Ike Turner was most of the most profoundly influential musicians and band leaders in the history of rock’n’roll, and one of the greatest rock’n’roll guitar players of all time.
His story goes like this (ah one, ana two…). He was born Ike Wister Turner in Clarksdale, Mississippi on Nov. 5th, 1931. His dad got lynched in front of his house, giving him a somewhat jaundiced view of life. He grew up hustling around the streets and soon took to playing piano.
He was inspired by local talent like Robert Nighthawk, whom he played piano behind on a local radio show (here’s the great Nighthawk recorded live on Maxwell St. in Chicago in the early sixties doing Dr. Clayton’s “Cheatin’ & Lyin’ Blues” aka “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby”, you can watch the footage above, thanks JD). Soon Ike was leading his own band with Willie Sims (drums), Jesse Knight (bass),Willie Kizert (guitar), Raymond Hill (baritone sax) and Jackie Breston (tenor sax). He dubbed his combo The Kings of Rhythm. The Kings Of Rhythm did not play the blues style known in Mississippi but the latest up to date jump band R&B sounds. Ike took his band to Memphis were he wound up at the fledgling Sun studio whose boss Sam Phillips was recording local talent and leasing the sides to Chess in Chicago and RPM out in L.A. Their first session produced a huge hit for Chess — “Rocket 88” (a hyper reworking of Jimmy Liggins’ “Cadillac Boogie”) which went to #1 R&B and is often called the first rock’n’roll record, as if there could be such a thing. Somewhere between Phillips studio and the Chess pressing plant however the credits were changed and the band was no longer Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm but had been renamed Jackie Breston & his Delta Cats.
Breston, with a #1 hit under his own name briefly went solo (he’s return a few years later and a few dollars poorer) while Ike left Phillips and stuck up a partnership with the Bihari Brothers who ran the RPM/Modern/Meteor family of labels. Ike would record and play on sides by Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Joe Hill Louis, and tons of others, driving around the south with Joe Bihari, recording musicians in juke joints and make shift studios. The U.K. Ace label has issued an incredible CD of some of the more interesting and obscure sides (and out takes) called The Travelin’ Record Man which is well worth buying. Ike also cut his own band for RPM and even had an LP issued (Ike Rocks The Blues on Crown) which culls together the best of his guitar instrumentals from this period (Ike, having switched to guitar after “Rocket 88”, figuring it would be harder to over look him if he was standing up). Here’s one of my favorites from that period: “Bayou Rock” (as it was known on the LP aka “Cubano Getaway” which is what it was called on the 78). The Bihari’s were cheap fucks who didn’t pay much so Ike returned to Sun on several occasions to record sides that Sam Phillips never bothered to release. Some of these are incredible but the world wouldn’t hear them until England’s Charley label started digging through the Sun vaults in the late 70’s. Here’s “I’m Gonna Forget About You” a tune Ike would recut several years later in Chicago for the Cobra label. One can hear his already perfected “piss shiver” (as Roscoe dubbed it) guitar style which involved pulling the whammy bar on his Stratocaster hard enough to nearly yank the bridge off the body. While we’re at it, here’s an oddball tune that was left sitting in Sun’s storage room, it’s Ike and first wife Bonnie Turner duetting on a number called “Down In The Congo“. Memphis soon proved too small for a man of Ike’s ambition and his next stop was St. Louis. In St. Louis Ike cut sides for labels small and smaller, appeared on local TV (where the above clip came from), and
built a sizable audience, especially with white women while appearing in local nightclubs. According to Jimmy Thomas (in a classic interview in Blues Unlimited mag from 1983), the cops would regularly round up Ike and the band and send the white gals back to their parents and husbands. Among the great tunes he recorded while in St. Louis are these two singles for the Stevens label issued under the name of Icey Renrut (Ike Turner spelled sideways), both rockers feature vocalist Jimmy Thomas- “Jack Rabbit” and “Hey Hey“.
