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The legacy of Tina Turner, the 'Queen of Rock 'n' Roll'


IKE AND TINA TURNER: (Singing) Rolling, rolling on the river.

Listen to the story.


Here's a story for you. Tina Turner, one of America's greatest rock 'n' roll stars, said she was even bigger in Europe than the U.S. during the height of her superstardom. Here's the icon herself in a 1997 interview with Larry King.


TINA TURNER: Basically, Europe has been very supportive of my music.

LARRY KING: More than America?

TURNER: Yes. Yes, hugely.

KING: Hugely more. That's - you're a major star here. You're a superstar in America.

TURNER: Not as big as Madonna. I'm as big as Madonna in Europe. I'm as big as - in some places, as the Rolling Stones.

DEGGANS: Turner would find her final resting place in Europe - Switzerland - at the age of 83. And Switzerland, with its reputation for peace and neutrality, feels like a perfect fit for a woman who often had to fight against abuse and exploitation to build the peaceful life she wanted. That's a fight you can hear in her songs of love...


TURNER: (Singing) Telling you, I think it's gonna work out fine. Ooh, I can feel it's gonna - I feel it's gonna work out.

DEGGANS: ...And in songs of electrifying fervor.


TURNER: (Singing) I'm the Gypsy. I'm the Acid Queen. Pay me before I start...

DEGGANS: Turner filled four memoirs with stories of her struggle. She inspired an Oscar-nominated film and most recently was the subject of the 2021 HBO documentary simply titled "Tina." Its directors, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, spoke with NPR about doing justice to her story.


DAN LINDSAY: I think there is a - just an inherent contradiction or paradox or complication that we were interested in in the beginning. And it's this idea that Tina's story as a survivor can be very powerful for people and for - especially for other survivors, right? But the thing that we, I think, often fail to realize is - or maybe we assume because Tina has this, seemingly, strength and resilience that she, herself, is somehow superhuman. And I think what we wanted to try to show in the film is that she is human like everyone else.

DEGGANS: But as T.J. Martin says, what she could do with music, what she could do with that voice, made her unlike anyone else.


T J MARTIN: She says herself, you know, it was a gift. She sang in choir, but she never actually had, like, actual vocal training. Same thing with dance. She never had dance training. And yet here she is. It - she just - as she'll say, it's just once the music plays, it just - something comes natural to her.

DEGGANS: There's never been anyone quite like Tina Turner. Today we want to look back on her tumultuous and triumphant career, and also how a performer lauded as the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll may still be underappreciated.


TURNER: (Singing) You're simply the best, better than all the rest...

DEGGANS: Tina Turner's star power was always immediate and captivating. Armed with a hard-charging stage presence, she had dance moves and choreography that inspired everyone from Mick Jagger to Beyonce. Her eye for stagecraft led to eye-popping costumes and a skintight backing band. And her voice - bold as a Mack truck, steeped in gospel, R&B and rock shadings - made formulaic pop songs sound like classics and brought added power to old favorites, like her take on Anne Peebles' "I Can't Stand The Rain."


TURNER: (Singing) Yeah. I know you got some sweet memories. But there's one sound that I just can't stand. I can't stand the rain.

DEGGANS: Beyond her performing skills, Turner had a life story that inspired millions and made her a legend. She survived abuse from her first husband, bandleader Ike Turner, divorced him and then built a successful solo career, which dwarfed her earlier work. It was a history that spawned several bestselling books, a musical, and an Oscar-nominated film. Nineteen ninety-three's "What's Love Got To Do With It?" featured Angela Bassett as Turner, including a scene where she left Ike, running battered and bruised to a hotel.


ANGELA BASSETT: (As Tina Turner) I'm Tina Turner. My husband and I just had a fight. I have 36 cents on a Mobil card. But if you would give me a room, I swear I will pay you back.

DEGGANS: Turner was celebrated for speaking up about abuse at a time when few people did. Still, the singer often said recounting her past abuse was traumatic. She'd hoped to end discussion when she talked about it in her 1986 memoir, "I, Tina." Turner even made that point at a press conference, as shown in this clip from the 2021 HBO documentary "Tina."


