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December 4, 2005

Proud Tina: At 66, Turner's Rolling On a River of Hard-Earned Success

By Jacqueline Trescott

Tina Turner may have had her last strut. She may have belted her last heartbreaker, shaken her last shake, electrified her last arena. Tina Turner has no plans to come back. Why would she? She's 66, you know. She has done it all. Life is peaceful now.

But if you talk to Turner, one of the greatest women in the history of rock-and-roll, you will find that (yes!) she still thinks about it. Now and then.She says, for example, that if she tours again, she will do it before she turns 70. Better news: She says that in London she has been working out with her dancers."So I am keeping up with the steps," she says. Tina in London She won't say much more.But she knows the unmistakable voice will be ready, requiring only minimal upkeep."I don't catch colds. I worry about my health," says Turner. "But you know country people, we have been yelling and singing all our lives."So, maybe . . . * * *

The artist, one of five honored tonight at the Kennedy Center, has given us Tina Turner twice. Deliciously twice.The band was hard-driving, bringing the crowd around the amusement park bandstand to its feet, with a small woman putting out more pre-aerobics energy than anyone ever had seen. The song was "A Fool in Love." The year was 1960. The long hair flew, the legs skimmed across the stage, the voice was cellar-deep.Right beside her was Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm, a brassy, bluesy, relentless act. They electrified their audiences. In 1971 they put out what would became an anthem, "Proud Mary."

But by 1976, years of abuse had forced Tina to leave Ike. We thought she had left us, too.

In the 1980s, she came back with songs that became the standards of the New Tina. "What's Love Got to Do With It" and "Private Dancer" were 1984's best. In this phase Turner led us to huge stadiums and arenas, creating rock-and-roll extravaganzas with towering, three-story sets, giant video screens with scenes of her public life, explosions of light and another relentless band.Turner was front and center, the hair shorter, blonder and with a life of its own. She still shimmied, skipping down a mechanical runway shaped like a stark-white claw that moved above the arena floor. The performance drove the fans delirious. "I Want to Take You Higher," a holdover from the first phase, was still there, pumping tremendous energy.With Turner's rebirth, her fans found not only a singer who hadn't lost her rawness but also someone who re-created herself, someone with a triumph people could share, someone who showed that heading toward your fifties and sixties wasn't bad. When the New Tina, the "Private Dancer" Tina, erupted, she was 45. Some folks her age were considering hip replacement; she was sliding across the stage in her four-inch stilettos. Her legs became commodities themselves.Turner, traveling in London one recent Saturday, talked about her career by phone.

The first phase, she says, was marked by an acceptance she didn't expect from the music world. That's one of the good memories. "Actually, coming from the South and becoming a star" remains a highlight, she recalls. "Actually, recording professionally, even my first airplane flight. That was quite exciting, because a Tennessee girl never thought about flying. Just going to New York!"

Few performers can match her success."Yes, the career went quite well," she says, with a little hesitation.Where does she fit among the legends of rock-and-roll?"We were among the stars of the time. It was a good time musically and we stood and performed with the best. . . . I did have more recognition once I was on my own. The second phase was more rewarding. I got my dream of packing the stadium. To stand there and see all these people, I didn't need any more."But can she be convinced that leaving Phase 3 -- living in Switzerland and the South of France with her partner of 18 years, Erwin Bach -- and performing again would be greatly appreciated?

"I live a life. I don't have any stress; it is most peaceful," she says. "The fans are always coming up to me and saying: 'You have to perform some more. You look good!' I know. Oh, I think they are probably saying that to me for conversation. But one lady came up to me and said you have to do it some more because I never saw you in person. It means that I left something there."She has written an autobiography, "I, Tina," and inspired a screen biography, "What's Love Got to Do With It," a bold, intense movie with Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne -- so the outline of her life is widely known.

Turner was born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939 in a small Tennessee town, the daughter of sharecroppers. She picked her share of cotton. The boundaries of that life are immortalized in a song she always performs: "Nutbush City Limits."When she was a teenager, she moved to St. Louis to live with relatives. When she was only 17, she was discovered by Ike Turner and he gave her her stage name. They toured nonstop, with Tina becoming more and more the star.Her style was greatly influenced by men. "Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles. Also Etta James and Aretha Franklin," she says. "Those were the times of the best music."She found the approval she had been seeking onstage with Ike. "I was so happy, because he was bigger than life," she told Oprah Winfrey earlier this year. "That's when I knew I wanted to be an entertainer. Forget marriage, children and living happily ever after as a housewife. That was gone. Ike went out and bought me a fur, a dress, some high-heel shoes. He got my hair all done up. I rode to work in a pink Cadillac. I even got my teeth fixed."As time went by, Tina's growing fame rankled Ike. In 1987's "I, Tina," she recounted his frustration, drug addiction and physical abuse -- he beat her with shoe stretchers and anything else he could find. If he hit her right before a show, she would sing with the blood gushing into her mouth. One night she left, with 36 cents and a solemnity from her new faith, Buddhism.

