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The Story Behind the Song "What's Love Got To Do With It" by Tina Turner

Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.

Tina on stage February 21, 1985

Tina on stage February 21, 1985

Released as a single on May 1, 1984, "What's Love Got To Do With It" soon reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for three weeks. The song grabbed Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 1985 Grammy Awards. Yet when Turner first heard the song, she hated it.

Who Is Tina Turner?

Born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939 to poor sharecroppers, her early years were spent picking cotton in the fields around Nutbush, Tennessee. Her childhood home was not a happy one, and her mother Zelma suffered abuse at the hands of her husband Floyd. Anna Mae and her two older sisters were separated when their parents moved to Knoxville, with Anna Mae being sent to live with her strict paternal grandparents in Nutbush. Zelma ultimately escaped her abusive husband and wound up in St. Louis, Missouri.

The church choir figured prominently in young Anna Mae's life, and Ann, as her family called her, continued to sing in the choir when she joined her mother in St. Louis when she was 16. It was in a nightclub called Club Manhattan in St. Louis that she first met Ike Turner, who led the Kings Of Rhythm, a locally popular R&B band. Ann was drawn to Ike's music and got up the nerve to ask if she could sing with his band. When he didn't take her up on her offer right away, she took matters into her own hands.

On a fateful night in 1957, Ann grabbed an open microphone during an intermission and began belting out the B.B. King song, "You Know I Love You," after which she became the de facto vocalist for the Kings Of Rhythm. No fool at all when it came to seizing opportunity, Ike created the duo Ike & Tina Turner in 1960 after the success of Ann's first recording, "A Fool In Love." By giving her his surname, and taking out a trademark on the name Tina Turner, Ike figured that if she ever left him, all he needed to do was to replace the Tina in Ike & Tina. They were married in 1962.

Grocery store in Nutbush, Tennessee

Grocery store in Nutbush, Tennessee

Ike and Tina released a number of singles that achieved modest success on the R&B chart. However, they hit paydirt when "It's Gonna Work Out Fine" was nominated for a Grammy in 1962. The duo toured constantly as the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, featuring the Kings Of Rhythm, and a backup vocal trio called The Ikettes.

They caught the attention of Phil Spector, and in 1966 they recorded the single "River Deep – Mountain High" on his label. The song didn't do particularly well in the U.S., but it was a smash in Europe, leading to Ike & Tina opening for the Rolling Stones on their fall 1966 tour of the UK. They opened for the Stones again on their 1969 U.S. tour, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and also The Andy Williams Show. A switch to a more rock-oriented sound led to their biggest hit ever, 1971's cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary"

But, all was not well behind the scenes. Their tumultuous relationship has been well documented in books and the 1993 movie, What's Love Got To Do With It. Tina suffered years of abuse at Ike's hands, even attempting suicide when she felt like there was no other way out. In July 1976, while they were in Dallas, Tina made a dash for it, literally running across a highway to escape Ike, later hiding at a friend's place. They were divorced in 1978.

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Photo of Private Dancer album.

Photo of Private Dancer album.

Tina Turner's Solo Career

Tina Turner hit the road as a solo act, turning up on various American TV shows and touring in support of her albums. When she was dropped by the United Artists label due to slow record sales, things looked pretty bleak. But her luck was about to change. Old friends the Rolling Stones invited her to join their 1981 tour, and her cover of a Temptations song in 1982 became a dance club hit in Europe. In 1983, her manager Roger Davies landed her a deal with Capitol Records and in November of that year, Turner released a cover of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." The success of that song led Capitol to approve a full album, Private Dancer.

Tina Records "What's Love Got To Do With It"

As noted earlier, Turner hated this song when she first heard it. She said it was an "anti-love song." And since she was the "Queen of Rock 'n' Roll," she didn't do pop songs. But Roger Davies thought the song had potential, and he arranged a meeting between Turner and one of the song's writers, Terry Britten, to see if they could make some changes that would help change her mind. Terry assured her that if she didn't like it after trying it out, they wouldn't use it. To help Turner get her head around the song, Britten suggested that the song was a jog. They both stood there in the studio and jogged. The jogging rhythm helped Turner find a way to approach the song, and once she applied her powerful voice to it, it all came together.

Turner was arguably the genuine article, someone who had the vocal sound that white rock vocalists from Mick Jagger to Janis Joplin to Robert Plant to John Fogerty were trying to achieve. She had the wrenching strain, the effortless rasp, the wails, volume, and passion, as well as the ability to somehow sound both hot and cool.

— Maureen Mahon in "Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll."

Where Is Tina Turner Now?

Turner formally retired in 2009 after her 50th Anniversary tour. Since that time, she has been plagued by ill health. In 2013 she suffered a stroke and in 2016 she was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and kidney failure. When her kidneys began to fail, she contemplated assisted suicide, which is legal in her Switzerland home. Fortunately, her current husband Erwin was able to donate one of his kidneys and Tina underwent a transplant in 2017.

In 2018, Turner published My Love Story, her second memoir). If you read only one autobiography, let this be the one. I thought it would just be a complete retelling of things I had read before, but there is so much new material in here. It truly is a love story.

She now lives quietly with Erwin in Zurich in a home they call Chateau Algonquin. The emotional 2021 documentary Tina was a farewell from the singer to her fans.

Five Fun Facts

  1. "What's Love Got To Do With It" was turned down by both British singer Sir Cliff Richard and America disco queen, Donna Summer.
  2. The diminutive diva is only 5'4'' tall. Her trademark stiletto heels makes her legs seem way longer than they actually are.
  3. Ike chose the name “Tina” based in part on the comic book character "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle."
  4. Tina Turner has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice. The first time was in 1991 as part of Ike & Tina Turner and again in 2021 as a solo artist.
  5. Tina: The Tina Turner Musical officially opened on Broadway on November 7, 2019. It was subsequently nominated for a total of 12 Tony Awards. The show was paused in March 2020 due to COVID-19, but performances resumed in October 2021. A North American tour has been announced for Fall 2022.

© 2022 Kaili Bisson

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