Tina Turner, a Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll Covers
By Lindsay Zoladz
As the great Tina Turner told it in the wrenching 2021 documentary “Tina,” when she began to envision a solo career finally liberated from her abusive ex-husband, Ike, in the early ’80s, she told her new manager, Roger Davies, “My dream is to be the first Black rock ’n’ roll singer to pack places like the Stones.”
Turner — who died on Wednesday at 83 — didn’t need to become a rock singer; she’d been one of the most raucous around since the early 1960s. (And Ike’s 1951 single “Rocket 88” is considered by some to be the first ever rock song.) As rock ’n’ roll entered its fourth decade, though, this genre that owed its existence to unsung Black pioneers was still dominated, at the top and too often in the public imagination, by white men. One of whom, legend has it, Tina herself had taught to dance.
By the mid-1980s, Turner’s dream became a reality. Buoyed by the enormous success of her 1984 album “Private Dancer,” she was then headlining those very arenas that the Stones played, all over the world. She bested them (and every other musician on the planet) during her triumphant 1988 concert in Rio de Janeiro, which set a Guinness World Record for the largest attendance for a ticketed concert — more than 180,000 people screaming her name.
But Turner was a rock star long before that, as you can hear on her many blistering and visionary interpretations of rock hits from the 1960s and ’70s. Turner wrote some of her own songs (like the great, autobiographical 1973 hit “Nutbush City Limits”), but she was also a radical interpreter of other people’s material — an electrifying vocalist who could torch a familiar song with fire and then weld it into something entirely new.
The most famous example, of course, is her and Ike’s reimagining — “cover” almost seems like too reverent a word — of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s mid-tempo Southern rocker “Proud Mary.” The 1970 recording begins with Turner’s declaration that, despite what audiences might want from them, “we never ever do nothin’ nice and easy.” She then issues a warning, as if that galloping tempo change in the middle of the song would have been too shocking without one: “We’re gonna take the beginning of this song and do it easy, but then we’re gonna do the finish rough. That’s the way we do ‘Proud Mary.’”
That was also the spirit behind her versions of “Help!,” “Come Together” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” — to name just a few of the Beatles songs she positively Tina-fied. Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones got the treatment, too, and so did “Louie Louie,” with a sultry, little-known rendition which — I’m not even making this up — louielouie.net (“The blog for all things Louie Louie”) called “one of the essential Louie Louie recordings!” with some all-caps emphasis. Amen to that.
Tina Turner was a seismic, once-in-a-lifetime musical force, but I don’t need to tell you that; I’ll let this playlist do the talking. And I’ll let my colleague Wesley Morris, who wrote an appraisal worthy of the queen, do some of it too: “They’re saying she was 83? Nobody’s buying that. The ingredients made her seem immortal. For seven decades of making music, it all sizzled in her. That energy. It shot from her — from her feet, thighs, hands, arms, shoulders, out of her hair, out of her mouth.”
Listen along on Spotify as you read.
1. “Come Together”
Released as a single in December 1969, just two months after the Beatles’ own version, this soulful take on the leadoff track from “Abbey Road” shows off the raspy intensity and melodic control of Turner’s voice. (Listen on YouTube)
2. “Honky Tonk Women”
In late 1969, Ike and Tina toured with the Rolling Stones — an opening gig forever immortalized in an unforgettable scene in the documentary “Gimme Shelter,” when Turner unleashes a transcendent “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Around the time of the tour, the duo started playing their own revamped “Honky Tonk Women,” in which Tina flips the titular character from object to subject. Especially in Stones songs about sexual conquests, Mick Jagger wasn’t exactly known for writing nuanced female characters (“Some Girls,” ahem), but here, brilliantly, Tina turns mildly chauvinistic source material into an impassioned demand for equal partnership: “I’m a honky tonk woman,” she sings, hungrily. “Gimme, gimme, gimme a honky tonk man.” (Listen on YouTube)
3. “Whole Lotta Love”
This is a wild one. In 1975, Turner released “The Acid Queen,” technically the second and final solo album she recorded while still married to Ike; its title was inspired by her character in the rock opera “Tommy.” On this funky, disco-inflected standout, she slows down a Led Zeppelin heater to an unhurried tempo that makes the song unfurl like a slow, slinky seduction. (Listen on YouTube)
4. “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”
Lennon and McCartney’s lighthearted ode to the petty larceny of Apple Scruffs transforms, in Turner’s telling, into something more urgent, and adult: “He said he’d always been a hustler, said he worked about 15 hours a day,” she sings, her gravelly holler rivaling even Joe Cocker’s. (Listen on YouTube)
5. “Louie Louie”
I’ve already told you: “one of the essential Louie Louie recordings!” (Listen on YouTube)
6. “Let It Be”
On this closing number from Ike and Tina’s 1970 album “Working Together,” Tina turns Lennon and McCartney’s universal prayer into something more personal (“When I find myself in times of trouble, evil thoughts they come to me, taking away my wisdom”) and political (“When prejudiced people finally agree, open their eyes and they will see”). (Listen on YouTube)
Recorded for her triumphant hit album “Private Dancer,” Turner’s “Help!” teases the pathos out of a jaunty Beatles tune by reimagining it as a gut-wrenching, showstopping ballad that became a staple of her live shows. Tina’s maturity and well-known history bring an added depth to certain lines: “When I was younger, so much younger than today,” she sings with palpable weariness, “I never needed anybody’s help in any way.” Now, she’s ready to testify — and, so vulnerably, to ask for the help she’s always needed. (Listen on YouTube)
8. “Proud Mary”
Performing a song someone else wrote and recorded this transformatively can become its own form of authorship. This is one of the clearer examples in pop music history: John Fogerty wrote “Proud Mary” but Turner embodied it, rolling, rolling, rolling like that accelerating riverboat, grabbing the wheel and gunning straight for rock ’n’ roll ecstasy. (Listen on YouTube)
Big wheel keep on turning,
The Amplifier Playlist
Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.
“Tina Turner’s Greatest Rock Covers” track list
Track 1: “Come Together”
Track 2: “Honky Tonk Women”
Track 3: “Whole Lotta Love”
Track 4: “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”
Track 5: “Louie Louie”
Track 6: “Let It Be”
Track 7: “Help!”
Track 8: “Proud Mary”
Let me repeat: Wesley Morris on Tina Turner!
Also, in 2019, my colleague Amanda Hess interviewed Turner at her Swiss chateau for this absolutely delightful profile. I will forever be thinking about Turner’s deep love of Coldplay and her admirable indifference toward the Chainsmokers.
If you’re looking for the hits, Ben Sisario did a great job putting together this playlist of Turner’s 11 essential songs.
And if you’re looking for new music, as ever, our Friday Playlist has you covered. This week features songs from Dua Lipa, Jess Williamson, and my favorite album out this week, “Everyone’s Crushed” by the Brooklyn art-rock band Water From Your Eyes.
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