like me, she didn’t want to be around me, even though she wanted my success … but I did for her as though she loved me,” Tina reveals in the documentary. “I’m a girl from a cotton field that pulled myself above what was not taught to me.”
Tina had no formal training, but she loved to sing in church – “gospel songs and spiritual songs about doing all the right things that make life good”. It was the first place she sang in public and I ask her if it was here that she first felt that connection between music and the spirit.
“I think I did … singing in that environment was so important to me, but what I focused on was that the songs were about love and that’s what I remember most.”
Needless to say, she stood out and, even though she describes herself as a “frail little thing”, her voice was gutsy and powerful, and her passion evident.
She first clapped eyes on Ike Turner in 1957. By this time she was living in St Louis. Her older sister Alline had told her about the “hottest band in town” – the Kings of Rhythm with Ike Turner – and took her along to see them.
She remembers Ike playing the guitar and being captivated. “I almost went into a trance.”
She was 17, naïve and eager to catch Ike’s attention and show him she could sing. He wasn’t interested at all, but she was determined. Eventually the band’s drummer handed her the microphone and the rest is history.
In no time she was singing with the band. Ike treated her like a little sister and she saw him as her hero. Soon she was in love.
“She had no ambition to be some kinda superstar. But when she sang she just had it. And Ike exploited it,” recalls Jimmy Thomas, the band’s back-up singer, who saw the whole romance unfold. It was Ike who chose Anna Mae’s new name without even asking her and founded the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. “Tina was a goldmine, he knew that,” notes Jimmy.
Tina’s first hit record in 1960, A Fool in Love, was written by Ike for another artist, Art Lassiter. But when he failed to turn up for the recording Tina stepped in. As it turned out it was pretty appropriately titled. Also that year, Ike and Tina’s son Ronnie was born, making her a mother of four with a son from an earlier relationship and Ike’s two sons to take care of.
She was young to have so much responsibility but it was also clear that she was the star, and behind the scenes Ike was taking out his frustrations on his wife.
While it’s easy to suggest that her parents’ unhappy marriage set her up for her own version of the same, Tina says her relationship with Ike was very different.
“When Ike and I started working together, we were good friends, very close, almost like brother and sister. Of course, that all very suddenly changed. Whatever difficulties I had in my childhood, it was not the same as what I suffered with Ike.”
During her marriage Tina never told anyone about Ike’s regular beatings. It was a secret that destroyed her self-esteem but today she admits the abuse was horrific.
“I lived a shameful life and I found a way to live with it by just being ashamed,” she says. Like many women in domestic violence situations Tina was confused and conflicted. “I felt obligated to stay there. I felt very loyal to Ike and I didn’t want to hurt him. Sometimes after he beat me up I’d feel sorry for him even though I was all bruised and torn.”
Tina says she felt brainwashed by Ike. “I was afraid of him and I cared what happened to him. But if I left there was no one to sing. I was caught up on guilt and fear.”
Then on one very memorable day in 1976, Tina and Ike were in the car together and this time when he hit her she snapped. She talked back and he beat her more, leaving her face swollen and covered in blood. Tina knew she had to leave. She recalls that day vividly in the TV documentary. “He was a physically violent man, I went through basic torture. I was living a life of death. I didn’t exist but I survived. When I walked out I walked and I didn’t look back.”
The subsequent divorce left Tina with nothing – no house, no car, no money – but she insisted on keeping her name, knowing it was her future business. A very shrewd move. Tina says she wasn’t scared but felt free for the first time in her life. “Compared to the situation I was in with Ike for over 16 years, I felt a huge weight had been lifted when I left. I remember the day after I left it was the Fourth of July – which is American Independence Day – and I, too, felt liberated. Yes, it was hard afterwards, I struggled, but my choices were mine, for the first time in almost 20 years. I knew I wanted to succeed, and I was capable of so much more.
River Deep (Mountain High) [which Tina had recorded in 1966 with legendary producer Phil Spector without Ike’s involvement] had been my first opportunity to show I had my own voice, and I was determined to show more of me. I had immense faith. I still do.”
Helping Tina through this was a new spiritual guidance. Although raised a devout Christian, Tina says she found the answers to her deepest questions in Buddhism.
