Considering Ike Turner’s Legacy

Originally posted December 13, 2007

How does one balance the admiration one has for an individual’s performance – be it music, writing, art, acting or what have you – with the repugnance one might feel for the same individual’s private actions? In the field of music alone, many names come to mind when pondering that question. At a bulletin board I frequent, more than one writer has said that he or she has difficulty enjoying the works of Frank Sinatra or Muddy Waters because of the two men’s attitudes and actions towards women. The same concern can be expressed, another writer posted, about at least a portion of the life of John Lennon.

What social responsibility, if any, does the consumer of popular art have in the face of obvious anti-social conduct by any creator of that art? Is it enough for the listener, in the case of music, to be aware of the moral (and possibly legal) shortcomings of an artist while still listening to the music created by any such individual? Or is listening to the music created by an individual whose actions place him beyond the pale an immoral act in itself? Frankly, despite having pondered those questions for at least a little while, I don’t know.

Those questions arise today because of the death yesterday of Ike Turner, who was seventy-six. Widely regarded as a beast, at minimum, for his treatment of women – including his one-time wife and partner, Tina Turner – Ike Turner was also one of the architects of the music that became known as rock ’n’ roll. He was the writer, arranger, producer and piano player for the first recording of “Rocket 88,” a 1951 record that is considered by many (including me) to be the first rock ’n’ roll record. The song was recorded at a Memphis session by Turner’s Kings of Rhythm with the group’s saxophone player, Jackie Brentson singing lead, but was released on the Chess label under the name of Jackie Brentson and His Delta Cats.

So what responsibility does the listener have in the face of vile conduct by a performer? I don’t know, as I said. I listen to John Lennon, to Muddy Waters, to Frank Sinatra, and yes, on occasion to Ike Turner and to Ike & Tina Turner. Even as I listen to their music, I’m aware of the shortcomings of those men, just as I am aware through news reports and books and magazines of the failings of other creative individuals whose works – music, art, literature, films – I enjoy.

Certainly any discussion of Ike Turner – to return to the individual whose death spurred these thoughts – will be incomplete without any reference to his moral shortcomings, which were large. Similarly, any discussion of the development of rock ’n’ roll and of rhythm and blues of the 1950s and 1960s will incomplete without any reference to his contributions, which were also large. For me, Turner is far more difficult to listen to than the other three musicians mentioned above. When his music – with or without Tina – pops up on the jukebox, I wince and cannot ignore his failings as a human being as I listen. But neither, I find, can I ignore the music and its influence on our culture. If that’s an unsatisfactory awkward balance, so be it.

Here’s a video I found at YouTube backed by “Rocket 88,” showing Oldmobiles, record jackets and labels, pictures of Brentson, Turner and the Rhythm Kings/Delta Cats, and – unaccountably – footage of what looks to be Fifties icon Bettie Page putting on stockings.

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