Ike’s Story: SPIN’s 1985 Feature on Ike Turner
"I styled Tina into a sex symbol — I made it happen"
Responding to reports that he fired bullets into Tina’s house after she split, Ike explodes, “That’s a f—king lie. Ill tell you one thing. If I was the nigger people think I am, I’d go up to her house and blow it up. If I shot at her house, I’d have come into the house and shot!”
The anger in his voice subsides. No longer punching at the air with his cigarette, he takes a few spoonfuls of soup. His other hand roams somewhere in Barbara’s lap. Ike laughs again and insists, “I could have a lot of dislike in me for Tina, but I don’t. Sure, I was with other women, but she never knew I was in the studio with them. I wasn’t going to embarrass her. I saw her in the bed with a guy. I’ve seen her get up out of the bed and let the guy she was in love with go to bed with another woman. She’d go downstairs while he balled her.
“I wasn’t out to hurt her; we was tight. I was happy to organize things, man, to get us out on the road, play my guitar in the background. She could be the star. I never thought that anything would come between us — it was trust. Man, I have nothing in my heart against her at all. I never thought she would betray my confidence. I had no contract between Ike and Tina. I could’ve put money aside for Ike, but I never took anything. I only wanted to do for her and the kids. My bills were running me $35,000 to $75,000 a month — I was up 24 hours a day, not because I really wanted to.
“But you know, man, I’d do it all over again. I don’t care if Tina was the star. My whole thing isn’t stardom, I just care about getting people off. [His voice rising again] Damn the dollar! S—t, you have to have money. I’ve been hungry. But my thing was seeing people come into clubs and saying, ‘Make me happy, do what you want with me. I’m yours.’
“And Tina being the sex symbol, that’s what happened. People think that came from the visual part of an Ike and Tina show, but man, that’s not it. I styled her that way — l made it happen. I gave the drummer the signal, and it sounded like a gunshot. The lights came down on her, there was no spotlight on me. She’d stroke that mike and s—t like that — I was the one who told her to do that. Anything you ever saw her or the Ikettes do on stage came from me. But do I get the credit? S—t! I’m always the bad guy.”
Before the sex, drugs, and showdowns with the law, there were chickens, scrap iron, and romps to Sin City. For even as a youngster in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Izear Luster Turner saw himself as a bad-assed hustler. The son of a preacher and a seamstress, he helped his parents get through the Depression by working on neighbors’ chicken farms. At age 8, he tired of collecting eggs and began his lifelong search for bigger and better payoffs.
“First I sold scrap iron, did odd jobs, any hustle I could think of to have a few extra quarters in my pocket,” purrs Turner, this bit of nostalgia bringing a mischievous smile to his face. “Then I ran away from home, to Memphis, where worked as a hallboy at the Hotel Peabody. I wound up sleeping on Coca-Cola crates, so I think I stayed away for about four days.” Pointing at a bread basket on the table, he muses, “In those days, even a crust of bread tasted like steak.”
Still gripped by wanderlust even after thrashings from his mother, Beatrice, he was soon skipping school to hang out at the local pool room. On one of these visits, he first heard Pine Top Joe Willie, a piano player who mesmerized him. “That cat could play. Man, did he fascinate me. It was a fantasy, I could never play like him… I finally helped him with his equipment, and he showed me a few notes. Shoot, my mother gave me money to take music lessons. I’d take it, and when came home I’d show her what Pine Top taught me.”
After spinning platters at a nearby radio station, the 13-year-old Turner quit school to play piano behind Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk. His lack of formal education would eventually haunt him. As Ike sheepishly admits, “That’s why I liked being in the background. I was really scared to talk to the press.”
Obsessed with the blues in the early ‘50s, he cut “Rocket 88″ with saxophonist Jackie Brenston in Memphis and was then hired by the Bihari brothers, local show-biz agents, as a talent scout.
“We first saw Ike when he was 16, playing with B.B. King, and my brother Jules was so impressed, he bought him a Buick Roadmaster and some clothes,” recalls Joel Bihari. “Ike did a great job for us, but he was a country boy. We brought him to L.A., and he just couldn’t take city life. He only stayed a month, then left for East St. Louis to form his own band. He told me he was going back there to become a star.”
Choreographing each move of his newly formed Ikettes, a pride of shapely, scantily clad singers, Ike became the toast of St. Louis in the late 1950s. At clubs like the Imperial, Manhattan, and D’Lisa, he displayed a talent that would later lead him to Bill Graham’s Winterland, the Fillmore, and a tour with the Stones, because the R&B revue had crossover appeal: it attracted whites as well as blacks.
As Bonnie Bramlett coos, “Ike’s shows put others to shame. I saw them in Granite City [her hometown in Illinois] when I was 15 , and they were so hot, I could only dream of becoming an Ikette. My mother didn’t exactly like that idea, my being white, but Ike came to the house and charmed her. He promised her that everything would be okay. He was a real gentleman. Ike did right by me. In my heart I’m still an Ikette.”
