What's Soul Got to Do With It?
Despite her success, Tina Turner has done her best to obscure the fact that she's a great singer. It doesn't help that she just launched her latest solo album, Wildest Dreams, at the same time one of her most incendiary early-'70s performances is available for the first time on CD. And while What You Hear Is What You Get: Ike & Tina Turner Live at Carnegie Hall won't touch the sales of Tina's new effort, it's by far the finer of the two. Hearing them back to back makes you wonder what happened to her.
Turner insists she's a rock singer, not a soul diva. But Wildest Dreams isn't rock or soul. It's crammed with smooth, banal disco-pop sporadically enlivened by Trevor Horn's production tricks. Thirty minutes with it is like being battered senseless with foam bats. The gizmos--a full orchestra, a guest performance by Barry White--are all in the service of corny bravado. The legend of "Tina As Survivor" has consumed all available oxygen.
It's disconcerting to think Turner now has fans who only know her recent work, and don't realize what she veered away from artistically when she finally walked out on Ike after 20 years. I want to be very clear here: No one should have to endure the abuse Tina recounts in her autobiography. But no one should have to listen to Wildest Dreams, either. From the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue constituted one of the hottest live acts on any stage, rivaled only by James Brown. Fortunately, the Carnegie Hall disc captures them in their glory.
Live albums usually suck because musicians either try to reproduce their recordings--if not impossible, then dull--or inflate them with vain frippery. But for the Turners in their heyday, the show was the point; the records, which rarely charted, were the novelties. Ike led his band through covers that left the originals bleeding. The Carnegie set starts with back-up singers the Ikettes ripping through "Piece of My Heart," a minor hit for Aretha Franklin's sister Erma, followed by Sly Stone's "Everyday People." When Tina emerges, she hammers three Otis Redding compositions, Jesse Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" and the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women."
The Revue had just come off a tour opening for the Stones, and was enjoying its biggest white appeal. The double LP What You Hear would be its first gold album, and followed its first million-selling single, a cover of John Fogerty's Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Proud Mary." CCR never imagined the sass and sex Tina could ladle over even pedestrian fare. Her introduction to the song, on the single and at Carnegie Hall, was itself an achievement: "Right about now I think you might like to hear something from us nice, easy," she purrs from the Carnegie stage. "But now--I'd like to do that for you, there's, there's, there's just one thing: We never do anything nice and easy. We always do it nice and rough." What follows is a delicious vamp, replete with Ike's strumming, that suddenly explodes into a throttling, horn-driven release. You can taste the sweat flying from Tina's fringe.
To understand what made the Ike & Tina collaboration great, you have to start with Ike, who brought history and chops to the party. Born Izear Luster Turner in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931, he was gigging with an R&B combo by the time he was in high school. Not long after that, he and his Kings of Rhythm hit Memphis and laid down "Rocket 88," arguably the first rock 'n' roll song.
After "Rocket 88" hit on Chess in 1951, Ike was in demand as a session guitarist, thanks to his shattering tone; and as a talent scout and producer, cutting sides with B.B. King, Otis Rush, Junior Parker, Howlin' Wolf and Bobby "Blue" Bland. In '56, he moved his Kings of Rhythm to St. Louis. It was there, during a local nightclub run, that he met Bullock sisters Annie Mae and Ailene. Sixteen-year-old Annie wanted to sing with the band, and pestered Ike until she got her shot.
Ike was always a low-rent entrepreneur who resembled nothing so much as the emperor of a tiny island-nation. He changed Annie's name to Tina, to rhyme with Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, his favorite TV character. Then, when the scheduled singer failed to show for a 1960 recording session, he put Tina in front of the mike on "A Fool in Love."
For people who associate her principally with Private Dancer, Tina's voice on that first single is startlingly rough. Her early style was neither church nor country, but some sandpapery amalgamation of both that remains instantly identifiable and thrilling. Most listeners, especially white ones, associated it with carnal pleasures. It was raspy. It lacked polish. But it was indisputably authentic, the essence of roots music.
What's particularly notable, right from her very first recording, is the way Tina uses sounds--gasps and groans--in place of words in a lyric line, something familiar in the Southern black church, but radically new then in pop music. "A Fool in Love" went to No. 2 R&B and No. 27 pop. Ike and Tina were ushering in the era of what we now call classic soul.
Ike hopped labels like freight trains through the '60s, looking for another hit. While it didn't happen, he kept pushing, whipping the Revue into shape and keeping it on the road 51 weeks a year for several years. The Revue's live show was paced like the best porn or horror flick. Ike was the ringmaster, cracking tough guitar lines; Tina, the scared and scary kitten, matching him note for note with growls when words failed. When they hit Carnegie Hall in '71, teasing and satisfying a crowd was second nature. Looking back, it was their high-water mark.
Tina has been understandably praised for resurrecting her life from the hell she says Ike made it. Her comeback in the '80s, beginning with Private Dancer, was an unlikely feat. But it's clear now that when she walked out on Ike, she left the legacy of soul behind. Now, people seem to love her story as much as her music. Yet think how much finer it would have been if she'd escaped an abusive relationship and bloomed artistically. Instead, she just got watered down.
