'All the Best' doesn't do justice to Tina

Music Notes

February 03, 2005|By RASHOD OLLISON

IT WAS THE summer of '84, Malvern, Ark. And the sun cooked the pavement beneath my Dollar Store sandals.

I remember the air conditioning rushing over my face as Daddy and I walked into Wal-Mart. My parents had ended their marriage two years before. So to make up for not being around much, my pops would drive a little over half an hour to Hot Springs about once a month or so and pick up my sister and me. He'd buy us bags of candy and various other trinkets Mama either refused or couldn't afford to get us.

Daddy and I headed to the music section, and I saw the legs first. There was Tina Turner's Private Dancer album on display: She looked serious and sexy against a black backdrop.

"I like her. I want that," I said, pointing to the LP.

Daddy grinned and picked it up. "Boy, what you know 'bout Tina Turner?"

I knew that "What's Love Got to Do With It" was all over the radio then, the video a constant on this new thing called MTV. And the song was one of my favorites at the time. I was 8 years old. I didn't know the back story then, that nearly 20 years before I was born Tina and her former husband Ike Turner had helped to lay the foundation for rock, influencing such acts as David Bowie and the Rolling Stones.

At the time, I didn't know that no other woman in rock and soul invigorated the genres with so much torrid energy - bringing unhinged sexuality and gospel fervor to even the most banal songs. By the summer of '84, Tina was 45 years old, wore hair that looked like a lion's mane and strutted around on TV in miniskirts and seriously high pumps. Private Dancer was on its way to multi-platinum sales. She was rock music's phoenix - gloriously rising after leaving Ike, who kept her in check for years with routine beatings, and re-inventing herself after nearly a decade in obscurity.

We all know the story of how Anna Mae Bullock, a shy country gal from Nutbush, Tenn., became Tina Turner, rock's queen. We all saw the conventional but sometimes riveting 1993 movie with Angela Bassett as the singer (a portrayal so right-on that Tina herself couldn't have topped it) and the dynamic Laurence Fishburne as Ike. Two years after the Grammy-winning success of Private Dancer, Tina still managed to score a few sizable hits, some gold and platinum records here and there. But nothing matched her 1984 comeback album.

On the two-disc retrospective All the Best, which hit stores Tuesday, we're taken through a mostly serviceable summation of Tina's career. The main focus here is on her '80s heyday with three new cuts and two original Ike and Tina hits (1973's "Nutbush City Limits," the duo's last smash, and 1966's epic "River Deep Mountain High") thrown in. This collection isn't exactly "all the best" Tina has to offer. There aren't any liner notes, and you don't really get a sense of the legend's musical evolution with the haphazard sequencing on the two discs. All the Best should have been titled A Taste of the Best or something like that.

After Private Dancer, Tina's albums - namely Breaking Every Rule from '86 and Foreign Affair from '88 - were mostly uneven. Tina was always in great voice, but the production was often very much of its time. Her 1983 remake of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" epitomizes the noisy, flat, synth-heavy junk that came out of England during the '80s. The new tunes - "Open Arms," "Complicated Disaster" and "Something Special" - ride on overly slick, faceless production. (The swaggering, groove-heavy version of "Open Arms" that's garnering airplay on urban stations doesn't appear on the set.) But, again, Tina's voice is still a marvel: the soul firepower and unmistakable nuances that influenced such acts as Chaka Khan and Syleena Johnson haven't diminished a bit.

The singer is obviously not into pushing musical limits anymore. Tina hasn't gotten raw, gutbucket funky on us since 1974's "Sexy Ida." She hung up her dancing shoes a few years back. No more tours. But that's cool. At 66, Tina Turner has absolutely nothing to prove. Want to get a whiff of her funk uncut? Go pick up What You Hear is What You Get, the sizzling live album she cut with Ike in 1971. You want campy Tina? There's her cover of "Goldeneye" from 1996's underrated Wildest Dreams. (Five songs from that album, including the vinegary James Bond theme, are included on All the Best.) Although Tina is seldom restrained, she offers a slightly jazzy feel on "Private Dancer," which appears on the new collection.

But it has never been easy to capture Tina's fierceness in the studio. She's from the old school: an act best experienced on stage. Homegirl worked night after night for years with Ike in merciless bar rooms and vibrant halls - the chitlin circuit, they called it then. She shook her tail feather, so to speak, with the Ikettes, flinging those long wigs and singing as if her life depended on it. (With Ike strung out on drugs and glaring behind her, she probably felt she was really singing for her life.)

She honed her skills in an era when the best singers (including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight and many others) went from the church house to Harlem's Apollo Theater, invoking the Holy Ghost in gutsy, baby-come-on-home songs. There were no Ashlee Simpson-like mishaps with failed backup tapes. You sang. You danced. You gave a show. Whatever the arrangement, those old-school acts still managed to stamp a song with their flavor.

Tina is one of the precious few soul survivors still around. And the sista looks incredible. In the '80s, when she rose again and graciously took the rock goddess crown that could never properly fit anybody else, Tina became a grand symbol of endurance. Her music from that time may sound dated now. But between the tinny drum machines and busy instrumental licks, there's Tina's voice, the true sound of an unbroken spirit. Regardless of the context, it's a sound to celebrate.

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