Black Music Month: The Legacy of Ike Turner

The smell of teen spirit. The shoes of blue suede. The fire that Jimmy stood by. The Guns and the roses. None of that would be possible without one man, Ike Wister Turner. Before you get into a hissy fit, or break out your copies of What’s Love Got To Do With It?, this isn’t about Tina. It’s about one man’s contribution to one of the truly original elements of the American aesthetic. June is Black Music Month, and first up in our editorial series is the irrepressible and oft-maligned Turner.

For those us younger than 40, our most indelible images of Ike depict him as the patron saint of manhandling, with echoes of “Anna Mae eat the goddamned cake” filling our memories. An abuser. A drug addict. A sinner. To a certain extent, those characterizations have an element of truth, albeit Disneyfied and exaggerated, to them. Ike’s story however goes back decades, to a little song called “Rocket 88.” That song, and sometime’s Bill Haley’s cover version, are touted as the very first Rock & Roll song.

Prior to that record, Turner was a slick-dressing, young DJ out of Clarksdale, Mississippi, which was a musical melting pot, combining country music, with the blues. Not content to merely play music, Ike had his own band, The Kings of Rhythm, on which he sang, and played piano. Having lost his lead singer when he signed to another record label, the quick thinking Ike brought in young Jack Brenston, also out of Clarksdale.

In spring of 1951, “Rocket 88,” took off and went gold in an era of 50K sales. It caught on like wildfire, with Brenston as lead vocalist and Ike on the keyboards, the song was notable for Ike’s manic triplets on piano and being one of the first if not the first uses of the distortion. Although the record was mistakenly credited to Brenston and His Delta Cats, the world knew the truth and took notice. Music would never be the same.

Rocket 88 - Various Artists

His pioneer status clearly cemented, Ike continued as a bandleader for his Kings of Rhythm band, who settled on St. Louis for a home base. Turner himself, aside from A&R work for numerous indie labels, mastered additional instruments from the keyboard, most famously the guitar, which he used to participate in rhythm sections for various other bands and to take a more visible role in both his band and the music overall. His pioneering use of the whammy bar was also legendary and similarly ingenious. The list of musicians with whom Ike collaborated or influenced directly is legendary itself. Such luminaries as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, Janis Joplin, and the immortal Jimmy Hendrix (who actually played with the Kings of Rhythm) were all students of Ike’s musicality, style, and knowledge of music.

Why should you care about Ike Turner? Why should he have the chance for redemption? Like many from his era, his sins were a result of his time. How many times did Ralph Kramden threaten to punch Alice in the face? How many times has Sean Connery voiced similar cave mannish attitudes towards women? How many movies from the 1940s and 1950s depicted violence towards women? How many southern states had laws governing what a husband could beat his wife with? Ike faced his demons and dealt with the consequences.

At the heart is Ike’s true musical legacy. His swagger is part of Elvis’s DNA and that’s young Elvis, not Vegas bloated Elvis. His piano and flair for musicianship are Part of Jerry Lee’s. Bill Haley’s cover of Rocket ’88 led to his fame with the Comet’s and the later “Rock Around the Clock.” His tutelage and guidance of Anna Mae Bullock put his stamp not only on their era, but also on modern performers like Beyonce Knowles. Ike cultivated that image and despite the “I Knooow how to sing the song Iiike, I wrooote iiit” line, Ike wrote and produced the bulk of those classic songs.

Ask Salt N Pepa about Ike. His 1962 produced “I’m Blue” by his backup singers the Ikettes formed that basis for their monster hit “Shoop” which garnered the group Hot Rap Singles #1, Hot Dance Music #1, Rhythmic Top 40 #1, Hot R&B #3, and Billboard Hot 100 #4 awards for 1994 as well as a Grammy. If you didn’t know now you know.

Im Blue (The Gong Gong Song) (Single/LP Version) - The Ikettes

In conclusion, Hollywood is Hollywood. It’s based on truth, but that truth is not self evident. When we lost Ike Turner we lost an architect of one of America’s precious few originally indigenous art forms. A man directly connected to immortals both by lineage and by direct tutelage. His style, his flash, and his drive directly led to the enhancement of our collective history, and while Tina was a big part of it, you can see that she’s a chapter or two, and not the whole story. The next time you want to “party like a rock star,” remember that respect is due to the First Rock Star: The inimitable Ike Turner. Now shut up and eat your cake.

The following tracks are the icing on that cake, courtesy of Peep those adlibs if you think Pete Rock and Diddy started all that. Peace.

I Wanna Jump - Ike and Tina Turner

Bold Soul Sister - Ike and Tina Turner

A Fool For A Fool - Ike and Tina Turner

Its Gonna Work Out Fine - Ike and Tina Turner

Wont You Forgive Me - Ike and Tina Turner the way...the above tracks were all written and produced by Ike Turner.