Long before he transformed an outrageously raw screamer just out of her teens named Anna Mae Bullock into the titanic showstopper Tina Turner, Ike Turner was a mover and shaker of the first order on the southern blues circuit.
In 1951, Ike's horn-leavened combo, The Kings of Rhythm, traveled to Memphis to lay down "Rocket '88'," often cited by musicologists as the very first rock and roll record. He forged a prolific alliance with the Bihari brothers' Modern/RPM family of labels, assisting when the Los Angeles company mounted early '50s jaunts through the south in search of fresh blues talent. And he was an invaluable session musician, boasting advanced skills as both a boogie pianist and slashing guitarist. In fact, his savage deployment of the defenseless tremolo bar on his Fender Stratocaster was groundbreaking in the extreme-as this overview of his early studio activity for the Biharis illustrates. Considering he didn't even pick up an electric guitar in earnest until a couple of years after "Rocket '88'" hit the road to the top of the R&B hit parade on the Chess logo, Turner's sudden fret proficiency and whammy-bar pyrotechnics were truly startling.
"I didn't know anything about a guitar, and I thought that's what it was for. It was for tremolo, and I'd use it as a whammy, to make it scream," said Ike in 2000. "Today, they don't make strings as good as they used to, when they were making Black Diamond strings and stuff. Strings pop real easy now, so when you use it a lot now, man, on the guitars that I have, they pop strings like wildfire."
Born November 5, 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Izear Luster Turner Jr. fell in love with the piano when he peered in at The King Biscuit Boys, featuring boogie pianist Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins, rehearsing in the basement of his buddy Ernest Lane's house. "Man, I never seen nobody's fingers move that fast on a piano," he said. "I didn't even know what a piano was then, and I saw that dude, man. He was playing piano, and they was rehearsin' at John Lane's house. Ernest Lane and I was the same age, and we was comin' home from school and we heard this noise. And we went over there, and boy, these guys-this guy was playing piano so fast, man, I couldn't hardly see his fingers! And I said, 'Damn, man! I wanna do that!' Lane said, 'Me too!'
"Anyway, we started talkin' to Pinetop, and he started teaching us different little boogie-woogie things. And from there, that started my musical life," said Turner. "Then along came Amos Milburn and Charles Brown. All those guys had a big influence on me. But Pinetop was the main one." Fortunately, Ike's mother was in a position to acquire a piano for her son to practice on. In addition to learning how to maneuver the ivories, Ike was exposed to a wide array of musical idioms at Clarksdale's WROX radio. Despite the blatant segregation that infested the era, the youngster managed to snare a gig at the station. "There was a white guy named John Friskillo. I wouldn't call him a disc jockey, because disc jockeys just play records," said Ike. "He was the guy at the radio station that started the turntables and played commercials-the engineer."
"So he would want to go downstairs. I was just a little guy lookin' through the window in at him, 'cause I worked downstairs in the hotel. So on my break, I would go upstairs and look through the window at him. So then he had me to come in, he would have me to hold the record, and he said, 'When this hand stop movin''-talkin' about the needle-'turn this record loose!' I said, 'Okay!' So then I started doin' that, and then I had two, holdin' the other one. And then he started goin' downstairs, man, to the drugstore. And he left me up there. So then the manager of the station came in there, man, and saw me doin' all this. He didn't get mad-he gave me a job there, doin' what he was doin'. And then he taught me to do it.
"When I used to spin records there, I used to play country. 'Cause we didn't have a program director or nothing. You could play whatever you wanted to play-the old Specialty label 78s, and King-a lot of the older labels. Anyway, a lot of country stuff, man-I played country. I would play one country record, and then next I would play an R&B record. It didn't make no difference from what I played. I just played what I liked," said Ike, who soon encountered a slide guitar-wielding blues great at WROX. "Robert Nighthawk started broadcasting from there live, and I would play piano with Robert. Then they gave me a program, I was doin' like a half hour a day just spinning records after I got out of school."
During the late 1940s, Ike began to assemble the talented young musicians who would accompany him on his ascension to R&B stardom. "There was two bands. We had one big band, which was The Tophatters. And then we had The Kings of Rhythm," said Ike. "The ones that could read music, they played more jazz when we broke up into two groups. They all could read music, and they played more jazz. And then the ones that couldn't read, we changed ourselves into The Kings of Rhythm because we kept up with the jukebox." Among his charter bandmates were baritone saxist Jackie Brenston and honking tenor man Raymond Hill.
"Raymond was a good saxophone player," said Ike. "All of us was kids together, and whatever was hot on the jukebox, we would take it off note for note. So would Jackie Brenston, but Jackie was more alto and baritone (sax). And Jackie would play more Louis Jordan's kind of stuff. Raymond would do more of the Jimmy Liggins, Joe Liggins, and (Amos Milburn's) 'Chicken Shack Boogie.'" B.B. King, just getting his feet wet in the business himself, recommended Turner investigate Phillips' fledgling Memphis Recording Service. On March 3, 1951, the Kings made rock and roll history by waxing the landmark rocker "Rocket '88'."