TURNER: I'm not so thrilled about thinking about the past. The story was actually written so that I would no longer have to discuss the issue. I don't love that it's always talked about, you see.

DEGGANS: Born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939, Turner was raised in the tiny town of Nutbush, Tenn., before moving to Saint Louis. That's where she met Ike Turner and eventually began singing with his band. Ike wrote the song "A Fool In Love" for a different singer. But when she sang it in 1960, it became a rare crossover hit, scoring on Black-focused R&B and white-centered pop music charts.


TURNER: (Singing) You're just a fool. You know you're in love. What you say? You've got to face it to live in this world. Yeah. You take the good along with the bad. (Vocalizing).

DEGGANS: Even as their musical partnership succeeded, Ike Turner became controlling and abusive. He picked the stage name Tina Turner for the singer without her knowledge. She found out when she saw the cover of "A Fool In Love" single, and he remained paranoid she would leave him. She talked about those days with CBS anchor Gayle King in 2013.


TURNER: He was cruel because he depended on me. He didn't like that he had to depend on me. And I didn't want to start a fight because it was always a black eye, a broken nose, a busted lip.

DEGGANS: Tina Turner divorced Ike in 1978. Playing small shows in casinos, Turner initially resisted her manager's suggestion that she record a song she hated.


TURNER: (Singing) What's love got to do, got to do with it? What's love but a secondhand emotion? What's love...

DEGGANS: That single, released in 1984, became her first No. 1 hit and sparked a career revival that led to Grammy awards, massive concert tours, and a role opposite Mel Gibson in 1985's "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," playing an iron-fisted ruler, rebuilding a town after an apocalypse.


TURNER: (As Aunty Entity) All this I built. Where there was desert, now there's a town. Where there was robbery, there's trade. Where there was despair, now there's hope - civilization. I'll do anything to protect it.

DEGGANS: She was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice, in 1991 with Ike Turner and in 2021 as a solo artist. She retired from performing in 2009 and faced a series of health challenges in her later years, including a stroke, intestinal cancer and kidney failure, treated by a kidney donated from her second husband and partner of more than 30 years, Erwin Bach. Through it all, Turner remained a symbol of talent triumphing over adversity, becoming widely celebrated as the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll.


TURNER: (Singing) Oh, you better be good to me. That's how it's got to be now.

DEGGANS: But is it possible that the artist known as the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll was somehow still underrated? That's what the host of NPR's It's Been A Minute, Brittany Luse, put forward in a conversation with Juana Summers.


JUANA SUMMERS: Brittany, I hope you can just start, if you can, by explaining how someone that the world knows as the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll did not get the due that she deserved.

BRITTANY LUSE: I mean, look, this is the thing. I'm just taking a cue from Tina. Tina said famously in a late '90s interview with Mike Wallace from CBS when he asked her if she felt like she deserved all this, all this meaning her beautiful life full of luxury, full of beloved fans and sold-out tours, she said, I think I deserve more. I deserve more. And I 100% agree. Tina Turner is an architect of rock 'n' roll, and I'm just not sure she's seen that way. You know, I think for many people, when they close their eyes and they think of a rock star, they picture a rock star, they picture someone like Mick Jagger. But Mick Jagger learned how to dance, learned how to perform standing in the wings, watching Tina Turner when they toured together in the 1960s. Tina Turner essentially taught Mick Jagger how to be Mick Jagger. And I just feel like despite all of the accolades, I don't know if she really received in her lifetime the queen-of-rock-'n'-roll treatment as the moniker so goes.

SUMMERS: So I think we can all agree that there are a lot of people who did not fully appreciate Tina Turner for who she was. But you point out that there is one person who really does get it right, and that is Oprah Winfrey. I just want to listen for a second to one of the ways that she talked about Tina Turner.


OPRAH WINFREY: We are so in love with Tina. We are in love with Tina. She is our Goddess of Rock 'n' Roll, Tina is.


SUMMERS: Not a queen, a goddess. Say more, Brittany.

