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“Blues All My Life” PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 28 June 2005 18:00
Part of the Ike Turner philosophy is that he’ll play with just about anybody. For example, he appears on a few tracks on an album that was released last month. “They knew me, but I didn’t know them,” Turner said. “I didn’t know what group it was, so I just played.”

That group just happens to be Gorillaz, the alternative-hip-hop super-group featuring members of Blur, Cibo Matto, and Tom Tom Club, along with Dan “The Automator” Nakamura.

“I’ve never heard of the group,” Turner said in a recent phone interview. “That’s how square I am.”

It’s not that Turner is out-of-touch, but he loves music so much that he’s not picky about the people with whom he performs. “I don’t care who he is,” he said. “I just love music.”

But Turner has, more often than not, kept sterling musical company. He’s worked most famously with Tina Turner, but also with a wide range of greats that includes Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Elmore James.

“I was playing on all the stuff back in those days,” Turner said. “It was nothin’. … To me, it was just like me going playing with this other band you just told me about. What did you say their name was? … It’s just what I do.” It probably didn’t hurt that the Gorillaz paid Turner two grand a song.

He’ll again be in good company this weekend, as he closes the I.H. Mississippi Valley Blues Festival with a 10 p.m. performance Sunday on the bandshell stage.

Turner is a legendary figure, both for his place in rock and blues history and for his troubled personal life, including his abusive relationship with Tina Turner – a vocal talent he discovered – and a history of substance abuse.

The latter has certainly affected the former, but Turner has been slowly working to rehabilitate his reputation. That legacy stemmed from his profound influence on rock music. As the All Music Guide notes: “As a pianist in the early ’50s, Turner helped lay the groundwork for rock-and-roll; he was also a distinctive guitarist with a biting, nasty tone, and was one of the first to make the whammy bar an integral part of his sound.” He was also an influence on Elvis Presley and either discovered or led sessions with such luminaries as Howlin’ Wolf, King, Guy, James, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, and Little Milton. It’s no surprise that Turner was selected for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and the Blues Hall of Fame earlier this year.

Yet he has remained a villain in the public eye for the way he was portrayed in the 1993 Tina Turner bio-pic What’s Love Got to Do with It. Turner claims he was unfairly portrayed in the movie – his online biography (http://www.iketurner.com) says his “excesses and mistakes” were “overstated” – but he was contractually forbidden from responding to the movie.

Yet Turner, who’s now 73 years old, doesn’t seem at all bitter, and sounded grateful that he’s gotten such high-profile plaudits while he’s still breathing. “It’s good they give it to me while I can smell the roses,” he said. “Most times, after you die, then they blow you up.”

Turner’s band was responsible for what is widely regarded as the first rock-and-roll song, 1951’s “Rocket 88.” But he said his first love is still the blues. “I’ve been blues all my life,” he said. “We don’t just play one thing, man.”

Turner’s 2001 album, Here & Now, certainly proves that. It’s a horn-heavy, soulful affair, dominated by Turner’s guitar and piano, by turns poppy, funky, and bluesy. One track even has a country slide guitar comfortably trading leads with the horn section. It was nominated for a Grammy and several W.C. Handy awards, winning for Comeback Album of the Year.

In the next few months, Turner is planning to put out the follow-up to Here & Now. Turner said he’s recorded 31 songs – he still calls them “sides” – and hasn’t started to pare them down to the final dozen or so. He does know he’ll try to get Will Smith to perform the rap for “Safe Sex.” He also doesn’t have a distributor at this point. The record will feature “the old blues but with a modern touch,” he said, but also plenty of rock-and-roll.

Turner first fell in love with the music one day when he was six or seven, and he heard Pinetop Perkins rehearsing at a friend’s house, “his fingers flying,” Turner said. “That burned a spot in my heart.”

And he initially made a name for himself as a piano player and bandleader. “I can play most of the instruments,” Turner said. “I can grab the instrument and show them.”

He didn’t start playing guitar until the 1950s, and only then out of necessity.

“I kept having trouble out of guitar players,” he said. “Every time I get one to play what I want him to play, he’d go get him a band.”

So he started playing guitar and got somebody else – from a church – to play piano, because piano players apparently have fewer aspirations.

One of Turner’s guitar players was none other than Jimi Hendrix, in his sideman days. Hendrix was in the band for two or three months, Turner said, but his showmanship didn’t fit in with Ike’s philosophy. “He had about five or six pedals, man,” Turner said. “And when I gave him a solo, by the time he stopped them damned things from whistling and stuff, the solo’d be over. We didn’t play songs no long time. So that’s why I let him go.”

Turner believes first and foremost that a band should be tight; he thinks the best bands don’t jam endlessly but knock out the two- or three-minute songs efficiently. That’s what he’s been doing for more than half a century, and he’s found an audience again.

As Pop Matters said in reviewing an April show, Turner “seemed to revel in the adulation of the adoring crowd.”
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