The journey to Memphis was eventful. "The drums, the stuff fell out of the car. It was tied with the trunk open, and the bass on top of the car. The amps and things got wet," said Ike. "We were just excited that we were gonna record." The Kings' automotive interest may explain the genesis of "Rocket '88'." "We just used to count cars on the road. We used to bet. Once somebody bet, 'I see more Dodges.' Somebody bet, 'I see more Oldsmobiles, more Fords.' We used to bet a quarter or something, riding to gigs. And each one of us would pick a car, and see which one passed us the most on the highway between Clarksdale and Greenville, Mississippi."
Issued on Chicago's Chess Records under Brenston's name, "Rocket '88'" catapulted to the top of the R&B charts. Meanwhile, Ike hooked up with the Biharis, acting as a talent scout and hammering the 88s behind the likes of Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James. "A whole lot of stuff I did back in those days I don't remember," he said. "People be asking me about, 'Well, man, is that you playing piano on Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years"?' I'm saying, 'I don't know!' And they ask me, 'Is that you playing piano on B.B. King's "Woke Up This Morning" and "You Know I Love You"?' And I don't really know unless I listen to it."
Ike made his first RPM appearance under his own name at a April 1952 Memphis date with bassist Ben Burton's band, confidently accompanying himself on piano as he sang an easy-swinging "Trouble And Heartaches" and the mid-tempo "You're Driving Me Insane." That same month, he teamed with girlfriend Bonnie for a pair of duets that also emerged on RPM, the romping "Looking For My Baby" and a breezily harmonized treatment of Chicago blues shouter Arbee Stidham's '48 R&B chart-topper "My Heart Belongs To You." "I kept having trouble with guitar players. So I started with this girl, Bonnie. I started going with her. And she played piano, and I played piano," said Ike. "She could read music."
Bonnie's aptitude on the ivories precipitated Ike's auspicious switch to the Strat. "I came to Memphis to O.K. Houck (a music instrument shop). That's the first time I saw a Fender guitar, and an electric bass, because I had never seen an electric bass before. So I bought it, and I just started playing. I began to learn to play 'Okie Dokie Stomp' and another song called 'Junior's Jive' by Roy Milton." On the same shopping trip, Turner's nephew Jesse Knight Jr. picked up a newfangled electric bass, further setting The Kings of Rhythm apart from their contemporaries.
By the beginning of '54, Ike was sufficiently familiar with his glistening new axe to play it on sessions by pianist Billy "The Kid" Emerson for Sun and Eugene Fox for Checker. But it was during an unprecedented avalanche of recording at Ike's own short-lived Clarksdale studio in March and April of '54 that he unleashed his full Fender-fueled fury. Ike pounded the keys as he sang the sturdy mid-tempo "Love Is Scarce," one side of a RPM single that hit the shelves humbly credited to Lover Boy, but its flip "The Way You Used To Treat Me" switched Ike over to guitar and was a stirring slow blues closely patterned after "Things That I Used To Do," Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones' then-current smash for Specialty Records. Slim's flamboyant attack would continue to deeply sway Turner's guitar conception in years to come.
Several intriguing instrumentals were committed to tape during those fruitful Clarksdale sessions, four seeing light of day as singles on Modern's Flair logo. "Loosely" spotlighted Ike's boogie piano tendencies, urged onward by a stinging horn section. Despite his blistering guitar technique, Ike still considers himself first and foremost a pianist. "I was listening to some of the stuff I cut in earlier days," he said. "It sounds like I was a guitar player, but I'm not." That doesn't jibe aurally; those March '54 sessions produced the Latin-oriented "Cuban Get Away" and "Cubano Jump," along with the Delta-tinged sizzler "Go To It," all three boasting dazzling guitar barrages.
Ike's piece de resistance instrumental from the Clarksdale era was initially banished to the Modern vaults. "All The Blues All The Time" was the ultimate example of the Kings' regal jukebox mastery, 8:40 of Ike expertly recreating the stinging riffs of John Lee Hooker, Little Junior Parker, Lil' Son Jackson, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King. Ike didn't title it and couldn't recall why he indulged in such an uncommercial project, which debuted on a 1963 budget album on the Biharis' Crown imprint (that Rockin' The Blues LP confusingly granted the other four instrumentals new titles, going so far as to list "Cubano Jump" as "Hey Miss Tina").
The Kings of Rhythm had several fine vocalists in their inner orbit during this prolific burst of Clarksdale studio activity. Sikeston, Missouri-born Billy Gayles (or Billy Gale, as Flair temporarily rechristened him) got started playing drums behind slide guitar aces Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker in Cairo, Illinois before hooking up with Raymond Hill in Clarksdale. "Night Howler," Gayles' debut single, placed Ike back on the ivories and was a clone of Lloyd Price's eight-bar '52 smash "Lawdy Miss Clawdy." Big-voiced Billy fully came into his own fronting Ike's organization on eight seminal 1956 sides for Federal, notably "Sad As A Man Can Be" and the often-covered scorcher "I'm Tore Up."
