Regal, Fierce & Divine: Tina Turner Roars Into The Rock Hall On Her Own Terms

Tina Turner
Bertrand Guay / AFP / Getty Images
– Tina Turner
photographed March 30, 1987 at Palais Omnisports in Paris
Tina Turner in a chain mail dress… 
Tina Turner in a black leather mini skirt, denim jacket, seam up the back of those legs…
Tina Turner in a white button down shirt, plain Levi’s, a pair of black stilettos…
Tina Turner in a shimmering silver Versace slip with black lace…
Tina Turner in a mesh loin cloth and draped serious-shouldered bodice as Auntie Entity, the ruler of “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome”’s Bartertown…
Tina Turner in a dress that looked like licks of flame, tumbling down and rippling up from Bob Mackie’s brilliant designs for “The Cher Show.”
But more than any other look, there Tina Turner was – in the infant days of MTV, this channel that played something America hadn’t quite adapted to called “music videos” – feral, regal, fierce, divine. Her hair was flying, as she gripped the mic like a tent show revival snake and her eyes seared a hole into the camera.
It was a track from B.E.F.’s Music of Quality and Distinction, Vol. 1, an odd compilation that featured Gary Glitter, Sandie Shaw and Pixie Yates, that sparked the return of a woman who never truly went away.
Produced by Heaven 17, the unlikely inferno, slabs of synth, horns and a throbbing bottom, “Ball of Confusion” captured her essence.
Hips undulating and pivoting like some kind of carnal shakedown, this was obviously the woman who taught Mick Jagger how to dance. But somehow, the 1981 People story profiling the truth about the Ike & Tina Turner façade behind her, Turner was a phoenix rising. Not just rising but burning away every hurt, indignity, raw deal and ugly incident she’d endured singing The Temptations’ culture-indicting “Ball of Confusion.”
She had on the high heels, the double thick lycra the hard rock bands were wearing, a loose zebra striped sequin top that melted into her every move. If she’d played supper clubs to survive after leaving a bad marriage with only the debt and her name, she was undaunted. She would do what she had to do, but she was – absolutely – determined to be a stadium-selling rock star. 

Nutbush’s Own:
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
– Nutbush’s Own:
Tina Turner posing for a portrait in 1964 when she was just 24 years old.
Like Mick. Like Keith. Like Rod. Like Bowie.
Never mind that coming off the chitlin’ circuit or opening shows for the Stones, she’d more than owned the jersey. Tina Turner had something to prove. She knew the essence of rock ‘n’ roll. She understood the heartbeat, the release, the drive that made rock ‘n’ roll. She’d created Tina Turner out of little Anna Mae Bullock from Nutbush, Tenn. (pop. 259) – and she was determined at 40 years old to become the goddess warrior of rock.
When Roger Davies met Turner on Olivia Newton John’s “Hollywood Nights,” an ABC special to serve as lead-in to the 1980 Academy Awards, he recognized the power of the R&B legend. When she asked him to come see her at the Fairmont Hotel, seeking help from the young Australian manager, he wasn’t sure what to think. 
It was a late-’70s premium hotel showroom. Laughing now, Davies remembers, “The first show was the dinner show, so she’d be singing ‘Disco Inferno,’ but people were eating their baked potatoes. It was what it was, and Tina was fabulous regardless.
“But the late show was something else. People were on the tables, dancing. It was electrifying, and I could see the control she had over people. She knew how to connect to people. She was doing a series of these shows to make ends meet, but what struck me was it didn’t matter. If it was 100 or 10,000, she was there to entertain them. Full stop.”
Being from Australia, Davies wasn’t as aware of the story, but he knew talent. He also knew she was a 40-year-old woman. Knowing she’d need to keep doing corporate gigs and showrooms to make ends meet, a younger, more rocking band was hired. Making the rounds of labels, being rejected everywhere, Davies was determined. That she wanted to rock was the least of his problems. Until British Electric Foundation/Heaven 17 called to draft Turner for “Ball of Confusion.”
“They had no budget,” Davies explains. “She literally went on her own. She didn’t really know who they were. I remember her saying, ‘They just type into these TV screens. There are no musicians… But it comes out and sounds amazing.’ I told them, ‘When we get our deal, we’re going to come back.’”
