Ike Turner, the blues musician who laid a cornerstone in rock ‘n’ roll but whose abusive and criminal behavior overshadowed his musical accomplishments, died Wednesday at his San Marcos, Calif., home outside San Diego. He was 76.
His manager, Scott M. Hanover of Thrill Entertainment Group, confirmed his death. No cause was given.
Turner had spent much of the past decade working on the rehabilitation of his image in the wake of the film adaptation of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” biography, which presented him as a drug-crazed demon and wife-beater. Extensive touring, participation in events recognizing his contributions to blues and rock ‘n’ roll and, earlier this year, a Grammy award had begun to revert focus back to his musicianship.
“You can go ask Snoop Dogg or Eminem, you can ask the Rolling Stones or (Eric) Clapton, or you can ask anybody — anybody, they all know my contribution to music, but it hasn’t been in print about what I’ve done or what I’ve contributed until now,” he told the Associated Press in 2001.
His career began at the age of 11 in the late 1940s, backing Sony Boy Williamson on piano. He formed, in high school, the Kings of Rhythm and backed Jackie Brenston on “Rocket 88,” often considered the first rock ‘n’ roll record. A producer, songwriter and session pianist and guitarist, Turner kept his name off recordings until 1960, when he formed the Ike & Tina Turner Revue with his wife, the former Anna Mae Bullock.
He was 19 when he wrote “Rocket 88” specifically for a recording session for Sam Phillips at his Sun Studios in Memphis. B.B. King introduced Turner to Phillips, but Turner did not have a song penned. He got the idea for the tune while driving in the car — an Oldsmobile Rocket 88 — with the band’s gear piled inside and on top of the vehicle. The track was recorded in March 1951, but Chess Records issued the single with the wrong label credit, giving it to Brenston, the lead singer, and the Delta Cats.
Born Izear Luster Turner and raised in Clarksdale, Miss., Turner worked the black clubs of West Memphis, Tenn., until he moved to East St. Louis, Ill., in the mid-1950s. In Memphis he recorded with King, Elmore James, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Milton; he was also a talent scout for labels on the West Coast.
Turner often talked about the number of rock ‘n’ rollers who learned from him, saying that Elvis Presley had sat next to the piano in those Memphis clubs, that Janis Joplin sought him out for vocal coaching and that the Rolling Stones based their stage act on Ike & Tina. One verifiable fact: Turner was one of Jimi Hendrix’s first musical employers.
In St. Louis, his Kings of Rhythm became a popular club act. Bullock and her sister were regulars at one of the clubs he played, and she had asked whether she could sing with the band. Tired of never being asked to take the stage, she grabbed a microphone that had been offered to her sister and started singing. Soon she was in the band. In 1956, pregnant with the saxophonist’s child, she moved in with Ike. They were married in 1958.
At a session in 1960, with her name changed to Tina, Bullock stepped in for a singer who had failed to appear. They recorded “A Fool in Love,” which would hit No. 2 on the R&B singles chart and launch the duo’s career; Ike & Tina had 17 top 40 R&B hit singles between 1960 and 1975.
With a hit single, Turner created an expanded Ike & Tina Revue with nine musicians, three scantily clad female singers named the Ikettes and Tina as the frenetic sexually charged frontwoman. They became one of the most popular live soul acts, especially in the U.K.
During a show at a Los Angeles club, producer Phil Spector became enamored with Tina and thought he had a perfect song for her. Ike & Tina’s recording career — mostly singles — had stalled by then, and the chance to record with a man who had a golden touch seemed ideal. Spector paid Ike $20,000 to put Tina under a production deal to record “River Deep Mountain High”; the caveat was that Ike would not be allowed in the studio.
The backing track alone cost $22,000 to produce, and Spector hailed the single as his masterpiece. It hit No. 3 in England, but in the U.S. it bombed so badly — No. 88 on the pop chart — that Spector shut down his Philles label and did not make another record for three years.
Ike & Tina continued to record for a variety of labels, adding more covers to their repertoire and performing for rock rather than R&B auds. They supported the Rolling Stones on their 1969 tour and in 1970 appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Andy Williams Show.” In March 1971, they hit their chart high point with John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary,” reaching No. 5 R&B/No. 4 pop.
After Tina left him in 1974, Ike Turner went into semi-retirement, staying close to his Inglewood, Calif., home and studio, where he rigged phone lines to make long distance calls without paying, a crime for which he would later be charged. He made a couple of solo albums before a fire destroyed his studio in 1982.
In 1986, “I, Tina” was published. In it Ike was portrayed as a cocaine addict, alcoholic and violent man who subjected Tina to near-constant abuse during their 18-year marriage. Turner was convicted in 1989 on drug charges and sentenced to four years in prison, serving 17 months. He was locked up when he and Tina were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
Turner signed away all of his rights to the filmmakers turning Tina’s autobiography into the 1993 film “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Upset with the depiction, Turner began attempting to clear his name about a decade ago. His biography “Takin’ Back My Name” was published in 1999 but suffered from distribution problems that Turner thought were caused by a connection between the publisher and Virgin Records, which issued Tina’s albums.
Turner returned to music by touring with Joe Louis Walker before recording “Here and Now” in 2001 and receiving a year later the W.C. Handy Award for comeback album of the year.
He participated in celebrations that marked Memphis musical history and the history of the blues. A 2001 duet between Turner and Chicago blues legend Pinetop Perkins was part of Martin Scorsese’s series of blues films; earlier this year he won his second Grammy, this time for traditional blues album. His first was for R&B vocal performance for “Proud Mary.” The Recording Academy presented him with a Heroes Award in 2004.
He is survived by four children from four marriages.