1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Tina Turner: Remembering the 'Queen of Rock 'n' Roll'

Suzanne Cords
May 24, 2023

One of the best-selling recording artists of all time, the singer and actress celebrated a more than 50-year career that rode the extreme highs and lows of the music business.

Tina Turner holding a microphone performs on stage
Rock queen Tina Turner has died at 83Image: PA Wire/picture alliance

A bundle of energy donning high heels, a miniskirt and a lion-like mane of hair: That's how fans knew rock queen Tina Turner. She also had that deep, smoky voice with which she wrote music history, and which secured her a spot as one of the greatest musicians of all time.

5 decades perfoming

Celebrating her final world tour in 2009, Tina Turner gave her last concert on May 5, in Sheffield, England, naturally in front of a sold-out audience. Then, at the age of 69, her career in the limelight was finally over. "It was a great show, really wonderful," she said years later in a rare interview with the BBC.

The next day she took a deep breath and decided: "That was it. There's no way I'm going back." For more than 50 years, she had spent almost every night on a bus, plane, in a car or a hotel. "There was only that life for me. And at some point, I didn't want to dance and sing anymore. I wanted to be at home and be normal."

Tina Turner performs in a concert in Cologne, Germany
Tina Turner's life became the basis for a film, a Broadway musical and an HBO documentary in 2021Image: Hermann J. Knippertz/AP Photo/picture alliance

"Home" was a villa near Küsnacht on Lake Zurich, where she had lived since the 1990s. The over one-acre estate in Switzerland, which she named "Algonquin" after her Native American grandmother, was a place where Tina enjoyed her retreat from show business alongside her German husband Erwin Bach.

'And we start over again …'

For a long time, it remained a secret that she had been seriously ill in her later years of life. She survived a stroke, suffered from colon cancer and received a kidney transplant. The organ was donated by her husband in 2017, but before that, she had been dependent on dialysis for many years.

Nevertheless, Tina remained confident and recovered. The self-confessed Buddhist was never afraid of death. "I don't believe in God and the Devil; that there's someone there who tells you what you did right and what you did wrong," she told German weekly Die Zeit in 2018. Turner was convinced that every deceased person begins a new life at some point. "We go and take a break. And then we come back — and start over again," she believed. It was at her secluded home in Switzerland where the songstress reportedly passed away aged 83. 

Singer Tina Turner acknowledges applause after performing on the closing night of her 24/7 concert tour
The US-born singer came from humble beginnings in the state of Tennessee to reach global super-stardomImage: Rose Prouser/REUTERS

Racial segregation and a passion for music

If she was right, she certainly deserves an easy start in her next life in reincarnation. Born on November 26, 1939, as Anna Mae Bullock, she grew up on a farm in the small town of Nutbush, Tennessee, where her father worked as an overseer of cotton pickers. Racial segregation still prevailed in the US, and as a child, she had to lower her glance when speaking to a white man: "Yes Sir, no Sir" was the expected way of speaking. On Sundays, Anna Mae sang in the church gospel choir.

In 1955, she moved to St. Louis, where her encounter with Ike Turner, a pioneer of soul music, was to change her life. The two met in a club where the then already popular Ike was holding court with his band, Kings of Rhythm. The then 17-year-old Anna Mae spontaneously grabbed the mike and sang a B.B. King hit. It was the beginning of an unprecedented career. Ike hired her right away as a background singer for his band.

Anna Mae Bullock becomes Tina Turner

She got her big opportunity in 1960 when Art Lassiter, the lead singer of the Ike Turner Band, was supposed to record the song "A Fool in Love." But he failed to show, so Ike sent the young Anna Mae to the microphone instead. It was their very first hit ever, which made it to number 27 in the US charts. For promotion reasons, Ike renamed the young singer Tina without further ado, finally pulling her out of the background choir and placing her in the spotlight. From then on, they toured the country together as the Ike & Tina Turner Revue.

Tina und Ike Turner performing on stage in front of a microphone
Tina Turner was voted along with husband Ike Turner (pictured right) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and in her own right in 2021Image: Bert Reisfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Ike and Tina also became a couple. The musicians married in Mexico in 1962 and had two sons together. In the professional realm, their success rose steadily. Tina's impressive voice was also noticed in Europe when she contributed to Phil Spector's pop symphony "River Deep, Mountain High" in 1966 — for a fee of $25,000 (€23,200).

Escaping a hellish marriage

A joint tour with the Rolling Stones, regular shows in Las Vegas, a new lucrative record deal and higher fees for live performances marked the successful years of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue; each year, they played some 270 concerts.

The song "Proud Mary" catapulted them into the top 10 of the US charts for the first time in 1970. The single became a million-seller and Tina received her first Grammy Award as Best Rhythm & Blues Singer.

As an artist couple, Ike and Tina Turner were inducted into the "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" in 1991 — even though they had long gone their separate ways.

In her 1986 biography, I, Tina: My Life Story, the singer described their marriage as hell on Earth. Ike constantly cheated on Tina and turned out to be a tyrant who put her in the hospital several times. In 1976, she pulled the plug: After a gig in Dallas, Tina fled the hotel suite with a swollen, bruised face and just 36 cents to her name and never returned. In the divorce, she renounced all rights and joint property, only taking her stage name with her. A name that would later bring her world fame.

From cleaning lady to world star

But at first Tina had a hard time keeping her head above water. She was in debt due to the cancelled tour with Ike, who took all the royalties. She sang in bars and at business events, and also worked as a cleaning lady: "To be free ... well, that was wonderful! I didn't care that I didn't have any money, that I had to clean other people's houses to earn a living," she later recalled of this challenging period.

Tina Turner und Lionel Richie holding their respective Grammy awards
Turner, pictured with singer Lionel Richie (right), sold more than 180 million records worldwide and was an eight-time Grammy winnerImage: Lennox McLendon/AP Photo/picture alliance

The big record companies had written her off at that time as an old star who could hardly be marketed. But music producer and manager Roger Davies supported Tina. He believed in her and pulled her out of her career doldrums. With the album Private Dancer, Tina stepped back into the spotlight again in 1984 at the age of 45. The released single "What's Love Got To Do With It" became her first No. 1 hit.

Second career and true love

From then on, the Queen of Rock could only move upward. In the course of her more than 50-year career, Tina Turner sold around 200 million albums and won 12 Grammy Awards. In 1988, she performed at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro in front of 180,000 people — this huge audience earned her an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records.

In 1985, she met music manager Erwin Bach, who was 16 years her junior, in Cologne, Germany. Even though it was love at first sight, the two of them did not get married until 2013, in a Buddhist ceremony. That was 51 years after her marriage to Ike. The wedding guests are said to have included David Bowie, Eros Ramazotti and Giorgio Armani. In that same year Tina Turner also took on Swiss citizenship.

Eros Ramazzotti and Tina Turner perform on stage in Munich, Germany
Tina Turner began her career in the 1950s during the early years of rock and roll and evolved into a music phenomenonImage: Guido Krzikowski/IMAGO

An icon of resilience

After her retreat from the stage, she recorded Buddhist texts for a spiritual music project. In 2018, she was a consultant for the creators of the Tina Turner Musical. That same year, her memoirs My Love Story were published. That book shows that Tina Turner was not only a wonderful singer, but also a tireless fighter.

TV star host Oprah Winfrey, Tina's longtime friend, put it in a nutshell: "Tina, you not only sing and dance. When people see you on stage, they know that you have fought your way out of the worst despair. That means no matter how far a woman has fallen, she can make it, just like you did."

This article was originally written in German.