Between the barebones clip and the excitement the track was generating, the decision was made. Davies got enough money for a decent demo. Though the United Kingdom was half a world away, he returned to the scene of the crime. Drafting Heaven 17 to produce more tracks, their remake of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” hit No. 6 in England and started climbing the American charts via import records and dance play.
From Dinner Theater To The Stars:
Courtesy Roger Davies Worldwide Music
– From Dinner Theater To The Stars:
Manager Roger Davies and Tina Turner first met during the making of a 1980 TV special for Olivia Newton-John, whom Davies also manages.
“There was lots of love for Tina in England, a very different feeling. It took off so fast, we almost couldn’t keep up,” Davies marvels. “We had 30 regional shows to support ‘Let’s Stay Together,’ but Capitol’s John Carter came in. He said, ‘Go make the record, and we’ll pay the bills.’”
In the torrent, Davies could finally exhale. “I’d been collecting songs for so long, because Tina would only sing songs she believed in. Virtually, it took two weeks. We’d go from one studio to another, from producer to producer. The whole thing had a great energy to it.” 
It didn’t hurt Turner had a fan club of rock stars unlike anyone. As an influence and a presence, the muscular vocalist had left her mark. “She was at the Venue in London, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton showed up. A lot of people really helped us: Rod Stewart, the Stones. Mark Knopfler brought us ‘Private Dancer.’ Rupert Hine writing ‘I Might Have Been Queen’ for her. The Beatles and the Stones were all influenced by R&B and the blues…” 
One song in particular – “What’s Love Got To Do With It” – became a battleground for the young manager, who heard a hit, and Turner, who no doubt was left cold by squeaky clean pop group Bucks Fizz’s rendition. Asking her to just try it, and racing to complete the album, Turner and Britten went into the studio, and emerged with her first Billboard Top 10 since the ‘70s and a multiple- week No. 1.
“We were at the Tower Records in New York when we got the charts saying ‘What’s Love’ was No. 1,” Davies recalls. “We knew then it was going to happen. How big? We couldn’t know, but we knew we’d turned the corner. We had to keep doing the corporate shows, the Fairmounts and Vegas plays that allowed us to go into The Ritz and the rock rooms,” he continues. “While ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’ was a smash, again, it happened so fast, she was still doing corporate gigs for McDonald’s, because we had to pay the bills.
“And even then, she was always working, always thinking. Tina used to carry around fashion magazines; she was always pulling pages and working on her look. She knew what she wanted to be – whether it was the Buddhism or something else – she said, ‘I want to fill stadiums. I want to play stadiums like Mick and Keith and Rod.’”
Acknowledging that Turner’s work ethic is unparalleled, there is also the matter of Turner’s moxie and ability to transcend the moment. Following “Let’s Stay Together” with “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” the world saw a boss bitch – pragmatic and real – walking in her black leather mini skirt and denim jacket. Utterly self-possessed, she was claiming her space in the world, dealing with life on its terms.
Whether a woman was 15 or 65, this was a song and a persona to aspire to. Attainable, real, Turner tapped into every unrealized desire of the double X set – and created a post-feminism reality that gave women their power back. 

The Rock Queen:
Pete Still / Redferns
– The Rock Queen:
Tina Turner performing at Wembley Arena during her “Private Dancer Tour” on March 14th, 1985 in London.
Private Dancer was a masterclass in owning your power. The Holly Knight/Mike Chapman/Nicky Chin “Better Be Good To Me” threw down the gauntlet of how she would be treated, which was echoed in Britten’s “Show Some Respect” and Rupert Hine’s set opening “I Might’ve Been Queen.” Even the sex worker in Knopfler’s “Private Dancer” offers a clear-eyed transactional truth.
That alone for a 45-year-old woman would’ve been game-changing. But Turner manifests the future she desires by recording an austerely haunted take on Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” Bowie’s surging “1984,” Paul Brady’s pummeling “Steel Claw” and a tumble of piano chords soul witness on the Beatles’ “Help.”
With six nominations at the 1985 Grammys, Turner would take home four. Not only winning the Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for “Better Be Good To Me,” she took home Record, Song and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance of the Year for “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”
Suddenly, Tina Turner – with a 177-date world tour – wasn’t just back in business, she was on fire. As Davies says, “She has such a powerful, passionate voice. I don’t know of other people who sing like her. There really isn’t…
“I’d always be amazed, especially the way (Private Dancer) came together, when she came to the studio,” says her manager. “She’d listen to producers, but she always had an idea of how she wanted to sing the songs. She’d spend time with them; she knew exactly how she wanted to perform them.”
