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Tina Turner: Tornado. Treasure. There Was Nobody Like Her.

She enthralled the masses like she was a wonder of the world, bringing her singular electricity to songs about survival, freedom and bravery. It’s hard to believe she’s gone.
Tina Turner (1939 -2023)
  • Obituary
  • Appraisal
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An appraisal

Tornado. Treasure. There Was Nobody Like Tina Turner.

She enthralled the masses like she was a wonder of the world, bringing her singular electricity to songs about survival, freedom and bravery. It’s hard to believe she’s gone.

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Tina Turner in a black and white photo, standing onstage in a leather dress, holding a microphone, with a big smile on her face.
Tina Turner performing in Paris in 1987. She sizzled with energy, our critic writes, which shot “from her feet, thighs, hands, arms, shoulders, out of her hair, out of her mouth.” Credit...Bertrand Guay/AFP, via Getty Images
Wesley Morris
May 25, 2023, 11:19 a.m. ET

My paperback of “I, Tina” is falling apart. Anytime I open it, a new page goes fluttering out. Last night, it was page 37. Tina Turner’s talking about the songs that grabbed her as a little kid. LaVern Baker’s “Tweedle Dee” got her because it was quick. “I always liked the fast ones,” Turner writes, “liked that energy, even then.”

You can call this thing a memoir — she spoke it, in 1986, to Kurt Loder, who interpolated it as literature. But it’s always read like a recipe book to me. The ingredients include force, power, will, sex, might. Hence the shock at her death. They’re saying she was 83? Nobody’s buying that. The ingredients made her seem immortal. For seven decades of making music, it all sizzled in her. That energy. It shot from her — from her feet, thighs, hands, arms, shoulders, out of her hair, out of her mouth.

Anytime she and a trio of Ikettes would get to jumping forward, bending over and throwing their arms out, then wagging those fingers, hair a-whipping, it wasn’t merely dancing they were doing, it was sorcery. Tina covered a lot of songs. But I’ve never heard her do “I Put a Spell on You.” She didn’t have to. That dance was it. I read that Adrienne Warren, who played Turner on Broadway, needed physical therapy and personal training to survive the part. For the Hollywood movie of Turner’s life, Angela Bassett essentially became all muscle. They both won acting awards. But the prize most fitting is probably a gold medal.

As a professional vocalist, Turner knew her scales. But I’m sure the scales knew her, too — Richter, Kelvin, Decibel, Fujita-Pearson (that one’s weather for “tornado”). If we’re talking about her doing the Acid Queen in “Tommy,” then the scale must be pH. That energy of hers built a wing of rock ’n’ roll where you can hear a body. Other singers — tremendous, foundational, godly singers — could belt. Ma Rainey, Big Mama Thornton, Big Maybelle, Baker, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. But Tina grew up around Pentecostals. She could scream. Loder makes the astute point that Turner arrived in 1960, near the dawn of amplified sound. They were made for each other.

Her first hit, with Ike Turner — the man who named her Tina after the white jungle queens of Saturday matinees, the man she was with a decade and a half, the man who for years put her down and beat her up — was called “A Fool in Love.” The song uses inside-out call-and-response. The backing singers call the chorus, and Tina responds like this: “Yay-ay-hey-hey-heeyyy!” The magnitude of her wail and the amplitude of its womanly Blackness stops you cold. It paralyzes you with exhilaration. Mmm hmm: That energy.

And look, it did have … other … registers. She growled, panted, moaned, squealed, yipped. Everybody knows that she was fine-looking, but in the middle of a song, conventional beauty went out of the window. Black singers get it: You’re practicing the art of stank. Sometimes to make that art, you need to be art, and Turner’s face mid-song was art at its most arresting, ornate and original: It was Cubism. She could be flesh-wound raw and choir-loft ethereal. Take the time, in 1966, that Tina gave herself over to Phil Spector and wound up with “River Deep — Mountain High,” one of the most triumphant studio moments of any great singer. She takes the title at its word. She’s Sisyphus. After every chorus, she rerolls her love boulder, even across the bridge. There’s tension, between her nature and Spector’s; her sonic force and his symphonic, percussive Wall of Sound. He put a napkin in her lap, and she used it to mop her brow. (Ike hated that song.)