The Oil Man
After years of running snap-bean pickers and driving an oil delivery truck, it looks like Big Jack Johnson's finally getting some credit. The first time I called the guitarist at his home in Clarksdale, Mississippi, to get the skinny in advance of his show in Phoenix this Thursday, he couldn't talk because he had company: a photographer from Living Blues magazine was there doing a cover shoot, he said. Later that night, I picked up a copy of Request magazine at the mall, flipped it open, and found a feature story on Johnson.
When I called him back the next day, Johnson was packing to leave on the first leg of a yearlong tour behind his recent release We Got to Stop This Killin' and his forthcoming Jelly Roll Kings reunion album.
"Looks like everything's gettin' better and better," he said. Despite his other jobs, Johnson, 56, figures he's been a professional musician since 1960, two years before he walked into the legendary Sun studio in Memphis. Johnson and drummer Sam Carr accompanied harpist Frank Frost, laying down fat, rollicking country blues that still sound fresh today. The trio subsequently became known as the Jelly Roll Kings. They made some more records for the Jewel label in the mid-'60s and then went missing for a while, reuniting from time to time at Smitty's Red Top Lounge in Clarksdale.
Then came the brilliant 1992 compilation Deep Blues, with three live Johnson cuts, including the soaring "Daddy, When Is Momma Coming Home." Smack in the heart of the Delta, there was a blues singer, guitarist and songwriter who seemed to be standing on the shoulders of giants, looking forward. I asked Johnson about the song's story.
"Oh, well, see, it wasn't nothin' that happened," he said. "I just wrote that for my granddaughter Po' Cow." Thinking for some reason his granddaughter's name was "Topaz," I asked him to repeat it. Twice. Finally, I asked him to spell it.
"See, she was a slim, tall girl and she had long braids that stuck out on each side of her head so's they looked like cow horns. I got another one called Po' Sheep. She got curly hair like sheep wool. They love their names."
I asked Johnson about the title cut on We Got to Stop This Killin'. Are things in Clarksdale that bad? "This is one of the capitals of the killing right here. It just quieted down in the last three or four months. But every time you turn on the TV you find some killin'. You go fishin' and cast the rod out and you hook somebody's shirt. Some guy be runnin' around cuttin' the nipples off womens. People are eating people. And they got to stop it, man. The Lord supposed to decide when we leave here, not no other man."
Johnson plays a mean medley of country tunes with a nod to Merle Travis. His father was a country-music fiddler, he said. He came up tuning in Grandpa Jones and Red Foley on the radio.
"Shit, I was raised on the Grand Ole Opry. When I'm in my truck goin' fishin', I don't play no blues. I play Hank Williams, Hank Snow and--what's that fella did that song . . . [he sings Kenny Rogers' "Lucille"] See, you don't need that blues then. It just gets you worried and you can't fish. Now, in a nightclub, that's a different story."
The blues didn't get his attention until he was almost grown, he said, when he saw B.B. King perform. "That shit like to kill me. I told everybody I wanted to be like B.B. King and Elmore James . . . They laughed."
Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers are scheduled to perform on Thursday, February 13, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Big As He Wants to Be. Maybe.
James "Icepick" Harman is a method man. Every winter, he retreats to the warmth of California to record a blues album, and then spends the rest of the year driving his van cross-country to play and promote it.
But not last year.
"I have this rule of thumb," he said last week from his Huntington Beach home. "Every four years when there's a presidential election, I don't make an album, particularly if there's an Olympics in an American city, because that's a tough year to get any ink."
So Harman's back on the road this week, hawking his '95 release Black & White (Black Top), singing, playing his harp and telling shaggy-dog stories. A native of Anniston, Alabama, Harman, 50, says he always knew what he'd be.
"I was painting on a mustache and going in black nightclubs when I was a kid. I sang in a church choir. My dad played harmonica. My great uncle, Fate Norris, was a famous country musician. When I'd go to family barbecues, there'd be 150 people playin' instruments. And these old ladies would warn my mom, 'Don't let Jimmy be a musician! He'll be a rounder and a womanizer . . .'"
Harman walked out of the church and into a bar in 1962. He cut a string of soul and blues 45s through the '60s, under such names as King James and the Royals, the Icehouse Blues Band, and Icepick and the Rattlesnakes. Most were on labels so small you'd need a microscope to see them.
"Back then, record companies were owned by the guys who owned car lots, they were just crooks. You've heard of Colonel Parker, but every town in the South had a guy with patent leather shoes he ordered out of a catalogue and a big mouth, who believed he could make it to The Ed Sullivan Show with something."
Harman tours with a three-piece band, currently composed of guitarist Bobby Eason, bassist Joe Leaon and drummer Paul Fasulo. Asked about the difficulties of keeping a band together, he touts the Mussolini line:
"They're my ideas, my songs, my voice. You never hear anybody say, 'Awww, Bobby Bland broke up.' But the greatest rock band of all time couldn't stay together because two of them brought their girlfriends to rehearsals. I rest my case."
Lastly, I offered Harman this space to tell Phoenicians why they should see him on Valentine's Day:
"Ah, lovers--we're a great show for lovers to come to. Anybody that has somebody they really want to put their hands on, get up close and personal with, comin' to a James Harman show would be the thing to do. It's fun, it's not too loud, it ain't no blues history lesson. It's a party, featurin' YOU. And if you don't come out and support these kinds of shows, you'll be going out to hear somebody you went to high school with playin' Madonna songs. How's that?"
James Harman Band is scheduled to perform on Friday, February 14, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m.
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