Tina Turner is known as the “Queen of Rock and Roll”. With a career spanning over sixty years, it’s natural to wonder what pushed her into singing in the first place.
Tina Turner’s recording career began in 1958 when she joined Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, later becoming known as Ike & Tina Turner. Even before this, Turner sang in the Gospel choir in her hometown of Nutbush’s Spring Hill Baptist Church.
Turner’s career has gone through multiple reinventions during its decades-long span, from choir singer to R&B, to rock and roll.
Tina Turner’s Gospel Beginnings
Tina Turner (née Anna Mae Bullock) was born in 1939 in Nutbush, Tennessee, to a family of sharecroppers, farmers who tended someone else’s land in exchange for a share of the crops. After a tumultuous childhood through WWI during which she lived with her deeply religious grandparents, Turner reunited with her parents and began singing in the choir at Nutbush’s Spring Hill Baptist Church.
The opening scenes of the 1993 biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It, based off Turner’s autobiography I, Tina, take place in the church. A young Turner is shown enthusiastically participating in the choir rendition of “This Little Light of Mine”, highlighting her love of music and hinting at her early talents.
It could be argued that her experiences in the choir gave Turner her first taste of singing and may have later led her to join the Kings of Rhythm and begin her recording career.
In 1950 Turner’s mother, Zelma Bullock left Turner’s father and went to St. Louis, Missouri. Two years later Turner’s father, Floyd Bullock, remarried. Turner had a distant relationship with both of her parents, feeling that she wasn’t wanted by her mother.
In a 1986 interview with Rolling Stone, she credits some of the passion with which she sings to her poor upbringing and her parental abandonment: “But if I had been [of higher social status], do you think I could sing with the emotions I do? You sing with those emotions because you’ve had pain in your heart.”
Turner went to live with her grandmother until 1956 when her grandmother died. After this, Turner reunited with her mother in St. Louis, where she discovered the R&B scene and eventually met Ike Turner.
The Ike & Tina Turner Revue
Turner first saw Ike Turner and his band, the Kings of Rhythm, play at the Manhattan Club in East St. Louis. In that same 1986 Rolling Stone interview, she describes the effect Ike’s music had on her, and the urge it gave her to sing with the Kings of Rhythm: “[…] boy, could he play that music. The place just started rocking. I wanted to get up there and sing sooooo bad. But that took an entire year.”
Ike finally added Tina to the Kings in 1957 after hearing her sing a rendition of B. B. King’s “You Know I Love You”.
Turner recorded the vocals for “Fool in Love” in 1960. After the initial record was picked up by an executive, Ike Turner made the then Anna Mae Bullock the star of the show, renaming her “Tina Turner”, only informing her after the fact. Turner recounts this in an interview with CBS’s Gayle King: “I said, ‘Who’s Tina?’ He said, ‘You’re Tina.’”
Ike formed the Ike & Tina Turner Revue from himself and Turner, the Rhythm Kings, and a trio of back-up dancers known as the Ikettes. Between 1960 and 1976, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue garnered international acclaim and success, behind the scenes of which Turner was enduring an abusive relationship at the hands of her husband, Ike.
This would lead to the third phase of Turner’s career as a solo artist.
Solo Career as Tina Turner
After her divorce from Ike Turner in 1978, Tina Turner was reborn as a solo artist. It wasn’t until 1984 that she would reach the same levels of fame again, this time releasing her album Private Dancer, which sold over ten million copies worldwide. From there, Turner has risen to become one of the most renowned singers in the world, earning herself the title “Queen of Rock and Roll”. Her life has been documented in books and biopics, and in 2019 the jukebox musical based on her life, Tina: The Musical, opened on Broadway.
Whether Turner began singing because she came from a broken home or simply because she loved it, she has made a success of it.