She also knew exactly how she wanted to present herself in concert. Though it took a bit for the really high-tech production to catch up, she was pressing the limits of what she could do from the very beginning of her headlining emergence.
“I loved getting into those theatrical productions,” Davies concedes. “That’s her element, and she was fearless: the scarier, the better. When it’s on, the way she can work an audience is like no other. She’s truly an electrifying performer.”
She’s also someone who finds great joy in connecting with audiences. Having arrived at a place where as an adult woman, she could sing songs that felt true to who she was, Turner continued making strong woman albums and touring the world.
She detoured for a moment to make her “Mad Max: Beyond The Thunderdome” film, playing Aunty Entity, a relentless queen. She gave the world “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” the film’s theme, to hold fans over.
Break Every Rule – buoyed by “Typical Male,” which topped out at No. 2 – came in 1986, continuing her strong woman, rock hard bonafides. 
Clapton played guitar, Steve Winwood keyboards, Phil Collins played drums and Bryan Adams wrote and produced “Back Where You Started,” while Bowie’s “Girls” and Knopfler’s “Overnight Sensation” rounded out the platinum-plus follow-up.
Tina Live In Europe was culled from the tour to support Rule. A career-spanning 28 songs, it pulled from her Revue days, drawing the blues, ‘60s dance favorites, her own “Nutbush City Limits.” 
But what really stands out was Turner not just holding her own with Bowie, Clapton, and Robert Cray, but besting the men with her tempest of an earthy alto. Somehow without even a flicker of wondering, Tina Turner was as big – if not bigger – a name as anyone in rock ‘n’ roll. 
She had done it singing songs that resonated with grown women, as well as with the LGBTQ community who saw her soul survival as a reflection of their own journey, young people coming into their own and people who valued the intersection point of soul and rock ‘n’ roll.
She closed out the decade with Foreign Affair, which opened with a sweat-flecked take on Tony Joe White’s “Steamy Windows” that raised the sexual stakes for the woman who’d represented sex on the half-shell since she first shimmied across a stage in Ike Turner’s Review. But now, Tina Turner was her own woman, and the conquests were mutual pleasure where the female had the throttle.
Beyond the four Tony Joe White songs (including “Undercover Agent for the Blues”), there was the elevating take on Mike Chapman and Holly Knight’s “The Best,” which Turner co-produced. If ever a song embodied her realm and reality, that was the song that set the standard.
In less than half a decade, Tina Turner showed the world that not only could a grown woman rock, she could speak to deeper – and far more necessary – realms of humanity than the genre normally did. Without eschewing unfiltered desire, she leveled up the game without homogenizing.
As she told The Chicago Tribune in 1985 about the notion of “a comeback” on the brink of her ”Mad Max” debut, “I thought I never left – I just went into a different medium.”
Clear-eyed focus may well have been Turner’s secret weapon. 
She never gave up, and she never lost sight of her goals. Even 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It, which served as a reprise of her supper club repertoire, had a spark that was undeniable. 
The Rocker, The Roller, The Out-Of-Controller:
Warner Brothers / Getty Images
– The Rocker, The Roller, The Out-Of-Controller:
Tina Turner as Aunty Entity in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” 1985.
When it’s a woman who can menace and throw down the rejoinder “Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter” giving John Waite’s misdirected “Missing You” a tender resolve that turns bitterness to a kinder truth about love that’s gone.
Most likely Tina Turner, whose life became the Angela Bassett Oscar-nominated film called “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” as well as a Tony-winning Broadway show “I, Tina” and several New York Times Bestsellers, wasn’t worrying about getting into the Rock Hall. She knew what she wanted to do, and that’s what she did. 
The legendary concert tours. The iconic album projects. The persona that’s as big as the Stones, Bowie or Sir Paul McCartney. A devoted Buddhist, whose chanting recordings and videos are almost as popular as her music, Turner arrived at a place where the joy of making music gave as much joy to those who heard it.
In 1986 as superstardom was solidified, Turner gave an interview to Ebony, explaining the secret to her success. Simply put, “If you are unhappy with anything … whatever is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you’ll find that when you’re free, your true creativity, your true self, comes out.