Even at age 6, Ike had away with women. Decidedly proud of this talent, he triumphantly boasts, “I started balling when I was 6 years old. There was this woman, Miss Boozie, I’d feed her chickens every morning on my way to school. She’d give me a nickel a week if she could put me on top of her and show me how to move.”
“Look man, I’ve been married 10 times. I started getting married when I was 14. First there was Edna Dean Stewart. A few months later it was Velma Dishman, then Dolores Ward. I don’t remember her last name, but then it was Alice… People can believe this or not, I don’t care. You gave a preacher $2, the papers cost $3, that was it. In those days blacks didn’t bother with divorces.
“When I was in St. Louis and Tina started hanging out at the clubs I was playing, she knew what I was doing with women. She knew how I am. There were no surprises ever. She was with me four years before we started going together. Every time I bought a dress for the mother of my two kids, I got her one.
“If I really wanted to talk s—t about Tina, I could. She and her saxophone-player boyfriend [Raymond Hill, one of the Kings of Rhythm, an early Ike Turner Band] were living in my house in East St. Louis. He got Tina pregnant. I’d get mad at him, cause he’d make Tina go downstairs while he went upstairs to ball another woman. Where does she come off sounding so innocent these days?
“Tina even got girls for me. I didn’t do anything with her that I wasn’t doing when we first met. She’d get Ikettes for me. I was with them, she knew that. There were times I’d be on the stage and I’d see a pretty girl out there, and I’d say to her, ‘See that girl? Tell her to meet me over at the house. See that one? Go put her in the car. Tina did this for four years. “I was never phony. She knew what was going on. When we were living together later on, she did the same thing. I didn’t threaten or force her to do this. There were times in the studio she’d bring me and the girl I was with food. Why is she so angry now? She never was then.”
Ike winces as he lights another cigarette and half-heartedly stabs at his steak, his gaunt, light-brown cheeks tense with anger. “Let me tell you this,” he says, shaking his head violently. “As God is my judge of all my wives, Tina’s the only one I was never legally married to.”
Ike continues, “We went to Tijuana, sat in this round booth with [singer] Esther Jones, Bobby John, Rhonda Graham, Tina, and my bus driver. This guy who was shooting pictures in the place came up to us and asked, ‘Do you want to get married?’ We said ‘Yeah.’ He married all six of us at the same time. He wasn’t no preacher. We just paid him for the pictures.” (But band member Bobby John recalls it differently. “I really felt everything was prearranged. We walked into this office and this guy, I don’t know if he was a preacher or not, performed a short ceremony.”
However their nuptial bonds were sealed in 1962, Ike’s friends remember him being enthralled by Tina. She wasn’t as big-breasted or as glamorous as his other women, but this didn’t matter to Turner. Even before Tina became the Revue’s lead singer and brought “A Fool in Love” to the top of the R&B charts in 1960, Ike believed she was “the most talented woman on the planet,” according to St. Louis songwriter/musician Oliver Sain. “I wasn’t all that impressed, but to Ike she was Wonder Woman.”
Echoing this assessment, Elektra’s Robert Krasnow says, “Ike saw her as the ultimate woman, as a Venus, the perfect girl. It was a fantasy of his and she played to this image for him, or was a partner to it because she wanted the same things he did. Tina’s a very smart woman. She saw what Ike was conjuring up for her. don’t see how she could’ve put as much time into it if she didn’t want success as much as Ike did.”
In 1965, Krasnow arranged for Ike and Tina to sing “River Deep, Mountain High” on Phil Spector’s Philles label. The song fared badly in the U.S. but was a sensation in England. Upon hearing it, the Stones were so impressed, they invited Ike and Tina to tour with them in Europe. This soon gave the “ITT” Revue notoriety in white rock circles. By the time Ike and Tina rejoined the Stones for a U.S. swing in 1969, their raunchy stage act was big box office. Tina’s dancing and simulated orgasms on stage earned her the title “the World’s Greatest Heartbreaker” — a moniker that brought record companies to their knees. Liberty, United Artists, and Capitol all vied for the Turners’ services. And Ike, ever the manipulator, jumped from one “exclusive” deal to another.
With millions of dollars pouring in, Ike went on a good-time spree. Besides hosting dozens of coke parties, acquiring apartment buildings, and giving away cars to his favorite ladies, he built his decadently palatial recording studio complex in Inglewood, California, not far from the Forum. How the two-story, brick Bolic Sound — a tag originally intended as a tribute to Tina, née Bullock — got its nickname, the Taj Mahal, remains part of the Turner folklore. Bolic was built to resemble a castle, and narcotics detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department and Inglewood, California, may have used the tag as a code name. They constantly watched the place during the late ‘70s and frequently busted in. Or the tribute might’ve been coined one hell-raising night by one of the sultans of sound — such as Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Duane Allman, and Little Richard — who recorded and partied there.
In any event, the munificent description was apt. Visitors were allowed past the studio’s 3-inch thick front doors and through a passageway lined with security cameras entering a labyrinth of interconnecting sound rooms, each paneled with a African mahogany and carpeted in pastel-colored wool or antique Persians. Along with a bed or a bean bag chair, the rooms contained a variety of musical instruments, toiletries, and a wide range of booze.