And We’re Rolling

Tina Turner onstage, 1972

February 2021 has been a good month for Tina Turner: She was nominated for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and HBO announced a documentary on her life that will debut in the spring.

I first learned of Tina Turner at twelve years old, when, on a dare one summer, my best friend and I snuck into a sold-out screening of What’s Love Got to Do with It at our local cinema. Not the first R-rated film I had seen as a preteen, yet it was one that stuck with me for days and weeks afterward. The Turner’s lopsided marriage in particular, as there are plenty of scenes that display Ike’s brutality. In the film’s final scenes, an uninvited Ike visits Tina backstage, just minutes before she is to perform. He pulls out a gun. And then she reminds him that an audience awaits her and her alone—a room full of people have “come to see me,” she says, emphasizing her presence and talent can both exist and thrive without him.

It’s a good film, though one that a twelve year old has no business watching. And whether the film relies too heavily on creative liberties is another discussion. But in the days of Sam Goody and Tower Records, I was on a hunt to get my hands on what I could of Tina’s music. My family was no help. “Private Dancer,” my father told me, “Are you asking about that song?” No, no, no. The legs, I told him. The river. The job in the city. How to say this without admitting I snuck into an R-rated film? It seemed we had different versions of Tina.

A still from “Private Dancer.” Did you know Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) wrote this song?

On a bright day, riding my bike through an alleyway, I discovered a discarded mound of cassette tapes. On the spine of one was written “CCR.” Illegible handwriting dotted the insert. I took two tapes, brought them to a friend’s house. With a nose ring and blue hair, the friend’s older sister scoffed as we tried to decipher the lettering. “CCR is Creedence Clearwater Revival,” she said, and shot me a look of pity. We played it, loud, on a Sony boombox, and there it was: the job, the city, the man, the wheels, the river. 

Much has been written about Ike & Tina Turner’s rendition of “Proud Mary,” which in 1971 went to number four on the Billboard charts—their biggest hit as a duo. It was Tina who heard the original first and fell in love, enough to suggest the band record their own take. Ike wasn’t sold (or open to suggestions), but Tina got her way. By 1970 they had been performing the song on the road and finally got to recording their own version.

Often, cover songs are cheap imitations, so we relish when they transcend the original into a new and inventive interpretation. What makes Ike & Tina’s “Proud Mary” so revered is what strikes us from the beginning—Tina’s voice, smooth and controlled, ushers us into a story, warns us, like the captain of a ship, of a bumpy ride ahead—she and her band “always do it nice and rough.” At the helm of the song’s movement, she also steers its creative control, summoning layers of backup singers and guitar and bass and horns, all of which give the track texture and depth, a feature that befits her raspy vocals. 

In a 1993 Vanity Fair cover story, Tina is described by the late Bob Krasnow as someone who “could be your girlfriend, your sister, your best friend—she can fulfill all these emotional niches,” but during a performance, “she has the power to stimulate you…” In the same breath he describes a time when he visited the Turners in Los Angeles and was surprised to find Tina “in the kitchen with a wet rag, down on her hands and knees wiping the floor, wearing a do-rag on her head.” Bless his heart, the man had one version of Tina in mind—the sex symbol onstage, not the mother mired in domesticity. 

But it’s easy for me, as I’m sure it is for others, to hear a multifaceted Tina in her work, especially in “Proud Mary,” where she functions as the guide, the lead singer, the performer in a short dress with her trademark legs at play, a sonic fury whose physical presence elevates the song’s arrangements, alters its context. Like Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Respect,” Tina’s rendition feels like a bespoke incantation for women, a piece of music to lift, authorize, propel one of our own to the front of the room. Not someone who is there to fulfill anyone’s emotional niches, but there to let us watch her fulfill her own. A petite figure of legendary proportions from the state of Tennessee. But even women in myth face adversity. And to think Tina performed with such alacrity like she did on “Proud Mary,” night after night, on album after album, when her personal life and well-being was holding on by a thread.

It’s not that I think CCR’s “Proud Mary” isn’t good, or great—certainly, it has the legs to stand on its own. Yet when I listen to Tina sing—about leaving behind the familiar, working to make ends meet, finding a community of hope—the song strikes me as less of a cover and more of a personal journey through life that she understood, lived through, and emerged anew on the other side.

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