By Peter Lindblad
“I knew Ike the man, not the myth,” says Phil Arnold, Ike’s former music manager. “He was actually a kind-hearted man.”
Whatever his demons, whatever ugliness transpired between Ike and Tina Turner during their tumultuous marriage, there’s no denying that Ike, who died Dec. 13, 2007, at the age of 76, was responsible for some of the leanest, meanest, most thrilling R&B and rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded.
Born in Mississippi, Ike’s father was beaten to death by a group of white men. Music was an escape. He learned boogie-woogie piano from Pinetop Perkins at an early age, and as a teenager, Ike convinced a radio station to give him a DJ slot. In high school, he formed his first band, the Rhythm Kings, and in 1951, they went to Memphis to record at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios. There, they recorded “Rocket 88” as Jackie Brentson & His Delta Cats, a song many consider the first rock ‘n’ roll song ever.
Tough and demanding, Ike would become “according to B.B. King, the best bandleader of all time,” says Arnold. Under Ike’s direction, the Rhythm Kings matured into one of the tightest bands around, giving even James Brown’s Famous Flames a run for their money.
“He had one of the most analytical minds of anybody I’ve ever met,” says Arnold, “and a lot of it for him was trying to motivate other people to succeed. Every musician he was acquainted with will tell you they became better musicians by playing with Ike.”
The Kings’ bad-ass grooves and hot rock ‘n’ roll produced “jaw-dropping stuff,” according to Colin Escott, a music writer who penned the liner notes for Time-Life’s recent three-disc box box set The Ike And Tina Turner Story: 1960-1975. A comprehensive study of their brilliant partnership, the set includes the smoldering swing of “Idolize You,” the horn-blaring joy of “Finger Poppin,’” the riotous covers of “Proud Mary” and “Honky Tonk Women” and the funky “Sexy Ida (Part 1).
Much has been made of Ike’s temper, and his troubled, and reportedly abusive, relationship with Tina, recounted in her 1986 biography and the 1993 movie “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” To the world at large, he was a gun-toting, coke-snorting monster. Arnold saw another side of Ike.
With respect to Tina, Arnold says, “Ike was always proud of Tina. She was his ultimate protege. He never let anybody say a bad thing about Tina in his presence.”
Ike and Tina were married in 1958, two years after they met. At the time, Tina, a powerhouse vocalist, was Annie Mae Bullock. It didn’t take Ike long to realize he had a star on his hands.
After changing her name, she and Ike set the world of R&B on fire — first by cutting “A Fool In Love” for the Sue label, and then with the electrifying live shows of the Ike And Tina Turner Revue.
The group’s tough, gritty soul had a hard edge and it took a while to catch on with white audiences. Still, they scored a number of R&B Top Ten hits, including the slinky, groove workouts “Tra La La La La” and “I Idolize You,” a defiant “Poor Fool” and “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.”
Acceptance outside the R&B community came slowly.
The big break came when Phil Spector worked with Tina on the rolling tidal flow of R&B-powered rock called “River Deep – Mountain High” — a recording Ike had little to do with. The momentum kept building as Ike and Tina were asked to open for the Rolling Stones on a 1969 tour.
Vicious, high-energy covers of “I Want To Take You Higher” and, of course, the Grammy-winning “Proud Mary,” which became their first Top Five single, scored them hits. Meanwhile, Ike’s cocaine habit was spinning out of control, and by 1975, two years after their last hit, “Nutbush City Limits,” Tina had had enough. She walked out on him in the middle of a tour. A year later, they divorced.
“The Kings and he and Tina were the hottest thing in R&B at the time,” says Escott. As a musician, Ike, whether on guitar or piano, played what the song required. His playing was always muscular and strong. “If he wasn’t groundbreaking, he was at least always on top of his game,” says Bas Hartong, who produced the Time-Life box set.
Even near the end, Ike was active. He was working on a hybrid of hip-hop and the blues called blues hop. “He loved the rhythmic style of hip-hop, but he didn’t like the negative lyrics,” says Arnold. On his death bed, Ike, reportedly, with the Kings Of Rhythm, played his favorite gospel songs. Perhaps now he can get some peace.