The Devil and Ike Turner

Parsing his hits.

Ike Turner

“I got to keep movin’I got to keep movin’Blues fallin’ down like hail (Blues fallin’ down like hail) And the days keeps on worryin’ me There’s a Hellhound on my trail (Hellhound on my trail)”

—Robert Johnson

Most all the musicians of my acquaintance know the legend of Robert Johnson, the great Delta bluesman. At a crossroads at midnight, Robert meets the devil (or Eshu or Papa Legba) and, in exchange for his immortal soul, comes away with supernatural skills as a singer and guitarist. Many versions of this Faustian story put the crossroads at Clarksdale, Miss., where Highway 49 meets Highway 61.

Muddy Waters was raised in Clarksdale. John Lee Hooker and Sam Cooke were born and grew up there. Ike Turner was a Clarksdale boy, too. This was the 1930s in the Deep South. Real bad stuff happened. Nevertheless, by the time he was a teenager, Ike could bang out a boogie on the piano and play the guitar with an authentic Delta twang. But, in truth, talented as he was, there wasn’t anything really supernatural about Ike’s skills as a musician. His singing was always spirited, but, relative to the wealth of local competition, no big deal. What Ike excelled at was leadership: conceptualization, organization, and execution. It’s intriguing to think: If Ike walked down to the crossroads one moonless night, what exactly did he ask for?

Long before he met Tina (originally Anna Mae Bullock) in St. Louis in the late 1950s and began the 16-year partnership that would end with his name used mainly as a comic byword for “blow-addicted megalomaniacal black wife-beater,” Ike had already been successful at some half-dozen careers in music. He was a DJ, a relentless talent scout, an arranger (for Sam Phillips at Sun, among others), a bandleader (with his own group, the Kings of Rhythm), and a session player (he recorded with B.B., Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, and many others). His employers included the Bihari brothers at Modern Records, the Chess brothers in Chicago, and a host of tough club owners. They didn’t like to fool around with their money. Ike had to be at that session on time, he had to book those gigs, make sure the band’s suits were pressed, and that they rolled in to the next town ready to play. Organization!

Ike could make things happen. Most of the obituaries I’ve seen mention “Rocket 88,” a jump blues about an Oldsmobile that Ike and his Kings of Rhythm recorded in 1951. Chess records released it under the name “Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats” (Brenston, Ike’s bari sax player, was the vocalist that day). A lot of music critics seem to think it was the first record to make the leap from R&B to rock ’n’ roll, probably because the busted amp that guitarist Willie Kizart was using added some serendipitous distortion to his sound. But it’s Ike’s stomping piano that drives the tune. “Rocket 88” went to No. 1 on the R&B charts and, no doubt, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were listening.

The next year, the Bihari brothers sent him to Memphis to find bluesman Rosco Gordon. Ike liked Gordon’s tune “No More Doggin’ ” and had Rosco bring in his band for a session. In fact, Ike liked the tune so much, he secretly had the band come back and record it again with himself singing. (Fortunately, Rosco heard what was going on and broke up Ike’s game.) “No More Doggin’  ” made it to No. 2 on the charts that year. Rosco Gordon’s piano style—particularly on that record—was a quirky sort of boogie with a deep shuffle and a heavy accent on the upbeats. If it sounds almost like ska music when you hear it, it’s no accident: The record is often cited as the template for Jamaican ska rhythm—whence came rock steady, whence came reggae. No wonder Ike tried to steal it.

When Papa Legba, the Crossroads Devil, steered Anna Mae Bullock into his path, Ike found his muse. I love all those early records Ike worked up for Tina and the Ikettes: “A Fool in Love,” “I Idolize You,” “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” and so on. Ike’s concept (really a more raw and countrified version of Ray Charles’ act) was simple: The band plays tight; Tina goes berserk. My favorite from this period, though, is “I’m Blue (The Gong Gong Song)” by the Ikettes, with Dolores Johnson singing the lead vocal. A static sequence of transparent cells filled with the sound of smoldering desire, this piece is Ike’s overarching masterpiece (most people might be familiar with it as the sample used by Salt-N-Pepa in their 1993 hit “Shoop”).

In 1965, Ike hired young Jimi Hendrix as a second guitarist for the Revue, but he was a big showoff, and Ike had to let him go: Jimi wouldn’t stay inside the lines.

Papa Legba started to work overtime on Ike’s behalf in the late ‘60s. Ike and Tina opened for the Stones and crossed over big time by covering rock tunes like “Proud Mary” and “Honky Tonk Woman.” Now they were superstars, and the greenbacks were flowing. As is usual in these cases, Legba closed in to collect the vig. By all accounts, Ike got higher every year, and meaner, too. It’s really hard to focus when there’s a Hellhound on your trail. From Ike’s point of view, squinting through the harsh fallout from all that booze and goofy dust, he may have figured that forceful action needed to be taken to ensure that everything in his world was up to his rigidly high standards of organization. He may have determined that, with the Hound so close and all, he’d better at least have his ducks in a row. Chaos had to be fended off, and the ends justified the means. Or something like that.

Or was it that Legba had given Ike exactly what he’d wished for—a schoolboy’s dream of a girl who could be both a soul mate and a creature he could mold into the perfect lover and musical partner—knowing that Ike would never have the empathetic chops to see what he actually had?

After Tina finally left in ‘76, Ike, already way shredded from the whole Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll thing, totally came apart. Years of continued heavy drug use and run-ins with the law ensued, culminating in his serving 17 months in a California state prison. He was still in jail when he got the news that he and Tina had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Finally, just when things were starting to look up, Tina’s book came out, followed by the film What’s Love Got To Do With It.

Now the poster boy for spousal abuse, Ike started to fight his way back. He reconstituted the Kings of Rhythm and came out with a book, Taking Back My Name (“Sure, I’ve slapped Tina. … We had fights and there have been times when I punched her without thinking. … But I never beat her. … I did no more to Tina than I would mind somebody doing to my mother in the same circumstances.”). Obviously, there was something Ike just didn’t get about the whole hitting problem. In his comeback shows, he had a series of surrogate Tinas come out in Tina-type outfits and sing Tina’s songs. It seemed like he still couldn’t figure out why she was gone. And yet he soldiered on, releasing two respectable albums, the second of which, Risin’ With the Blues, won a Grammy just last year.

How did Ike make out with the Crossroads Devil? We’ll never know. Faust, in Goethe’s version, does horrible things, especially in regard to his honey, Gretchen. At the end, he’s about to be thrown into the yawning jaws of hell when a posse of angels comes to the rescue, singing:

“He’s escaped, this noble member
Of the spirit world, from evil
Whoever strives in his endeavor,
We can rescue from the devil.
And if he has Love within,
Granted from above,
The sacred crowd will meet him
With welcome, and with love.”

I’d like to think Ike’s version came out the same.