"He polarizes people,” states Kings of Rhythm guitarist Seth Blumberg about his boss and mentor Ike Turner. The pioneering blues and R&B legend’s reputation was mangled by the 1993 bio pic What’s Love Got to Do With It?—told from his former wife and musical partner’s point of view—and he didn’t do himself any favors by suffering through drug problems that ultimately sent him to prison. But Turner’s amazing journey began a decade before he met Annie Mae Bullock in St. Louis in 1956, and transformed her into the earthshaking vocalist Tina Turner.
Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931, Turner was hardened early in life when his father was beaten to death by a gang of white men. His personality manifested itself in a raw, biting guitar tone and his domineering leadership of super-tight bands that unleashed powerful and thrilling live shows.
Turner was also instrumental in the early careers of B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, bringing them to the attention of Modern Records in Los Angeles while working as a talent scout for the label’s owners, the notorious Bihari brothers. But Turner forever chiseled himself into musical history in 1951, when he marched his Kings of Rhythm into Sun Studios, and cut “Rocket 88”—one of the first rock and roll records, and a powerhouse showcase for his aggressive guitar.
After finally subduing his demons, Turner came back to recording and performing with renewed vigor and resolve. In 2001, the album Here and Now was nominated for a Grammy, and Turner’s latest release, the aptly-titled Risin’ with the Blues [Zoho Roots], shows him acknowledging past musical heroes such as Louis Jordan with “Caldonia,” taking a shot at his critics with “Jesus Loves Me” and “Eighteen Long Years,” and generally abusing his guitar, tickling the ivories, and singing his heart out. Shy to the point of reticence, he and Blumberg sat down to shed some light on the Ike Turner mojo.
You started out on piano—learning boogie-woogie from your idol, Pinetop Perkins—and I’ve heard you still consider yourself a piano player first.
Turner: Yes. B.B. King says I’m not a guitar player, and he’s right. I just do tricks. I started playing because I couldn’t get my guitar players to do what I wanted. Also, I can lead the band better when I’m not confined to the piano. I don’t want to holler across the stage if somebody is out of tune.
You were one of the first bluesman to play a Stratocaster, as well as one of the first to really go wild with the whammy bar.
Turner: I thought it was to make the guitar scream. I didn’t know it was for tremolo on slow songs.
Do you read music?
Turner: I don’t read music at all, but I know the sound of the notes.
Blumberg: He may not know Am7b5, but knows what Am7b5 sounds like. He’s definitely singing in his head what he’s playing—he’s not just playing scales—and, sometimes, he’ll just make a sound, rather then playing a specific pitch.
Did you ever try open tunings?
Turner: I used a G tuning on “Nutbush City Limits” that I learned from Keith Richards when Tina and I opened for the Rolling Stones in 1969. I have a 5-string Tele clone tuned to G.
You are one of the pioneers of combining chords, riffs, and bass lines.
Turner: Yeah? I never even noticed.
Blumberg: His life is the rhythm—that’s why his band is called the Kings of Rhythm. He plays with his left hand thumb hooked over the neck laying down the rhythm, and he rarely plays upstrokes. A lot of the time, he doesn’t even play chords, he’s just shucking the rhythm on the muted strings. He has a great knack for what he calls “marrying the rhythm,” where he’ll decide how to accent the beat while the drummer is really driving. He makes his drummers play on top of the beat—what he calls “white boy feel” [laughs].
Turner: I always had trouble with drummers, so I mostly played rhythm the way a drummer plays a high hat. That way I could hold the tempo down or pick it up.
Blumberg: Ike’s all about energy, and he says, “I don’t wanna hear that mama-papa two and four. It makes me tired. You got to lay it down, man. Don’t step around it—you got to step in it.”
Which of your songs contains your best guitar playing?
Turner: There used to be a song I’d play on stage when they introduced me called “Prancing” [on Dance with Ike & Tina Turner]. It has a lot of whammy bar. And there’s another one called “Ike’s Scene.”
Blumberg: When we play “Sweet Black Angel,” he takes this titanic solo that’s so not about technique. It’s just this raw, nasty, barbwire sound.
What are your plans for the future?
Turner: I just got back from the Apollo Theater with the Gorillaz, and I’m going to come out with a hip-hop record. I’m also doing a recording with the Black Keys—which I consider old blues with rock and roll drumming.
Kind of like “Rocket 88” more than 50 years ago...
Turner: Yeah. I just think things go around like that.