By 1956 Ralph Bass signed Ike and his crew to the Federal label, a subsidiary of Cincinnati’s King Records one of the largest and best of the indies, and home to such hit makers as Wynonie Harris, the Delmore Brothers, Moon Mullican, the Midnighters, the Dominoes, Bill Doggett, and later James Brown. Here Ike cut his finest sides, some under the name of vocalist Billy Gayles, others as by Jackie Breston (who’d come home, all was forgiven) and some under Ike’s own moniker. Check out this one: “No Coming Back“, a fairly standard blues ballad until Ike’s solo which sounds like somebody is hitting the guitar with a frying pan. On “Just One More Time” Ike’s guitar intro combines the piss shiver with tremolo for a sound that we have no words to describe (shiverelo?). On Breston’s “Gonna Wait For My Chance” he displays equally brutal guitar technique. Here is “She Makes My Blood Run Cold” where the Kings of Rhythm move into Screamin’ Jay Hawkins territory to great effect. Alas, the Federal years also left Ike hitless and soon he was in Chicago where he cut one side each for the Cobra and it’s sister label Artistic,
the best being “Box Top” on Cobra, a re-make of an earlier Sun recording. The best thing Ike did
while at Cobra was his contribution to Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble“, that’s Ike playing the solo which is usually attributed to Rush. Together they create one musical foul mood (that’s a compliment).
It was in St. Louis that Anna Mae Bullock, who entered the picture as Raymond Hill’s girlfriend became the lead singer of the Kings Of Rhythm, with three Ikettes added to the band Ray-lette style, their first record on Juggy Murray’s Sue label — “A Fool In Love” shot to the top of the R&B charts and Ike re-named Anna Mae Tina Turner and took the sound to the bank.
The story of Ike and Tina Turner has been told many times, in many books. I’m sure Tina didn’t lie about the amount of abuse heaped on her, but our subject today is Ike’s music, and all through Ike and Tina’s recording career Ike kept recording great R&B, some under Jackie Breston’s name like this one on Sue- ” Much Later” from the early sixties, it has all the fire of his fifties recordings. Ike also kept recording killer guitar instrumentals, Sue even issued an LP of ’em called Ike & Tina Turner Present The Kings Of Rhythm— Dance! Here’s some of his wilder guitar workouts from the sixties starting with his theme song “Prancin’“, here’s a great two parter issued only on a Sue 45–” New Breed pt. 1” b/w “New Breed pt. 2“. And let me throw in some highlights from the aforementioned Dance LP– “The Gully“, “Twisteroo“, “Trackdown Twist“, a mind bending take on “Steel Guitar Rag“, the ultra wild “Double Mint“, and as a bonus an un-issued out-take “Twisting The Strings“. Another killer guitar solo from Ike found its way onto my favorite Ikettes’ single– “Camel Walk“, and dig that rhythm section!
Ike last truly incredible moments on wax can be found on the 1974 LP Blue Roots (UA). Recorded at Bolic Sound, the studio/fortress he built in L.A. (Andre Williams put in time at Bolic, even he thinks things had gone beyond excess at that point). Ike re-creates his 50’s style on “Broken Hearted” (a rare vocal from Ike) and leaves us with this mind boggling spoken word piece (also issued on a 45), an homage to Ike’s favorite drug and one of the most amazing sides ever waxed by anyone– “Right On” (when I turned Quine onto this one his jaw literally dropped).
I met Ike a few times. In the early 90’s somebody gave him my home phone number and he had his manager call and ask if I could make him a tape of his old tunes. He had some blues festival gigs booked in Europe that summer and they sent a list of tunes they wanted him to play and he couldn’t remember any of them. I made a nintey minute cassette of the old stuff and we met at his hotel room. Ike was nice enough, he was just out of jail and clean. He was very polite and funny, he spoke with a stutter. When we sat and listened to the tape, the first tune was “Prancin'” which had been his theme song for a good twenty years but he looked at me like he had never heard it before. “That’s pretty good” he said with a grin. I got him to sign some records (his autograph on my copy of Ike Rocks The Blues reads– “What’s love got to do with it not a dam thing” spelled just like that). Later I went to a party thrown in his honor and he made me feel really important by introducing me to everyone as his close friend.
In his last years Ike tried to return to his old blues rockin’ style and although the records weren’t very good, live he could still bend them strings. At least once a night he’d let loose on the guitar and give it the old piss shiver, and when he did I’d get a chill up my spine.
Ike died last December at age 76 from a cocaine overdose. Hell, at age 76 what’s the point of living clean? To save yourself for those really great years from age 90-100? If we had to judge our musical heroes by their personal life we’d have no musical heroes, and beating up your old lady is certainly bad form, I blame it on the coke. It really brings out the inner asshole in people. As a musician however, Ike Turner really was a helluva guy.
The above photo of Ike and me was taken by Bob Gruen, backstage at Tramps, NYC, 1997.