Unforgiven: The American Tragedy of Ike Turner

Written ten years before the rock genius passed, this feature from VIBE’s June/July 1998 issue would prove prophetic. One man’s redemption.


When people talk about rock ‘n’ roll, they talk about Chuck Berry, they talk about Little Richard, and they leave the main man out… Ike Turner was the innovator for rhythm and blues and for rock ‘n’ roll. To me, Ike is one of the most underrated entertainers in the world. – Little Richard, 1997

Well, I learned a lesson / to treat my loved ones right/ ‘Cause there’s nothing but troubles and heartaches / When you fuss and fight. – Ike Turner, “Troubles and Heartaches,” 1952

If Ike Turner were to die today, most people would remember him as the cartoonish villain of 1993′s What’s Love Got to Do with It. Few people recall that in 1991, while in jail for a coke rap, Ike was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Like many other black American geniuses, Turner has been written out of the history he helped create.

In 1951, at age 20, Turner wrote and played piano on “Rocket 88,” often called the first rock ‘n’ Roll song. More than any single musician, he pioneered the expressive capabilities of the guitar. In 1956 (the year he met Tina), Ike played what might be the first rock guitar solos – searing 20-second-long gestures relying on drastic manipulations of the whammy bar.

It could be argued that Ike Turner is the most direct link between the American blues tradition and British guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards. Ike was also one of the first bandleaders to use the electric bass, to use two lead guitarists, to use a drum machine and synthesizer in the studio… the list goes on. In the words of producer Roli Mosimann (Faith No More, The The), “You can hear almost all of ’80s funk, including Prince, in [Ike and Tina Turner's 1973] “Nutbush City Limits.’”

Tina Turner is a household name today, but 40 years ago she was Annie Mae Bullock, an occasional vocalist with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. Ike wrote the couple’s first hit, “Fools in Love,” in 1960. During the late ’60s, the Ike and Tina Turner Revue was the greatest live show on the planet, sharing bills with, and upstaging, the Rolling Stones. In 1976, Tina left Ike and a life of abuse behind, only to make a triumphant return in 1985 with the multiplatinum solo album Private Dancer.

The release of What’s Love Got to Do With It brought Ike notoriety but not respect. The movie, an exaggerated version of Tina’s 1986 biography, I, Tina, deliberately obscured his viewpoint. Laurence Fishburne initially turned down the part of Ike four times, accepting it only when the script was revised “to make Ike more human.” Even so, the film depicts Ike raping his wife and brutally beating her in public. Tina’s book describes such abuses, but in slightly sketchier terms; Ike denies they ever happened. “Yeah, I hit her,” Ike told SPIN magazine in response to the question of spousal abuse. “But I didn’t hit her more than the average guy beat his wife.”

Turner blames the film, more than his own actions, for destroying his career. As its impact has grown from theatrical release to HBO to video, gigs have dried up; public perceptions hardened. “The worst mistake I ever made in my life,” he says, “was when I signed an agreement not to sue Disney. They offered me fifteen thousand where I could get it right away and thirty thousand later. You offer a guy who’s doing coke money right away, and what’s he going to say?”

Ike spent the ’70s and most of the ’80s on a cocaine bender, smoking up his hard-earned fortune to the tune of $2000 a day. Among the talented friends who partied or recorded inside Bolic Sound – Ike’s state-of-the-art studio at 1310 La Brea in Inglewood, California – were Sly Stone, Little Richard, and Bobby Womack. “There was a little silver box on the console with cocaine,” recalls trombonist Jeffrey Deane. “Ike would try to engage you into snorting cocaine and then laugh at you when you couldn’t play the parts. There was an upstairs at Bolic through a secret door. I went up there once; it was right out of Superfly, everything was white, with oval doors. There was a plastic bag with the largest amount of cocaine I’d ever seen in my life – at least a pound.”

The permanent party at Bolic Sound came to an abrupt end when the temporarily uninsured building burned to the ground in 1982. Ike’s music output had been in decline since Tina left him in 1976; his studio work became directionless, and he endlessly reworked songs that never came out. The fire accelerated his downward spiral – freebase, freebase, freebase. Between cocaine and tobacco, Ike smoked so much that he gave himself emphysema, which put him in the hospital in 1994. He no longer drinks, smokes or does drugs, and credits prison for saving his life.

In a culture that glosses over Elvis’s abusive behavior toward women, you have to wonder whose agenda is being served by anointing Ike Turner the poster boy for domestic violence. Tina herself seems to think things have gone too far. During an Oprah appearance in February 1997, she said, “I was very loyal to Ike because he had been so good to me [in the early days]… I felt his pain because he wanted so badly to be a star… I don’t have a vengeance. It would be wonderful if Ike could get a hit record and really realize his dream on his own.”

I don’t feel as odd as I should being the third wheel at Ike and Jeanette Turner’s second wedding anniversary dinner on July 4, 1997. But after a few nights hanging out with the Turners at their San Marcos, California house, It’s clear that Ike needs an attentive audience more than he needs privacy.