Hill was also Dennis Binder's conduit into the Kings' vocal circle. Born November 18, 1928 in Rosedale, Mississippi (where he learned piano in church), Binder moved to Chicago around 1939. Those same March '54 studio forays elicited Binder's merrily rollicking booze ode "Early Times," half of his only Modern single. "Ike, he made me do those two songs," said Binder. "I didn't think too much of 'em. We had been playing them in the clubs, and everybody liked 'em." Ike's bone-cutting axe answers Binder's roaring vocal throughout "Nobody Wants Me," which awaited release for nearly a decade prior to that cheapie Crown LP. Back in Chicago, Dennis may have doubled on piano for his 1955 single for United, coupling "I'm A Lover" with the amusing novelty "The Long Man" (Hill and Kings saxist Bobby Fields were also on board).
A native of Mattson, Mississippi (where he was born November 15, 1927), Clayton Love moved to Clarksdale at age 12 and soon got acquainted with Ike. Another aspiring pianist, Love led his own jazzier outfit, The Dukes of Swing, and attended Alcorn A&M before committing to the music business. In June of 1951, Love and his Shufflers waxed their debut 78, "Susie" b/w "Shufflin' With Love," for Lillian McMurry's Trumpet label in Jackson, Miss. He followed it with a '52 single for Aladdin, "Where I Want To Be," cut in Chicago with the ubiquitous Hill leading the band. Back in Clarksdale in March of '54, Clayton bounced through a Latin-tinged "Why Don't You Believe In Me" for Modern, Turner peeling off a vicious two-chorus solo. Love cut a '56 single for RCA's Groove subsidiary before fronting Ike's crew at a 1957 Federal date that included the frosty minor-key gem "She Made My Blood Run Cold."
Allegedly evicted from the Clarksdale setup because of local backlash towards its black/ white fraternization, Ike relocated to more tolerant St. Louis and got back to business. More standout vocalists came and went, among them pianist Johnny Walker. Born June 27, 1929 in Greenville, Mississippi, Walker made a late '55 single for Ultra billed as Moose John and adopted Big Moose as his sobriquet when he later arrived in Chicago. But when he cut three tracks for Ike in St. Louis on November 17, 1955, he answered to the more sedate J.W. Walker. None of his efforts saw release at the time, a travesty considering the rumbling thrust of "Can't You See Baby," graced with another searing Turner guitar solo.
Though the structure of Johnny Wright's chilling "The World Is Yours" is straight out of the Guitar Slim songbook, Ike's whammy-bar wildness ignites the downbeat number like nuclear fission. The southern Illinois-based Wright had done a 1953 session for DeLuxe that included an auspicious "I Was In St. Louis," and that's where he rendezvoused with Turner in November of '55 to make his lone single for the Biharis' RPM imprint. Ike's Kings of Rhythm consisted at that point of Hill and Eddie Jones on saxes, Knight on bass, and drummer Eugene Washington.
Though he continued to front the hottest live R&B combo in the Gateway City, the late '50s were fairly lean for Turner. He sold a session to Sun that Phillips never issued, and there were scattered 45s for Cobra/Artistic in Chicago (Ike and selected Kings backed Otis Rush, Betty Everett, and Buddy Guy in addition to cutting their own material) and Stevens back home. Thanks to singer Art Lassiter being AWOL for a session, Tina poured her hair-raising pipes all over the Turner-penned grinder "A Fool In Love," and when Juggy Murray's Sue Records issued it in 1960 as by Ike & Tina Turner, all those years of struggling finally began to pay off bigtime.
After that, spotlighting Tina became Ike's primary responsibility. But there was one exception to that policy at Sue, the all-instrumental Dance album done at Technisonic Studios in St. Louis in 1961. The set's showpiece was Ike's snarling "Prancing," which he'd previously waxed in '59 for Stevens Records, though the label never issued it (his two torrid Stevens singles billed him as Icky Renrut!). With either Rasheed Ishmael or Eddie Silvers blowing up a tenor sax storm and Knight, pianist Fred Sample, and Washington, D.C. drummer TNT Tribble cooking up a combustible groove, the remade "Prancing" endures as his signature instrumental workout.
"I love Gatemouth Brown and the way he used to do 'Okie Dokie Stomp,'" said Turner of its genesis. "That's the first thing I learned on guitar, was 'Okie Dokie Stomp.' So there probably is a connection in there mentally."
The recent back-to-the-blues campaign waged by Ike Turner has brought him full circle. Alternating his stage time between thundering boogie piano and fiery guitar, he's happily re-embraced his blues roots. Those roots are on glorious display throughout this riveting anthology.