Turner could get her voice down so low, so sweaty, so sensual that she skipped right past suggestive. It was simply what it sounds like it was: that good pain. She could sound ready for, say, whatever pleasure was in store for her toward the end of the version of “Let Me Touch Your Mind” that’s on “Live! The World of Ike & Tina,” from 1973. Onstage, she, with Ike, transformed Otis Redding’s weepy ballad “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” into X-rated psychodrama that Tina had to bring herself to enjoy being part of. She had to find a way to sell it.

After her divorce became official in 1978, she hit the road and pushed more boulders. In 1982, the boulder stopped in Onoway, Alberta. My friend James is from Edmonton, and Turner’s death on Wednesday shook loose a childhood memory of the time his parents drove to Onoway to see her play the Devil’s Lake Corral. He sent a video. It’s a mind-blowing feat of acrobatics, precision, adrenaline, heft, costuming. In other words, the usual. Turner is drenched before the halfway point. But the reason to bring this show up is how it starts.

Turner blows onto the stage wearing a sandy top and tights that would be a big deal in the town of Bedrock and a silky golden wig that looks like a Shih Tzu’s rear. Her first song isn’t her redefinition of “Proud Mary” or her in-the-trenches urgent undoing of “Help” (stick around). Her first song is Rod Stewart’s wife-murdering nightmare “Foolish Behaviour,” and Tina rips its head off. Presumably, the Devil kept to his lake that night.

More ingredients: chutzpah, irony.

That energy could work a crowd, get it to say “yeah” and “oh” and “ooh” just for her, get it screaming back at her. Tina was an average height — 5’ 4”, maybe. But here’s where a scale fails. Put her in an arena, she scraped the sky.

I’ve seen the footage of what happens when thousands of people take her in at once, often mostly white people — in London, in Osaka, Sweden and L.A. I’ve heard them on “Tina Live in Europe,” from 1988. And I cry. They just lose their minds over her, this Black woman raised in the hollows and back roads of Tennessee, in Nutbush. It’s something — to witness her enthrall masses, to rock them; to see an “Oprah” audience go bonkers with awe, as if she were a wonder of the world.

What is that? It’s the survival — of poverty, of Ike, of tuberculosis she didn’t know she had. It’s the hard-won freedom. It’s the way the songs promised she’d survive: “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.” But there’s more: She loved herself, loved being herself. We wanted to catch ourselves some of that. Page 133 of “I, Tina”: “I got to thinking that maybe I was such a mixture of things that it was beyond black-or-white, beyond just cultures — that I was universal!”

Arena Tina, Universal Tina, is the Turner I got: “Private Dancer,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It” Tina. The first time I saw her was probably “Friday Night Videos” when I was 8. And here was this long-looking woman in a leather miniskirt, stockings, heels, a denim jacket and hair as imposing as a lion’s head. Little me wanted to be her strutting down the street in that “What’s Love” video, one leg almost completely crossing the other. She looked bad, certain of her badness, strong — but also soft, the way she’d lean back into a dancer and shimmy with his buddy then shimmy with another dude. When she won all those Grammys in 1985, I wanted to sound like the woman accepting them. Was it continental-southern? Caribbean-showbiz?

This was a new Tina, polished, spiritual, with a devastatingly elegant repossession of image and voice. Her renaissance constituted a statement of command — those weren’t wigs up there, they were headdresses. That energy — it had been reinterpreted as wisdom, wisdom that snarled, wisdom that would rule Thunderdome. The lava had cooled some. The smooth fire in this new life and sound of hers — rock ’n’ roll with pop’s synth sheen — had a musical point: “Show Some Respect,” “Better Be Good to Me.” So we did, so we never stopped.

It just occurred to me what else “I, Tina” is. I’ve read this book ratty, but I’d really never thought about that title. It’s a declaration, yes, the staking of a claim. It’s also the beginning of a vow. To live, I think. To live so fully, so galactically, so contagiously, with so much daring, candor, zest and, yes, energy that no one is ever going to believe it when you die.

Wesley Morris is a critic at large and the co-host, with Jenna Wortham, of the culture podcast “Still Processing.” He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for criticism, including in 2021 for a set of essays that explored the intersection of race and pop culture. @wesley_morris

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