“I left a good job in the city
Working for the man every night and day”
These lyrics from Ike and Tina Turner’s 1971 hit Proud Mary are a homage to the blues, an African American musical invention which gave voice to the travels and travails of the African American community, and later evolved into rock ‘n’ roll, and then rock, which still thrives today across the globe.
Strangely, the song was actually written by white rock artist John Fogerty for his band Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969. Tina Turner’s life, music and legacy is an example of how popular music both reveals, and rebels against, racial politics in the United States.
By the time Ike and Tina released their version, there had already been a cover released by soul singer Solomon Burke, recorded at the iconic Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. Historian B. Lee Cooper says Bourke’s rendition saw the song evolve from a story of youthful travel aboard a Mississippi stern wheeler called ‘Proud Mary’ to a critique of “slavery and the post-Civil War caste system of black servitude”.
When Turner’s death was announced last week, Fogerty, in his concert in Manchester, paid tribute to her iconic version of his song, saying, “This is the first good song I ever wrote.”
Turner’s death reinvigorates the need for public acknowledgement of the black roots of rock ‘n’ roll, which later became primarily the domain of white men artists, many of whom she was later to face off against in the charts in the 1980s: Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Queen, Guns N’ Roses, U2, Dire Straits.
Turner’s style, stance and energy stood in direct lineage from the African American women of original rock ‘n’ roll like Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who was known as the “godmother of rock n roll” and appears in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic Elvis played by English musician Yola.
Her presence and sound carried rock ‘n’ roll into the future, maintaining its connections to, and reflections of, the African American community, including the blues which featured powerful women artists such as “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith.
Turner’s influence can be seen today in artists like Lizzo and Beyoncé who inspire the current generation of young women of colour to be comfortable in their skin and proud of their resilience and legacy.
In Aotearoa in the 1980s, I played keyboard in the resident band at the Mandalay Ballroom in Newmarket, Auckland. We often included a Yandall Sisters floorshow where the three Samoan New Zealand sisters always included a vivacious Tina medley. I could also hear Turner’s influence and inspiration in the strident virtuosity of Cook Island New Zealand diva Annie Crummer. Turner successfully toured Aotearoa New Zealand four times.
After Turner’s death, New Zealand soul diva of Fijian and Samoan descent, Lavina Williams, posted to her Instagram that Turner taught her so much as a woman and artist because she grew up with similar struggles and pain, and was an inspirational “beacon of hope” for her.
Not all agreed. Prominent African American feminist theorist, bell hooks, was not happy with Turner’s sexualised image, originally designed by her ex-husband, and maintained by Turner throughout her career.
hooks argues that Turner’s wild sexual personae echoes and reifies imagery of Black women as licentious and savage, hearkening back to Sarah Baartman, the Khoikhoi African woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in Europe (the Hottentot Venus) in the early 1800s.
At times, Turner’s songs alluded to this. As hooks points out, What’s Love Got to do With It sadly decries and explores the commercialisation and transactionalism of modern love. In Private Dancer, Turner sings about being a “dancer for money”, where “any old music will do”.
Yet that same song seems to prophesy her own ending, where, as a converted Buddhist in a long-term happy marriage, her story seems to have ended in joy: receiving the accolades, admiration, and the place in music history that she very much deserves.
“I want to make a million dollars
I want to live out by the sea
Have a husband and some children
Yeah, I guess I want a family”