The only special preparation is resolutely unromantic: we drove an hour and a half north to Los Angeles yesterday so Jeanette could get her hair recolored. “They messed it up down here,” Ike explained. “They turned it black” – although the roots showing through were Jeanette’s natural auburn. Today, her delicate, Barbie-doll features and clear white skin are once again framed by a platinum blond mane.

This day is special for Jeanette. Now 36, she hasn’t had the kind of life wherein “happily ever after” is the expected ending. She did time in juvenile hall and mentions, ruefully, that most of the crowd she grew up with in St. Louis are now dead or in jail. After being together eight years, Ike and Jeanette were married on the spur of the moment at Las Vegas’s Circus Circus Hotel and Casino. She bought her traditional white gown the day of the ceremony. The small reception was held at the Las Vegas Hilton International, where Ike gets the free rooms offered to high rollers. In the reception photos, Jeanette has changed into a mink-trimmed black leather bustier and black skirt that scream show business.

Ike, now 66, met Jeanette through his son Ike Jr. She was singing with a band Ike Jr. took to Los Angeles to shop for a record deal. “He first took me to meet his father in 1988,” Jeanette says softly. “Ike was sitting around a table with six women, and they were all on the pipe. These women were just sitting around the table wearing T-shirts. Nothing else.”

Ike Jr. soon abandoned Jeanette and the band’s other female singer. Jeanette moved in with Ike and became a crack user, too; although Jeanette had dabbled in recreational drugs as a teenager, she never expected to be drawn into L.A.’s hardcore crack scene. She returned to St. Louis a few months later to kick her habit. By that time, Ike was in jail for the 11th and last time at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo for coke possession. During his term, they corresponded, and they’ve lived together since his release, in September 1991. “I’ve never been into younger guys,” says Jeanette of their 31-year age difference. “I felt I was more mature.”

The Turners’ house is a comfortable three-bedroom, two-car-garage ranch covered in gray siding with sky-blue trim. Their front yard differs from the neighbors’ only in hinting that they take no interest in gardening. It’s past 1 am when Ike and Jeanette greet me on the doorstep in their pajamas. The nubbly white wall-to-wall carpet, white walls, and bland furniture are reminiscent of an upscale chain hotel – not surprising, given that Ike spent decades living on the road. Except for the oversize photos in every room – of Ike playing guitar – the art looks like it came from a hotel too.

Jeanette offers to make me a snack, and I look around while she prepares a plate of cheddar cheese and Ritz crackers. Wonderbread awaits on a spotless kitchen counter; in the living room, a well used Bible sits on the coffee table. It’s open to Romans 12:20, and a verse catches my eye: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

The granddaughter whose cute face gazes out from a dining room wall is the child of a daughter Ike didn’t know he had until a few years ago. Twana Melby, 35, is a Highway Patrolwoman and musician whose mom was one of Ike’s numerous girlfriends in his St. Louis days. “I had the keys to thirty-two women’s apartments then,” Ike confides.

Jeanette says none of the boys Ike and Tina raised call him on birthdays or holidays; at least one has had substance-abuse problems. But Ike and Tina’s most dramatic failure may be Michael. “He’s downtown in San Diego with the homeless,” Ike says one night, sounding exasperated. “Normally, where he sleeps, it’s on the sidewalk. He’s got a tent. I went looking for him, and his tent was gone.” Michael was in jail in San Diego yet again.

One of the reasons for Ike’s distance from his sons lies in the 340 shows he and Tina played annually. “I gave my kids everything but me,” he says, voice raised. “I gave ‘em every week a hundred bucks apiece, man – money to go to Disneyland or wherever you want to fucking go, but I didn’t go with them. But you know what? If I had to live my life over again, I would live it the same fucking way ’cause either they going to be short of one thing or the other.”

Like his estranged sons, Tina is an absent presence in his life. Although they haven’t spoken in a decade, Ike mentions her in almost every long conversation. Some of Ike’s dwelling on the topic of Tina is natural – they were together 17 years – but some feels obsessive.

Ironically, one reason for the eclipse of Ike’s own music reputation is the consummate artistry with which he crafted Tina’s onstage persona. When we hear her lament (on “Fool in Love”), “Why does he treat me so bad when he’s such a good man?” we assume she is attacking her stage partner Ike. Tina sings so well, we forget that Ike wrote the words and directed her phrasing. We forget that the gender battles Ike and Tina’s music dramatize are fueled by a racial drama larger than any one marriage.

The demonization of Ike Turner began long before the world knew anything about his private life. With his dark skin, flashy clothes, badass attitude, and Deep South inflections, Ike’s very being plugs into the fear nodes of the American psyche. His former producer, the late Ralph Bass, a white man best known for signing James Brown, termed Ike “the blackest of black men.”

