Rock ’n’ roll was not born, springing fully formed from the womb of some magical recording studio, one day down South. But we are tempted to take an arbitrary starting point in telling its story. We always have an urge to push thumbtacks into history, to stop it wriggling.
The most logical departure date, perhaps, is 1955. In that year three black artists – Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard – began to make their first waves in the pop charts, the white charts. The only blacks to invade the hit parade previously had been close-harmony crooners like the Orioles, but now the world was readier for something raunchier. Above all, these three made the crossover without compromising their sound.
No doubt Berry’s light vocal tone was useful when he served up his first motorvatin’ masterpiece, ‘Maybellene’, helping to gain airplay across the board. After all, he had sometimes been known as ‘the black hillbilly’ during his apprenticeship at the Cosmopolitan Club in St Louis. But Fats Domino, with ‘Ain’t That a Shame’, remained as he always had been, and always would – a New Orleans barrelhouse easy-rider – and Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ remains one of the wildest, blackest records of all time.
Within a year Elvis Presley had broken out of the South with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and, as Sherlock Holmes often remarked, the game was afoot. Yes, logic guides us to 1955 as the time that rock ’n’ roll became clearly identifiable as a musical phenomenon, and it is therefore a convenient starting point for the story.
The problem is that such an account could well airbrush Ike Turner out of that story entirely. He must be getting used to it – widen the scope beyond the limitations of rock ’n’ roll and he is often still, it seems, a non-person, even before his reputation for marital violence became well-known. I have in front of me a book published in 1969 with the ambitious sub-title The Story of Black Music. Ike Turner is not mentioned! This is a little like publishing British Politics Since 1939 with no references to Winston Churchill.
What is the reason for this? The most convincing answer is that by 1955 he had already sparked the revolution, that bridge between ghetto music and the commercial pop charts, and then he had moved onwards – and not necessarily upwards. At least, not yet. If rock ’n’ roll burst out with Little Richard’s demonic ‘Awopbopalula-awopbamboom’, an inspired perversion of his sacred singing style, then its story requires what in the movie industry is now called a prequel. And the star of the prequel is Ike Turner.
Little Richard himself confirms this. In the foreword to Turner’s ghosted autobiography Takin’ Back my Name he says: ‘When people talk about rock ’n’ roll they talk about Chuck Berry. They talk about Fats Domino. They talk about Little Richard. They leave the main thing out… we came on later. Before all these people, Ike Turner was doing his thing. He is the innovator.’
At the start of that annus mirabilis 1955 Turner was 23 years old. As a child in the early 1940s he had played piano in Clarksdale, in the Mississippi Delta, for such visiting legends as ‘the second’ Sonny Boy Williamson and local guitar hero Robert Nighthawk, a reincarnation of Robert Johnson. Turner was a teenaged, schoolboy bandleader and, when he was nineteen, his band travelled to Sam Phillips’s Memphis Recording Service studio and cut a car-loving boogie called ‘Rocket 88’, long predating Berry’s fascination with the subject.
Many people, including Sun owner Sam Phillips, have been tempted to call this the first rock ’n’ roll record, even though they know there is no such thing. And if there was, it might be Hank Williams’s MGM debut ‘Move It On Over’, from 1947. Or ‘The Fat Man’, Domino’s 1949 recording. Or 1946’s ‘Guitar Boogie’ by Arthur Smith. Or Big Joe Turner’s 1953 hit, ‘Honey Hush’. In fact, someone could set up a ‘first rock ’n’ roll record’ Internet chat room to while away the long drinking hours.
Turner was not limited to his explosive piano technique. He played proto-rock guitar behind BB King, Howlin’ Wolf and many others. He became a youthful talent scout and record producer, dangerously sending Wolf tracks from Sun, as Sam Phillips soon renamed his Memphis studio, both to the Bihari brothers in Los Angeles and Leonard Chess in Chicago, which pleased neither. He tried his hand at country music, mirroring Berry’s youthful leanings, and was cumbersomely credited as Icky Renrut.
By 1956 Turner was playing band residencies in St Louis, Berry’s town, since he had long outgrown Clarksdale. While the rock ’n’ roll flame leapt into life all around him his CV proved that he had already rocked around the block several times. Few noticed. In St Louis he was in a home-town triumvirate with Berry and Albert King, but the world still hadn’t heard of him – after all, even ‘Rocket 88’ had been credited to his saxophone player Jackie Brenston.
And so the main reason for this book is to attempt to put the record straight. Turner is best known, if he is known at all, as Mr Tina, domineering, drug-crazed (he has estimated that he spent $11million on cocaine, but how would he know?) and violent. He was all of those things, at least at times, and this is perhaps a second reason for the tut-tutting airbrush of history.
Turner’s story is inevitably ‘top heavy’. It was as a prodigious youth that he displayed his genius in all aspects of the southern music business, and so this period is dwelt upon, as well as his tempestuous time with Tina. On the other hand, the fifteen years from the mid-70s up to his jail sentence in 1990 for cocaine possession can be summed in the single word ‘cocaine’, and so are dealt with more summarily.
In 2001, when in his 70th year, Turner released a new studio album, Here and Now, including an exuberant revisit, fifty years on, to ‘Rocket 88’. It was a defiant comeback statement that confirmed his credentials as one of the great figures of blues, R&B and rock ’n’ roll. Whatever he may have got up to in his private life, as a musician he deserves a testimonial as one of the great Kings of Rhythm.
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