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Tina Turner Dies Aged 83: Inside The Singer’s Extraordinary Life

The soaring highs and devastating lows that punctuated the queen of rock’n’roll’s eight decades as musician and icon.
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Tina Turner, the Queen of rock and roll, has left the stage for the final time. She died peacefully in her home in Zurich, aged 83, on May 24, 2023.

Her final appearance had been taking part in the sanctioned but candid Tina documentary in 2021, which came after a rare public sighting when she spoke on Broadway in New York after the opening of Tina, the musical based on her life and music in November 2019.

Now playing in Sydney, the production that replicates her life and music has garnered huge acclaim—perhaps unsurprisingly given its incredible source material. Tina was, quite simply, one of the most captivating and ground-breaking rock performers of all time.

Before becoming a Broadway musical, her life story had already been the subject of two autobio­graphies and a hit Hollywood biopic.

Tina Turner performing on stage in Illinois, 1987. (Credit: Image: Getty)

Born Anna Mae Bullock on November 26, 1939, in Tennessee, her path to becoming Tina Turner is as much a tale of incredible survival as it is of unique talent. Tina’s childhood was less than ideal. She wrote in her first autobiography that her mother, who abandoned Tina when she was 11 when escaping an abusive marriage, had never shown her love.

By 13, Tina and her two older sisters were being raised by their grandparents. Later, after becoming famous, Tina bought her mother a house. “I was trying to make her comfortable because she didn’t have a husband, she was alone,” the star said in the 2021 documentary film Tina. “But she still didn’t like me.”

Tina met fellow musician Ike Turner at age 17, and it didn’t take long for her to join his St Louis band the Kings of Rhythm. Tina (then still Anna Mae) first dated the group’s saxophonist Raymond Hill, who became the father of her first child, Craig, in 1958.

Tina Turner with her ex-husband Ike Turner, in 1970. (Credit: Image: Getty)

By 1959, she and Ike were a couple. He adopted Craig as his own and she adopted his two sons: Michael and Ike Turner Jr. By 1960, Ike had renamed her Tina, inspired by Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, a hit television series. He also gave her his surname—before they were even married. Tellingly, though, he did it so that if she left his new group, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, he could replace her and name her replacement Tina Turner, too.

In October 1960 the couple welcomed a child together, a boy they named Ronnie. But their union was not a happy one, heavily marred by Ike’s physical and mental abuse.

Before they married in 1962, Ike hit Tina with a shoe after she said she wanted to leave him. He would later admit to punching his wife but claimed he never “beat” her.

Tina became so worn down by her husband’s violence, drug use and rampant infidelity that in 1968 she tried to take her life using sleeping pills. After standing up to Ike during a fight, in 1976 she finally escaped the man, the marriage and the band and checked into a hotel with just the clothes on her back. Their divorce was finalised two years later.

The strength to leave him had been growing within her for years. A friend had introduced Tina to Buddhism, allowing her to discover an inner process of transformation known as human revolution. “Finally, I was able to stand up for my life and start anew,” she said in 2021.

A bitter Ike lumped the financial burden of cancelled Ike & Tina shows onto her. To pay off those debts, she appeared on variety television programs and took up a residency in Las Vegas.

Tina Turner posing in an angel costume, Los Angeles, 1977. (Credit: Image: Getty)

Australian manager Roger Davies, who’d started out looking after Daryl Braithwaite’s band Sherbet and then Olivia Newton-John, met Tina in 1979. It wasn’t a great time in her career. Her album of that year, Love Explosion, wasn’t released in America after it tanked in Europe, and record label EMI dropped her. Yet Davies (who manages fellow fierce female stars Cher, Sade and Pink to this day) recognised a talent he could resurrect. “We’ve never had a contract,” Davies said of Tina in a rare interview. “It was our word and it still is.”

It was the dawn of the 1980s and he was determined to make Tina Turner a genuine solo star. Australian songwriter Steve Kipner penned a song called ‘Physical’ specifically for Tina. “It’s too sexy, too obvious,” Tina said at the time. “Give it to Olivia.” It became a global No. 1 for ONJ, but Tina and Davies were playing the long game.

By 1981 Tina was pivoting back to the rock sound she loved and playing shows with Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones. But Davies knew she had to cross over to a younger audience. In 1982, ultra-cool UK electronic band Heaven 17 recruited Tina for their side-project B.E.F (British Electric Foundation) on the song ‘Ball of Confusion’. It instantly shook the perception that Tina was a washed up nostalgia act doing the cabaret circuit.

Tina Turner and Cher embracing in 1985. (Credit: Image: Getty)

In 1983 a forceful Davies negotiated a record deal with a reluctant Capitol Records. Later that year there was a second B.E.F collaboration: a cover of ‘Let’s Stay Together’. The perfect showcase of Tina’s vocal prowess, it became a UK Top 10 hit and returned her to the US Top 30.

The comeback was on. ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ was first pitched to singer Cliff Richard before being passed onto other artists. Around the same time, Tina recorded the song. While initially concerned it was too pop for her, she found a way to make the song her own—a trait she’d come to master. ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ went to No. 1 in the US in 1984 when Tina was 44, becoming the oldest woman to top the chart at the time.

When the song became a hit for a new generation—through a remix by Norwegian DJ Kygo in 2020—it made Tina the first artist to have a Top 40 hit in seven consecutive decades in the UK.