“The only two kinds of people that can do what they want in this country is a white man and a black woman,” Ike often says. “When I heard about Rosa Parks, I didn’t pay it no mind. Now, if a black man had refused to sit in the back of the bus and lived to tell, that would be something.”

Twelve years ago, Ike said in an interview, “It’s very hard to deal with black women mentally. It’s like you have to put some fear in them to communicate.” During my visit, he insisted that, unlike Tina, Jeanette understood everything he said the first time he told her. “I’ve never hit her – but if I needed to, I would.”

Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on November 5, 1931, Ike grew up in the Depression’s harshest years, in the nation’s poorest state. His dad, a Baptist minister, was beaten severely by white cops for a fling with a black woman one cop was dating — and was refused admission to the white-only hospital. As a five-year-old boy, Ike brought his dad meals in a tent built by the Health Department in the backyard when the family couldn’t stand the smell of his putrefying innards. Izear Luster Turner died over a two-year period from damage to his internal organs.

His mother made a poor choice when she remarried. Phillip Reese, a housepainter, seems to have been an abusive alcoholic. “He only hit me one time, with some barbed wire,” says Ike. “I built a playhouse in the backyard. I put a stove in there and a chimney, and it wasn’t very safe. He saw the smoke come up there, and he beat my butt. He was right.”

Like many abused children, Ike tries to justify his treatment, never noting that hitting a nine year old with barbed wire might be disproportionate treatment. “He was in the house taking the ashes out of the stove, and I walked up behind him with a two-by-four and knocked him out. I thought I’d killed him, but I didn’t. I ran off and went to Memphis. I took my bicycle and grabbed ahold to a truck.”

All of this comes out very calm, and Ike isn’t a calm person. He allows himself more emotion about bad drivers than about traumatic events from his childhood. The brutal time and place that shaped Ike’s character have made him who he is: a tragic figure imprisoned by the need to never show weakness.

Asking questions about Ike’s sensational past (women, drugs, gambling) isn’t the way to learn who he really is – precisely because he invites you to do it. He’s happy to shock new acquaintances (“I got a hole in my nose big enough to put this fork through”), but it’s the small weirdnesses of Ike’s day-to-day life that are of real interest.

Take his habit of sleeping with the bedroom door open, even when visitors are in the house. “Ike always done that,” says his longtime drummer Soko Richardson, laughing, “That’s just so he can watch what’s going on with other people.”

The Turners have lived a half-hour from the Mexican border for almost five years, but they have visited Mexico exactly once, for a day. After almost 30 years in L.A., Ike first entered the ocean in 1992. He takes his evening stroll along the boardwalk in Carlsbad, but it doesn’t last a minute longer than the allotted 20. There’s no gazing out at the setting sun, no wandering onto the sand to feel it between his toes. One lovely afternoon while Jeanette and I headed for the beach, Ike stayed at home. “I don’t need to get any blacker than this,” he said.

Ike spends most of every day in his digital home studio, sometimes jamming for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch. During my stay, he was up until dawn several times, then rose a few hours later to continue his labors. When he’s playing, Ike is free of the sadness and impatience that dog him. Absorbed in the moment, he moves between the computer and the keyboards, his guitar slung over his shoulder, not even looking at the frets as he plays and sings covers and his own hits in a gravelly voice.

No matter what he plays, Ike’s genius shines through. Each of the covers swings more than the original; Ike has an unparalleled ability to lock a band into a deep groove and then create intricate counter-rhythms around it. And everything he himself plays has drive and swagger. On a good day, he is one of the greatest guitarists in the world – again.

But Ike is also one of the most infamous black men in America, and if he protests against his fate, it’s indirectly. “We got more to offer other than rap and call women bitches and shoot each other and shit like that,” he says. “We got a lot of talent. We very creative. And I don’t want to die and leave ‘em thinking that’s all we’re qualified at doing.” It’s easy to forget that Ike has been cast as the ultimate dangerous black male – a woman-battering pistol-packing crack-binging ex-con, referenced by the late Biggie Smalls in “Dreams” as a misogynist hero: “Slap Tina Turner / Give her flashbacks of Ike.”

Driving near the Turners’ home on the last night of my visit, Ike stops the car suddenly as a rabbit is caught in its headlights. Improbably white and soft, the rabbit stares at the light, a little too close to the center to avoid being hit. “That rabbit is here every time I come this way,” Ike comments. I am astonished that this legendary badass would notice the small, vulnerable creature.

But deep down, Ike has a lot in common with that rabbit. It took a very scared boy to make a man like Ike Turner. He half admits it himself. “I can’t stand rejection. I would never walk up and say, Hey, can I have this dance? ‘Cause if you say no, I would go through the floor. And the same thing when I go onstage – I could probably do a better show than I do, man, if I could just relax and do it.” But Ike worries about how well the other band members will perform. Like so many of us, he is his own worst enemy.

“That rabbit has a death wish,” I observe. Ike’s tough-guy persona slips back into place: “Especially the way I drive.”

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