Why Tina Turner was a #MeToo pioneer

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River Deep. Mountain High. That’s what you hear in Tina Turner’s voice.

It is not just a depth of tone and timbre, a towering vocal range that scaled the heights from resonant, seductive low notes to shrieking cloud-bursting peaks. They are also qualities that encapsulated her delivery, performance and very presence, depths of emotion and experience and thrilling highs of passion and release. Tina could take you down, and she could take you right up.

Credit: The Age

She is gone, this giant of a performer, this powerhouse of a woman, who came through poverty, racism, misogyny, brutality and every hardship life could throw at her, and transformed her experiences into musical gold.

The voice was surely already in place when Ike Turner recruited the 17-year-old Anna Mae Bullock to his Rhythm and Blues band in 1957.

Ike was a seasoned pro (eight years her senior) who gave her a stage name, restyled her image and taught her technique, but the primal essence of Tina’s performances went much deeper.

A tough childhood lacking maternal love in a post-war America rife with racial discrimination; the spiritual release she felt singing with her local Nutbush Spring Hill Baptist church choir: that is the river from whose depths Tina Turner emerged.

The mountain she scaled was music itself. By the time she made her first single with Ike, A Fool In Love in 1960, she already sounded like a force of nature, with the fierce, rhythmic, proto-funk delivery of a young, female James Brown.

Phil Spector, the self-styled greatest producer in the world, thought she was the greatest singer he had ever heard, and wrote River Deep – Mountain High especially for Tina to sing. Sessions in 1966 took three days and cost an unprecedented $22,000, making it (at the time) the most expensive record ever made.

More than 50 years later, it remains a stone classic, with Tina’s deeply felt vocal riding Spector’s pop symphonic storm like a soul Valkyrie. She rips a hole in a hurricane and flies right through.

Turner in 1964.Credit: Getty

Tina had cracks in her voice, a husky sandpaper roughness that spoke of troubles and woes. There was nothing glissando smooth about her. It is so broken up sometimes, it sounds like notes should be missing, but Tina had a three and a half octave range through which she moved with incredible control. The raw, physical aspect to her singing balanced surprisingly well with the smooth, quantised dynamics of 80s pop, exuding a warmth that could humanise even the most clinical production.

A synth pop remake of Let’s Stay Together brought her back from the brink in 1983, when she was 44 and already considered past it by a business rife with ageism and sexism.

The ’80s became Turner’s most successful decade, with the 20-million-selling Private Dancer bringing her another signature tune, slinky classic What’s Love Got To Do With It? It became the title of a best-selling autobiography and film laying bare the brutal details of her hard life and violent marriage to Ike.

For all her overt sensuality, there was a physical toughness and bravura confidence to Tina’s performances that made it hard to comprehend the terrible reality of her story.

She appeared too strong to ever be perceived as a victim. But the bravery Tina showed in revealing her pain pierced a veil of silence around abuse, and demonstrated how it could happen to any woman in a world where the rules are made by men.

She should be seen as a pioneer of the #MeToo movement, who faced down shame to expose a truth too many women face, from all walks of life. By taking a stand, fighting back, leaving her abuser, and going on to carve out a new and even more successful life for herself, Tina showed women that they could stand up and take a crack at that glass ceiling.

There can be no argument that Tina Turner is one of the greatest music icons to ever walk the stage. She was a rock and soul pioneer who battled her way through the racism and sexism of the ’60s, rose up as a formidable star in the ’70s, and became a global superstar in the ’80s as a mature woman in the prime of her life.

Her rise, fall, and rise again is the greatest comeback in pop history. In the words of another of her signature tunes, she was simply the best. What a voice. What a performer. What a life. River deep, mountain high, in every possible way.

Neil McCormick is a music critic for the Telegraph, London, where this article first appeared.

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