Dancing for Money: How Tina Turner Transformed Into a Mega Star

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Posted July 11, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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Private Dancer, the album that revived Tina Turner’s career, celebrates 30th anniversary

Only in the excess of the 1980’s could the right ingredients come together to make a pop music superstar. You had new-age technologies and world-reaching platforms like fully digital recording, MTV and the music video. And there’s more. By 1985, music consumption had hit a new high, thanks to the first fleet of stars that jumped on these new innovations. Names like Madonna, Lionel Richie, Cyndi Lauper and the King of them all, Michael Jackson proved to be a mesmerizing eclipse of the pop revolution. But also in that cluster of pop music’s mightiest ensemble of super friends also included Tina Turner, a name that was so unlikely to reign as such previously.

Let’s break down the facts.

By 1984, the “River Deep Mountain High” singer was now a seasoned 44 years of age. All of the biggest hits associated with her ex-husband Ike Turner were now a good decade away from the times. And the disco-charged late ’70 marked a turbulent time for previous relics, and for anyone un-hip to string-laden productions and four on the floor beats. Tina tried her hand at disco, but failed miserably. Both her 1978 and 1979 albums on the crumbling United Artists label missed the Billboard 200 entirely. The idea of a comeback for the full-throttled rock-R&B performer seemed unlikely, particularly in the New Wave-dominated era. But some one believed in Turner enough to add deserving sand to her career’s hourglass.

In 1979, Roger Davies met Turner on the set of an Olivia Newton-John TV special. Although possessed with clouds of premature doubt, he made the decision to become Turner’s manager and began booking the fiery entertainer at flashy clubs, even securing a stint at the Ritz in New York City. It didn’t take long for the rock world to notice her again. Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones were now bringing her up on stage. The new excitement surrounding Turner prompted Capitol Records to sign her. Unbeknownst to many, Turner was temporarily dropped from Capitol, before she could even record a note. With a new president and management now controlling the company, they declined to record Turner, dropping her in 1983. But A&R executive John Carter pleaded to the company’s president for a re-signing, convincing Capitol to bring her back.

Coming out the gate in November 1983 was a remake of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which opened with a passionate solo decorated with light electronic strings and then waltzes into an Eighties-nurtured rhythmic arrangement powered by Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh. The song quickly became a hit in the UK, climbing to number 6. It didn’t take long for the song to make noise in the US, where it soared to number 26 pop and number 3 R&B. All of the success behind the single prompted the label to force Turner back into the studio to produce a full length album, the first for Capitol.

That album, Private Dancer, is not just Turner’s tour de force and her magnum opus, but it’s clearly one of the greatest album releases of the ’80s. Making it so spectacular is how tailored this adventure felt, especially when compared to Turner’s prior collections. Sure, a handful of cover tunes are aboard here (McCartney/Lennon’s “Help!” and David Bowie’s “1984”), but unlike her late-70s solo albums, Private Dancer also generated a number of original compositions. Those tunes hold up the reins of Turner’s magnificent comeback, giving power to her own voice and testimony. Nothing is more poignant as the soul-searching ballad “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Originally Tina dreaded the song. “It was a song that Roger pushed for me to do,” Turner said. “I hated it. He used to try to play it and I would go hide in the closet.”

When John Carter heard Turner recording her vocals on “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” he prophesied that the song would snag a Grammy. The Capitol Records exec was right, although he was off by two. The Terry Britten-penned song took home three awards at the 1985 Grammy Awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. And thanks to its clever music video, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” became an overnight sensation on MTV, propelling Turner to super stardom. It also helped earn Turner her first number one hit of her career.

Much can be said about the powerful tune, but the same can be said about the gloriously melancholic title cut. Turner wears the mask of a stripper that hates her job as much as her present life, but she has hope and aspirations: “I want to make a million dollars/I want to love out by the sea/Have a husband and some children/Yeah, I guess I want a family.” Across this dusky sophisticated R&B gem — featuring the residue of an Anita Baker slow jam and the creepy soul of Steely Dan’s “FM (No Static At All),” Turner tells this story of a bad girl chasing down those sweet American dreams through the actions of her occupation. It’s a haunting, heartbreaking seven-minute track, surprisingly penned by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, and probably one of the most vulnerable tracks of Turner’s career besides “Whats’s Love.”

As if Turner was re-introducing herself back to the world after dominating headlines with her painful divorce from Ike, most of the songs aboard Private Dancer triggered a type of catharsis for her. “Better Be Good to Me,” a brilliant uptempo celebration of ’80s pop, echoed the grandeur of Aretha’s “Respect.” Here she demands good loving, the top of the line. “Show Some Respect” reinforces that need of devotion. On the opening track “I Might Have Been Queen,” you can even hear Tina singing “I’m a soul survivor.” Throughout this ten track collection, Turner is making powerful statements of liberation while also asking for the utmost respect. Quite frankly, she’s demanding it, like a confident rock star.

The presence of remakes also shapes the course of Private Dancer, but these weren’t just typical trips down memory lane. When she does jump on a remake, like the overlooked Ann Peebles song “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” she alters it completely. With the New Wave gloss and an industrial thunder, the aged Memphis soul standard is morphed into a sharp weapon of the age. The same can be said for “Let’s Stay Together.” But even before American audiences got a chance to hear the revived Tina on the Al Green anthem, UK fans were afforded the opportunity of hearing her on British Electric Foundation‘s 1982 New Wave-powered cover of the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion.” A precursor to what was to come, “Ball of Confusion” — featured on the 30th Anniversary edition of Private Dancer — proved Tina was ready to break out of the box she’d been forced into by the slummy industry, even if it wasn’t an original.

Turner’s vocal performance is also worth noting. It’s less raw than the Ike & Tina Turner Revue records, a bit more honed in on the pop radio aesthetic. But it turns fierce when the appointed time comes. When she belts the second round on the chorus to “Private Dancer,” you know she understands the tenor of the painful lyrics.

By the summer of 1985, seven singles were released from Private Dancer, an astounding number for any album releases at that time. Along with “What’s Love,” Turner pulled off two more Top 10 hits with “Better Be Good to Me” and “Private Dancer.” A role in the 1985 motion picture Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome netted Turner two more hits: “We Don’t Need Another Hero” (number two pop) and “One of the Living” (number 15 pop). Clearly no other female star, or star in general, shined brighter in 1985 than Turner.

Thirty years later, Private Dancer (originally released on May 29, 1984) still stands out as one of the mightiest collections of music to be released. It deservingly ranks up there with a host of Eighties must-haves like Prince’s Purple Rain, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, Talking Head’s Speaking in Tongues, Culture Club’s Colour By Numbers, U2’s The Joshua Tree or Michael Jackson’s dual masterpieces (Thriller, Bad). It should be noted that Turner’s follow-up album Break Every Rule was just as rewarding and pretty bad-ass: “Typical Male,” “What You Get Is What You See” and the smooth sounds of “Two People” are all on board. But Private Dancer broke every rule first. It turned the “Proud Mary” relic into one of the greatest phenoms in pop music, completing the manual on “how to stage a comeback.” Honestly, no one has done a comeback as perfect and awe-inspiring as Turner’s Private Dancer.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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