LUSE: Ooh, a goddess. Oprah's 150% right. Oprah Winfrey is, you know, larger than life. And she has been for decades. She doesn't even need to use her last name. We all know Oprah as just, you know, a complete sentence. But the way we act when we see Oprah is the way Oprah reacts when she sees Tina Turner. And I love that. I love that somebody as accomplished and as known and as famous and is just huge as Oprah is understands the power of Tina Turner and also knew well enough to call her a goddess.

There are so many beautiful moments of Oprah and Tina together on various Oprah shows and in Oprah interviews over the years. Oprah invited Tina Turner to her Legends Ball back in 2005, the incredible weekend she hosted at her home for so many, you know, Black woman trailblazers. And, you know, Oprah, I think, is somebody who absolutely showed Tina the utmost respect throughout her life and really not just championed her story, but championed her artistry.

I think of one story in particular. I think Oprah in some ways wanted to be Tina Turner. For an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," she got a wig, a Tina wig, made so that they could kind of match. She wore it in that episode. She continued wearing it, though, after that, in many other episodes, started wearing it on the weekends, start wearing it to bed until eventually Stedman told her, hate to break it to you, but you're never going to be Tina Turner. But to me, that sort of breathless fandom is the only way to regard the Goddess of Rock 'n' Roll like Tina.

SUMMERS: OK. So we just heard Oprah talking about Tina Turner's "Wildest Dreams" tour. But I mean, she was such a performer.


TURNER: (Singing) You got to be mine.

MICK JAGGER: (Singing) 'Cause you're so fine.

TURNER: (Singing) I like your style.

JAGGER: (Singing) It makes me wild.


SUMMERS: I mean, this is Tina Turner on the Live Aid stage in 1985, and she was just electric. But, Brittany, I understand that when you think about Tina's greatest performance, you've got a different answer.

LUSE: Yes. I think many people think of Tina only as a stage performer, which - I mean, obviously she was one of the best to ever do it, but she also was electrifying on film. I'm thinking of the 1975 movie based on the album "The Who's Tommy," where she plays this character the Acid Queen.


TURNER: (As Acid Queen, singing) I'm the Gypsy, the Acid Queen. Pay before we start. I'm the Gypsy. I'm guaranteed to tear your soul apart.


LUSE: The Acid Queen has this long solo in the middle of the film. I mean, Tina's changing costumes. She's belting. She's shaking and quaking with her whole body. She's wearing these tall - I mean, maybe six-, seven-inch-tall, like, lipstick-red platform heels. And she's giving it her all. I mean, this is a film - you got Roger Daltrey in every scene. You've got Elton John, you know, in one of the songs, you know, also performing in this film at one of the peaks of his fame in the mid-'70s. But in a film full of rock stars, Tina, to me, stands out as the true supernova.

SUMMERS: I mean, look, there is no question that Tina is talented and powerful and was a multi-genre force across music. But one thing I find really interesting is that I understand that you didn't know much of Tina Turner's backstory when you became a fan. When you first encountered her, you met her as this powerful and successful performer, period. You only learned of her backstory, including the years of abuse that she suffered at the hands of Ike Turner, her ex-husband, later. Do you think that altered the lens through which you viewed her?

LUSE: I absolutely think that that shaped my understanding of her. When I first got to know Tina, I saw her as a woman who had come - already on the other side. She was one of the biggest stars in the world to me. And I think I kind of assumed that things were always that way for her. As I got older and I, you know, read her memoirs and also, like many people, watched the Tina documentary that came out on HBO a couple of years ago. I really came to understand not just what she survived, but how she continued to advocate for herself, hold space for herself and maintain her peace even, you know, years after she had escaped her first marriage, you know, understanding just how common what she survived is, how common intimate partner violence and domestic abuse are. Her story has really just deepened my appreciation for her, not just as an artist, but as a woman, as a human being.


TURNER: (Singing) Oh. What's love got to do, got to do with it? What's love…

DEGGANS: That was It's Been A Minute's Brittany Luse speaking with Juana Summers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.