“When I was a little girl, I had a rag doll … the only doll I’ve ever owned…”
That line, from the song “River Deep — Mountain High,” is how I came to love Tina Turner. But it was my mom who was obsessed with her. In the 1980s, Tina was a megastar — churning out pop-rock hits that had Miss Philomena (my music-loving single mom) dancing across our kitchen floor and cranking it up in the car. But it was ‘60s Tina Turner that captivated me, in old videos from before I was even born that played on an eclectic local music video show that aired on Saturdays in Denver, where I grew up.
“River Deep” was not a hit in 1966. The music industry didn’t get the Phil Spector-produced song (written by Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich for the Ike and Tina Turner ensemble. Nor did it get her once she separated from Ike, her abusive husband and musical Svengali, and sought to enter the world of “white” rock 'n' roll (which of course, was merely a permutation of Black rock and blues.)
Still, I was fascinated by the Tina Turner who existed in black and white video, scampering across the stage in short skirts, with her voluminous hair and long legs dangling, and some wild combination of rock and R&B belting out of her scratchy throat. I thought she was one of the most beautiful women alive. And she stayed that way, right through her 70s and 80s when she appeared in color — with that lineless skin and spiky hair that got bigger and wilder with time. Tina was, in every way, an icon.
In “What’s Love Got to Do with It?" — the 1993 movie based on her life — we learned of her brave escape from Ike’s clutches, and how she got out with nothing but her name.
In the 2021 documentary “Tina,” we learned even more: about the pain of abandonment she suffered as a child, and the seemingly unsurvivable abuse not just from Ike, but from a music industry that found her, at various times, to be too Black, too white, too rock 'n' roll, too sexy for her age, and too ambitious for a woman. And we learned of Tina the mom, who struggled to balance the responsibilities of being a working, traveling musician and nurturing children when so few had bothered to emotionally nourish her.
Yet this is the diva who taught Mick Jagger how to move; David Bowie how to do rhythm and blues, and the industry how to respect an artist who could throw on a miniskirt in her 50s and 60s, sing her heart out or act her behind off, and be whoever the hell she wanted to be, unapologetically.
For all of those reasons, Tina shone. She showed Black women — really, all women — what we can be when we stop being afraid. And my mom was right. She was pretty damn cool.