“It happened in the early ’70s. I was still with Ike, and he hired Valerie Bishop to work in his studio as a secretary for a while. And she taught me all about Buddhism, and it felt so right, and a gift to me at that moment in my life. When Valerie left, she gave me a book, some beads and she taught me how to chant. As soon as I started chanting I felt stronger … less afraid, and I could feel a power finally stirring inside me that I know was the start of my life changing. Buddhism did save my life, but it is till to this day important to me and guides how I live and see my life.”
Tina’s whole attitude changed and it was then, she says, that she realised how destructive the force of anger and bitterness can be.
“My faith has helped me so much, but also I look back, and I feel I am a stronger person now. Far stronger. Also I understand that Ike had a very troubled background, which had its effect on him and his actions. He was a troubled person in many ways. I suffered then, but I needed to keep going, so to be angry and bitter only takes me back to those times which I tried so hard to move away from.”
Tina’s career didn’t take off overnight. It took a lot of hard work and the most important figure in her rise to the top was Australian Roger Davies. He became her business manager and hustled hard, scoring gigs for Tina to tour all over the world and eventually play in the huge stadiums she longed for.
“My dream was to be the first black rock’n’roll singer to pack places like The [Rolling] Stones,” she says.
Tina also decided to grant a magazine interview and reveal the truth about her relationship with Ike. She followed this with her memoir, I Tina.
She hoped these confessionals would put the whole story to bed and she wouldn’t have to talk about Ike again. While that didn’t happen, her story had a profound resonance with women suffering from domestic violence and still does.
Her solo album Private Dancer was a huge hit, selling 10 million copies worldwide. “Rolling on the river without Ike in the boat, Tina Turner makes a powerful comeback on Private Dancer,” wrote Rolling Stone magazine. Tina was 44 and dubbed “the queen of rock and roll”. Her career began to soar.
In 1985, Australian director George Miller wrote the role of Aunty Entity specifically for Tina in his new movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and was delighted when Tina signed up.
It started a personal love affair with our nation. “Australia means so much,” she tells me. “I toured Australia a number of times over three decades. Roger, who started managing me in 1980, was critical to helping me achieve my career goals – he was my partner in crime. Performing Simply the Best in Sydney in 1993 at the [NRL] grand final was such a career highlight.
“Wow! I remember it felt like the whole stadium was singing! I’ve always loved performing in Australia as the crowds are always such fun and everyone has welcomed me with open arms … every concert was always like a homecoming! And that doesn’t even include Mad Max!”
Tina also found love in 1985 when she met music producer Erwin Bach, 16 years her junior, who’d been asked to collect her from Cologne Bonn Airport while she was on tour. An unlikely romance quickly blossomed.
“He was just so so different, so laid-back, so comfortable, so unpretentious … 27 years later we got married,” she says. Was this the most profound love of her life? “I have been blessed with many wonderful people in my life, at different times. Grandma GG was a wise woman who I was devoted to when I was growing up, and my family and my sons have always been at the core of my world. But I will say I was blessed to have a very handsome man walk into my life in an airport in Germany in 1985. I fell in love with him as soon as we looked at each other. Erwin and I have been together ever since, over 30 years. He is my soulmate and we have built one life together.”
When she was 60 Tina told Rolling Stone, “Spiritually, I’m very much more aware. I’m not wise, but the beginning of wisdom is there.”
Twenty-three years later she says she feels “wiser but not wise. I think I’m continuing to grow and learn. Buddhism opened that door for me and I’ll keep learning.”
In the meantime, even though she has retired from performing, the musical has introduced new young fans to Tina’s hits and her journey. The show premiered in London in 2018 to huge audiences and critical acclaim. The 2019 Broadway production was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, with the Netherlands, Spain, North America and Germany following.
Finally, in May, Australian audiences will get to see what all the fuss is about. Sizzling Zimbabwean-born Australian Ruva Ngwenya has been cast in the title role and Tina couldn’t be more excited.
“Australia holds a very special place in my heart and I am thrilled to be bringing my wonderful musical to Sydney,” she says. “Ruva is a beautiful performer who I know will bring her own joy and her soul to this role. She joins a wonderful unique group of women that are my Tinas … and I’m proud of each and every one of them.”
Tina – The Tina Turner Musical opens at the Theatre Royal Sydney in May. Visit tinathemusical.com.au to book tickets.
You can read this story and many others in the April issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.