One of rock’s best bandleaders for a quarter century his turbulent life off-stage has come to overshadow much of his professional accomplishments but his stature as a musician is unassailable.

Born Izear Luster Turner Jr. in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1931 he had a traumatic and brutal childhood which undoubtedly contributed to his own later issues, as at the age of five he witness his father being nearly beaten to death by an angry white mob and left an invalid, dying a few years later as a result of the injuries sustained in the attack. His mother remarried and he endured abuse from his alcoholic stepfather thereafter while simultaneously being sexually assaulted repeatedly by older women in the neighborhood before reaching puberty.

Along the way however he found refuge in music after seeing Pinetop Perkins through a window playing the ferocious boogie he was known for. Taking up the instrument himself Turner proved a quick study and while he was unable to read music he learned to play by ear and soon was good enough to back famous bluesmen as they traveled through the region.

Married for the first time at 16, he put together his first iteration of The Kings Of Rhythm around that time featuring saxophonist Raymond Hill who would remain with him for over a decade. By 1950 he’d gotten a radio show and was considered one of the better local bands when early the next year B.B. King told him about Sam Phillips in Memphis who had a recording studio and would audition anyone and if they were good enough would try and sell the tapes to a record company.

Turner had just seen the defection of his lead vocalist, Johnny O’Neal, who’d signed with King Records as a solo artist, but undeterred Turner set out for Memphis with the rest of his band, assembling songs on the way including re-writing Jimmy Liggins’ 1948 rock classic “Cadillac Boogie” which had been in their set list and sung by saxophonist Jackie Brenston.

The resulting song “Rocket 88” with its storming arrangement and fuzzy guitar which was the result of a broken amp became a Number One hit when Phillips sold it to Chess Records in Chicago where it came out under Brenston’s name with the fictitious moniker “The Delta Cats” rather than Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm which caused a huge rift within the band. Turner’s own efforts cut at the same date which came out under his name were lost in the attention for the other record and he split with Brenston and took a job working for Modern/RPM later in the year as a talent scout, bandleader and producer, roles he’d more or less thrive at for much of the 1950’s while his own recording career amounted to very little in a commercial sense.

Turner was hampered by the fact he was not a strong singer and tried avoiding handling vocals if he could, but feeling burned by his experience with Brenston, whom he took back into the fold in the mid-1950’s but refused to let him sing his hit at their shows, he never could make much headway in an era that was geared towards vocal records.

The band’s rough and rowdy instrumental prowess was also too raw at times for the prevailing tastes of the day and they divided their output between rock and blues or some hybrid of the two. A few records along the way, such as one with Billy Gayles on lead, “I’m Tore Up”, in 1956 made some noise, but not enough to get them off the club circuit where they thrived. Settling in St. Louis they were the city’s hottest band for much of the decade until fate intervened when Anna Mae Bullock, an aspiring singer, hooked up with them in 1958, convincing them to let her sing a song and impressed by her voice as well as her looks and fierce determination she joined the group which, two years later, took Ike Turner from a marginal act to one with a string of hits for the next fifteen years and a well-earned reputation as the tightest stage show in rock behind only James Brown.

Those years (to be covered separately) were Ike’s peak as a performer, having switched to guitar in the mid-1950’s on which he crafted an indelible style centered around his inventive use of the whammy bar, yet even during the duo’s great run his songwriting abilities never matched their performing skill, costing them the kind of consistent crossover appeal he craved.

When their violent partnership dissolved in 1976, Turner, now with a cocaine addiction that started in 1970, spent more time in court and in jail than in the studio and when ex-wife Tina revived her own career in the mid-80’s with some enormous hits and a no-holds barred autobiography, Ike’s image was forever altered. Though the two were inducted together into The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, Ike was imprisoned at the time and upon his released tried to present his side of their story but found few sympathetic ears.

Nevertheless he had retained his musical skill and that alone was enough to keep him in the spotlight with new music, including a Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2007, guest appearances on Gorillaz’ 2004 smash album Demon Days, as well having his back catalog mined, most notably on Salt-n-Pepa’s 1993 hit “Shoop” which sampled “I’m Blue”, a hit he wrote for his female backing group The Ikettes in 1965.

Though Turner had kicked drugs while in prison and remained sober for a decade, he relapsed in the early 2000’s and suffering from emphysema he died of a cocaine overdose in December 2007 at the age of 76.

Equally talented and conflicted, one of the few artists in rock history who could rightly claim to be among the hundred best musicians on two different instruments, Ike Turner’s well-earned place in rock history is always going to come with baggage.
IKE TURNER DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Chess 1458; March, 1951)
As leader of backing band… for Jackie Brenston. Everything hits on all cylinders from a vibrant arrangement featuring Turner’s piano, Raymond Hill’s sax and Willie Kizart’s distorted guitar to Jackie Brenston’s confident vocal… a classic in every way. (9)

(Chess 1458; March, 1951)
As leader of backing band… for Jackie Brenston. A complete misfire from its bleak sound and indifferent, atonal performance from the band on a song which is every bit as bad as the top side is good. (2)

(Chess 1459; March, 1951)
Turner shows his discomfort as a vocalist with a nasal tone on a song that is way too slow, too bleak and too sparse to hide the fact as this bluesy cut needs a better arrangement with a smoother performance by the band to be more than simply an historical curio. (3)

(Chess 1459; March, 1951)
A rolling boogie that conjures up the kind of shows that went on all night at a Southern roadhouse featuring a solid arrangement with piano and horns out front before a snarling guitar closes it out while Turner acquits himself fairly well on the vocals. (5)

(RPM 356; May, 1952)
An unexpected turn by Ike who actually croons fairly effectively on a song that’s borrowed from another and doesn’t feature his normal band behind him, but while better than expected in terms of his singing, it’s still not what Turner does best. (4)

(RPM 356; May, 1952)
A total rip-off/re-write of Roy Milton’s vital pre-rock classic “R.M. Blues” with new slightly racier lyrics, about the same subject, and a sped up arrangement, but Turner at least handles it fairly well despite nasal vocals. (5)

(Modern 870; June, 1952)
As co-writer and pianist for Jimmie Lee & Artis…

(RPM 362; August, 1952)
Though fairly generic by nature what’s being used here, especially the vibrant guitar, work pretty well and with Ike’s wife Bonnie taking the majority of the lead vocals it alleviates the pressure on him to carry the load. (5)

(RPM 362; August, 1952)
A good idea in making Arbee Stidham’s late 40’s hit a duet which accentuates the nice melody the original sort of obscured, but the Turners aren’t good enough singers to make it live up to the potential and it seems almost pop-like in their hands. (4)