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ICONS: Tina Turner

Tina Turner, the unstoppable fireball who overcame domestic violence and industry ambivalence to become one of rock and soul's greatest and most inspiring performers, passed away on 24 May at the age of 83.

From her performances with ex-husband Ike, Turner brought an uninhibited, volcanic stage presence to pop music. Her influence on rock, R&B, and soul singing and performing was immeasurable. Her performance style has influenced everyone from Mick Jagger to Mary J. Blige, and her energetic stage presence has been imprinted on later pop icons such as Janet Jackson and Beyoncé. Turner’s aim and message – aimed at generations of women – was to hold her own on stage against any man. Her Break Every Rule World Tour, which began in Munich in March 1987, was a huge success, and in January 1988, Turner performed in front of around 180,000 people at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, setting a Guinness World Record.

In 1960, Ike and Tina Turner released their debut single, “A Fool in Love”, which was an instant hit with the public, and the following year the pair were quickly nominated for a Grammy for their song “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”. In 1966, the Turners took part in a now legendary rock TV show, Phil Spector’s TNT Show. After signing the duo to his record label, Spector produced “River Deep – Mountain High”, a song that, while not a blockbuster, opened other doors for Ike and Tina. By 1969, they were opening for the Rolling Stones on their American tour, and “Proud Mary” was released, a huge hit that won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance.

Meanwhile, however, the Turners’ marriage began to fall apart as Ike became increasingly violent and addicted to cocaine. Tina had tried to leave him several times before, and in 1968, she attempted suicide and ran away from her husband, whom she could only divorce in 1976. Turner also attributed her introduction to Buddhism to giving her the strength to leave. “I never stopped praying … it was my tool,” Turner told Rolling Stone in 1986. “I protected myself psychologically, so I didn’t do drugs or drink. I had to stay in control.”

The solo career didn’t start easily: Turner’s first solo albums, beginning with 1974’s pre-breakup Tina Turns the Country On!, failed to produce hits, and she toured for eight years to help pay off the debt she had accumulated from a cancelled tour with Ike and a lien imposed by the IRS. Her big comeback didn’t finally begin until 1982, when British synth-pop band Heaven 17 hired her for a remake of the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”. The song led Turner to a new recording contract with Capitol. Turner’s manager, Roger Davies, then suggested that they team up with Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware to remake Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, which did quite well in the charts. With this, and the support of her friend David Bowie, Turner began recording the album Private Dancer. The album exploded with the third single, “What’s Love Got to Do It”, spent three weeks at number one and re-launched Turner’s career in a way that was rare for a veteran of the sixties at her level. By refusing to be retro and showcasing her voice in a way she hadn’t done in at least a decade, Private Dancer introduced and endeared Turner to a new, younger audience. The following year, “What’s Love Got to Do with It” walked away with three Grammy Awards (including Album of the Year and Female Pop Vocal Performance). The triumph of Private Dancer was just the beginning of Turner’s resurgence in pop culture. The following year, she starred alongside Mel Gibson in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – which included another hit, “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” – took part in the all-star session of We Are the World, and managed the Live Aid stage alongside Mick Jagger. 1989 brought another multi-platinum album, Foreign Affair, and with it another huge hit, a cover of Bonnie Tyler’s “The Best”. 1993 saw the release of the Tina Turner film What’s Love Got to Do with It, starring Angela Bassett, who was then nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Turner has won other Grammy Awards for “Better Be Good to Me”, for her live album Tina Live in Europe, and for her performance on Herbie Hancock’s 2007 Joni Mitchell tribute album River.

“My songs are a little bit about the lives of everyone who watches me. You have to sing what they can relate to. And there are some rough people out there. It’s not a perfect world. And all of that is in my performance… That’s why I like acting more than singing, because in acting you’re forgiven for playing a certain role. If you play the same role every night, people think it’s you. They don’t think you’re acting. That’s the scar I gave myself with my career. And I’ve accepted that.”

Between 2008 and 2009, she embarked on a 50th-anniversary tour. A musical based on her life, Tina, premiered in London in 2018 and on Broadway the following year. Adrienne Warren, who plays the title role, won the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical in 2020.

Obama said of her farewell, “Tina Turner was raw. She was strong. She was unstoppable. And she gave of herself without regret – speaking and singing her truth, her joy and her pain, her glory and her tragedy. Today we gather as fans around the world to remember the queen of rock ‘n’ roll, whose light will never fade.”