Tina’s 1984 album Private Dancer—which included ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’—was recorded in a two-week period as a cautious Capitol gave her a limited budget. It went on to sell more than 12 million copies and win three Grammys in 1985. Crucially, it re-established her as a live act, where she could reclaim songs like the self-penned ‘Nutbush City Limits’ from her Ike & Tina Turner era.

Tina Turner performing in 1984. (Credit: Image: Getty)

Before each concert she would chant for an hour, recalling in 2021, “I visualised my audience and prayed that I could be whoever each person needed me to be that day so that I could inspire their dreams and help them recharge.”

Breaking ground in an industry that writes women off after the age of 40, Tina had a starring role in 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, scoring a major hit with the film’s theme song ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’.

She duetted with superstars Bryan Adams and David Bowie (reportedly having a fling with the latter). In 1988, during the tour to promote her album Break Every Rule, Tina performed to 180,000 people in Rio de Janeiro at just one concert—earning her a Guinness World Record.

That knack for recycling songs was never far away. Originally a 1988 album track for Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler, Tina’s version of ‘The Best’ in 1989 became a signature classic, since heard everywhere from NRL ads to the television series Schitt’s Creek.

She and Ike were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 as part of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue.

At the time, her ex-husband was in jail for driving under the influence of cocaine and, fresh from a gruelling tour, Tina was also a no-show. She’d be inducted again as a solo artist in 2021, after years of lobbying to celebrate her work on her own terms.

Tina officially retired from touring in 2009 at the age of 70, nearly 50 years after her first hit single.

Tina Turner accepting the Swiss Award in 2009 in Zurich. (Credit: Image: Getty)

She first discussed the abuse from Ike—how he’d beat her before sex, then force her to go on stage and perform—in a magazine interview in 1981. She hoped reliving the torture in her 1986 memoir I, Tina would finally see it consigned to history. Then came the Hollywood remake of her book in the 1993 biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It, starring actor Angela Bassett. Once again her trauma became interview fodder. In the years before PTSD was recognised, she was casually asked over and over by TV hosts and journalists to relive the worst period of her life.

In the 2021 documentary film Tina, she said of the Ike era: “I was living a life of death. It wasn’t a good life. The good did not balance the bad. I had an abusive life, there’s no other way to tell the story. It’s a reality. It’s a truth.”

Her second husband, Erwin Bach, added: “She has dreams about it, they’re not pleasant. It’s like when soldiers come back from the war. It’s not an easy time to have those in your memory and then try to forget.”

Tina discussed how being a Buddhist for more than 50 years had allowed her to process the darkest periods of her life. “I used to be baffled about why I had to endure so much abuse, because I hadn’t done anything to deserve it,” she said. “After I began practising Buddhism, I realised that my hardships could give me…a purpose. I saw that by overcoming my obstacles, I could build indestructible happiness and inspire others to do the same.”

Ike died in 2007, aged 76, from a cocaine overdose. “For a long time I did hate Ike,” said Tina. “But after he died I realised that he was an ill person.”

Tina Turner poses in her dressing room, 1987. (Credit: Image: Getty)

Tragedy has followed Tina. Her first-born son, Craig, took his own life in 2018. His death was “my saddest moment as a mother,” said Tina. Her youngest son, Ronnie, died in late 2022 after a battle with colon cancer.

Few entertainers earned retirement more than Tina. The American superstar had no interest in continuing to play the fame game or court the music industry. And no amount of zeros on a cheque was able to coax her out of the luxurious mansion she shared with husband Erwin Bach in Switzerland and back onto the stages she once owned.

Selling her music catalogue to BMG for an estimated $US50 million in 2021 made her a fortune without having to leave her front door. Unlike many music legends, Tina’s 50th Anniversary Tour in 2009 was a genuine farewell tour—her last live concert tour.

While the world remained obsessed with Tina Turner, she spent her final years dedicated to the inner peace and spiritual stillness she’d found through Buddhism. The trademark wigs and costumes that became iconic didn’t factor in her retirement. “It was a great time but it’s in the past,” she said in 2021 of her decades as a performer.

While she married German music executive Bach in 2013, the pair had been dating since 1986, after he’d been introduced by her record label. In Tina’s 2018 autobiography My Love Story, she told the world she had suffered a stroke just three weeks after her wedding. She then had to learn how to walk again.

Singer Tina Turner and her husband Erwin Bach attend the Giorgio Armani Prive Haute Couture Fall Winter 2018/2019 show as part of Paris Fashion Week, 2018. (Credit: Image: Getty)

In 2016 she was given the diagnosis of intestinal cancer, treatment for which led to kidney failure. Tina had planned an assisted suicide, not wanting to live on a machine. She wrote, “The toxins in my body had started taking over. I couldn’t eat. I was surviving but not living.” In April 2017, Bach donated a kidney to his wife. She called it “the ultimate gift”.

In 2021, Tina said her spiritualism and finding her soulmate had made her complete. “It has enabled me to accept my mistakes and imperfections, to appreciate both the difficult times and the good times and the hurts of the past to let go. Accepting yourself as you are is true freedom.”

Tina Turner has been rightfully remembered as a musical pioneer who broke down ageism and race barriers, a survivor who helped change how the media ask performers about traumatic incidents, and as simply one of the best performers to ever take the stage.

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