IKE TURNER: MALEVOLENCE AND THE ART OF STRATOCASTER ABUSE
HOUND'S EYE VIEW
In 1956 Ike moved The Kings of Rhythm to St. Louis where, now seasoned vets, they virtually ruled the club scene. It was in St. Louis that Ike would hone his misanthropic personality quirks, making his mark as a cocksman, hard-ass, gambler and band leader. Based in St. Louis, they were soon inked to Federal, an offshoot of the Cincinnati-based, R&B/C&W giant King label. These discs, waxed from ’56 to ’57, are among the most extreme rock’n’roll/R&B records ever. The first session produced a minor hit—“I’m Tore Up,” a hardrocking booze tune issued under Billy Gayles’ name. The second session hatched Jackie Breston’s “Much Later” and “Gonna Wait for My Chance,” Ike’s guitar way in the forefront burning an ugly scar across the tune with slashing Stratocaster screeches flying in every direction. The final sessions for
Federal, held in early 1957, let loose more insane rockers, including the voodoo-rock “She Made My Blood Run Cold,” sung by bigvoiced shouter Sly Fox, who had specialized in such fare. The most amazing performance to my mind is “No Coming Back,” a rather pedestrian ballad on which Ike plays an absolutely bone-chilling solo and practically pulls the bridge off the guitar, sending it out of tune and into the realm of psychedelia!
Stardom eluded Turner at Federal, so in 1958 the band ventured to Chicago where it signed with the Cobra label, resulting in a session from which a version of “Matchbox,” a tune they’d been working on since the Sun days, was issued. While at Cobra, The Kings of Rhythm also caught some session work with Otis Rush (that’s Ike, not Rush, soloing on the classic “Double Trouble”), Betty Everett and others.
Meanwhile back in St. Louis, hitless but with a good local living, Ike was fed up with the bullshit nickel-and-dime R&B labels which couldn’t get him a hit and wouldn’t pay him if they did. He began recording for a bewildering variety of St. Louis indies under a series of pseudonyms, the best known being Ikcy Runret (Ike Turner backwards, sort of), the name under which “Prancin’ ” (his theme music), a loping guitar piece of blues exotica that must be heard to be believed, was issued, and also “Jack Rabbit,” a killer rocker that’d fetch $100 on the original 45 nowadays. The band was now based out of the Imperial club in St. Louis, where Ike would sit in the back and play cards until the final set when he'd appear, Stratocaster a-blazing. Vocalist Jimmy Thomas, who had joined the band as their teenage rock’n’roll singer, remembers, “Ike’s band was definitely the heaviest band around, no doubt about that. We got raided because we had such chicks.... I mean, white chicks, they dug us so much. There was loads of groupies, so they come and got us and marched us out with about thirty or forty groupies and shit—the whole fucking shebang down to the police station...really hassling us, searching us for drugs and shit,”
adding about Ike, “He’s done some really dangerous things, man.” At this point, the entire band lived in one large house in East St. Louis, and it was here that sax player Raymond Hill’s girlfriend, Anna Mae Bullock, caught Ike’s eye. She began singing in the band, and, of
course, Tina Turner’s story has been better documented elsewhere.
With Tina and the Ikettes gaining much notice, Juggy Murray, a black New York businessman and proprietor of the Sue label, approached Ike with a deal. This led to “A Fool in Love,” the first hit as Ike & Tina Turner, and history was made. These early years at Sue, however, also saw Ike record a dozen or so amazing instrumentals (issued on the 1961 LP Ike & Tina Turner Present The Kings of Rhythm: Dance!). By this time, Ike’s style had evolved into something sublimely psychotic, and on numbers like “New Breed Pts. 1 & 2,” “The Gully,”
“Twisteroo,” and a rerecording of “Prancin’,” Ike’s candy-applered Strat flashes hot and cold, screams in pain and punctuates the air with razor-like phrases.
Ike stepped out of the spotlight during the Ike & Tina years, the better to avoid drawing attention to his violent and wicked ways; and after 15 years on the road, Tina managed of course to extract herself from life as a human piñata. As a musician, Ike had one last moment of solo glory, his 1973 LP Blues Roots, on which Turner, by now embalmed in cocaine, produced a masterpiece of twisted sickness, culminating in “Right On,” a spoken blues-funk that could’ve been introduced in court as an example of his insanity.
Other than Tina’s success and Ike’s release from prison last year, there is no happy ending to this story—merely an incredible body of work from a brilliant but troubled musician whose contribution to American music has often been overlooked. ^
IKE TURNER & THE KINGS OF RHYTHM ON CD:
Ike Turner Rocks the Blues (P-Vine, Japan). Virtually all of his Modern/RPM/Flair recordings are on this double CD—44 glorious tracks in all—tough to find, though, and expensive. Ike Turner and The kings of Rhythm—Trail Blazer (Charly, UK). The Federal tracks—incredible! Ike Turner: The Cobra Sessions (Paula, US). Mostly demos and rehearsal tapes, but with some killer guitar playing. The Sue Story (EMI, US). This tour-CD anthology of Sue artists contains "Prancin'," "New Breed," some wild Jackie Breston sides and the best of early Ike & Tina. Ike's Sun material, "Rocket 88" and the small-label St. Louis sides are currently unavailable on CD, but were reissued on vinyl in the '70s and are well worth searching out.