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The Man Who Wasn't There

Posted by Joan Anderman  February 11, 2008 12:03 PM

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Last night's Grammy Awards inspired Sound Effects' esteemed colleague, film critic (and music aficionado) Ty Burr, to reflect on Ike Turner's complicated legacy:

I thought two things as I watched Tina Turner at last night's Grammys. One: Damn, I hope we're all able to shake our Nutbush city limits like that when we're 68. Two: Ike should have had a standing O, too.

I know, heresy, right? One of the great villains of rock and roll history and I'm saying he should have rained on Tina's parade? No, I'm saying that here's Tina rightfully triumphant, here's Ike in the grave not two months, and not only would Tina not be on that stage without him, half the people anywhere near the Grammys wouldn't be there without him. Lest we forget, the man was one of the great unsung architects of rock and roll and R&B.

He learned barrelhouse piano from Pinetop Perkins himself in his 1930s childhood. He had a band by 1949 and wrote and recorded what most historians consider the first rock and roll record, 1951's "Rocket 88" (singer Jackie Brenston's on the label, but it's Ike's band and Ike's song). As a label scout, he signed and produced pioneering electric bluesmen like Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson (so, yeah, Eric Clapton and Zep owe himtheir careers too). He was pretty much everywhere during the fertile period when black R&B leaped the barrier and became pan-racial R 'n' R.

And, yes, he knocked Tina around, did drugs and did time. Admitted it, too; Ike never disputed Tina's version of events in her book "I, Tina," although he felt truly burned by the film version's melodramatic distortions. I met Turner late in life, when he was mounting a comeback that didn't stick -- how could it? -- and was a spent force in every sense except musically. I'd ask him a pointed question or two about Tina and his eyes would smoke over with all the things he'd learned not to say, then he'd laugh, sit down at the piano and launch into the most wicked boogie-woogie to scorch your ears.

What I'm saying is that rock music and the Grammys are at least partially built on Ike Turner's back, and it would have been nice if someone had said that, beyond sandwiching three seconds of footage of him between Porter Wagoner and Beverly Sills in the Dead Folks highlight reel. But let's not be naive: How could they have? Tina certainly wasn't going to memorialize the man who beat her, body and soul. The august Grammy bureaucracy wouldn't dare address the complicated legacy of a hugely influential talent who was also, for at least part of his life, a complete bastard. (And surely let's not think Ike was the only such bastard in the music business, with or without the spousal abuse. He's just the one whose wife got away, got famous, and got revenge.)

I'm just saying. What this man wrought has yet to be fully judged and it's doubtful it ever will be, so crossed are the cultural wires plugging into and out of Ike Turner. You'll just have to listen to the music, I guess, which is all that finally matters.

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Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

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