Her courage continues to inspire women. Winfrey said her saga was one of "possibility.""I think I have a life that could help," she says. It took Turner awhile to come to peace with how much she had revealed to the world. "It wasn't a good feeling giving it away. My life that I lived was shameful and embarrassing. But I reversed it in a positive way. I really never regretted giving it away. I was never put down for it. I am happy now to stand with other people who made a difference."Yet, despite the turmoil, the Ike-and-Tina combination created some memorable, soulful songs. The Phil Spector-produced "River Deep, Mountain High" in 1966 propelled them to the Hall of Fame.She doesn't look back much. Forgiveness is not an easy word. "Forgive," she says quietly. "I haven't forgiven to the point of seeing him." Her view of Ike, she says now, is "okay, you took everything. The best I could do was to wish him well. I haven't spoken to him. I have forgiven in my way but it is over and done."The judge in the divorce case let her keep her stage name. The fans need only one: Tina.

With some intervention from singer David Bowie, the struggling singer got a new contract in the early 1980s and then started a resurgence that was as remarkable as her personal story.In 1984, she won three Grammys. Her scorching six-minute rendition of "It's Only Rock & Roll (But I Like It)" with Mick Jagger at the 1985 Live Aid concert cemented her electrifying sex appeal, as if more proof were needed. She tried movie roles and movie themes, appearing as Aunty Entity in the Mel Gibson film "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome," creating another anthem -- "We Don't Need Another Hero." She sang the theme song for the James Bond movie "GoldenEye." European audiences adopted her as an idol. Her popularity never dimmed. Turner's most recent Washington area concerts -- at Nissan Pavilion in 1997 and at Nissan and MCI Center in 2000 -- were sellouts.She wanted to be just like the boys, Jagger and Rod Stewart, she says, and she broke the mold of most contemporary black female balladeers by creating extravagant road shows, such as the "Twenty-Four Seven Millennium Tour." And by being, in her words, rough -- a hard-driving, up-tempo style. The "Millennium" tour was packed with hits from the second phase of her career -- "Let's Stay Together," "Simply the Best," "I Don't Wanna Lose You," "Steamy Windows," "Better Be Good to Me."

"I was finally getting credibility for the music," she says. Turner has sold 50 million albums.But behind the music there was some artistic frustration. In an interview on "Tina Turner -- All the Best," her latest DVD, she said at first she didn't like "What's Love Got to Do With It." Listening to the demo, she recalled she didn't get it and didn't understand the rhythm. "I just didn't like it. What am I going to do with this song?" she said she asked herself. Then producer Terry Britten (who wrote the song with Graham Lyle) played the melody for her on the guitar; "I still thought it was odd," she said. But then the meaning of the lyrics began to be clear, as well as the beat. "But what has love got to do with it. All right!" she reminisced.

Night after night, she delivered what the fans wanted, even the Tina Turner signature songs she was ambivalent about."I wish there wasn't 'a Tina Turner song.' Everyone wants me to do those hurt songs. I always want to give support. People want to hear that. I've learned to expect it," she says. Could she be talking about "When the Heartache Is Over"?
The truth is I knew you were lying
You were using me time after time.
When the heartache is over
I know I won't be missing you (missing you)
Won't look over my shoulder
'Cause I know that I can live without you.

Her world tours filled arenas with fans who sang the words to every song. Some held up banners of love, some wore Tinaesque wigs. In the film "One Last Time," about her last appearance at Wembley Stadium in London, Turner talks about her input into the creative side of the show. "The show belongs to me," she says simply. "I have to give a feeling off to people."Though she's apparently left the stage, many awards continue to come her way. Earlier this year, Turner was invited to join a "Legends" weekend that Winfrey organized. The invitees included Coretta Scott King, Cicely Tyson and Diana Ross. And she recently shared a Woman of the Year award in England with former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.And in retirement, she does keep her eye on the new breed of singers. She calls them "the younger ones.""This is a transition; there is always someone coming along. The dresses are shorter than ever, their tummies are out, and they are going for an effect. None of us from our time can wear their clothes and we don't want the piercings," says Turner, who says minis continued to be her concert choice because they were easier to perform in. "I tried gowns and I was tripping on them," she says.A dimming of the appetite for the rigors of touring has prompted her current retreat."I got to that point -- I didn't have the desire to be onstage. I had so much to look back on, that was good, good freaky good," she says. "If I wanted to go back, I could. It is not easy. I have to want to and not just do it for the people."


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