Simply the Best: A Southerner’s Ode to Tina Turner

A Mississippi novelist recalls a lifetime of Tina

Photo: Zoran Veselinovic/Cover Images via AP

Tina Turner in 1987.

No one ever says goodbye to Tina Turner. After all, her story has no end. Or rather, every end turned out to be a beginning. And every beginning, something even bigger and bolder. From a hardscrabble upbringing in rural Tennessee to singing in St. Louis nightclubs and marrying a famous musician. From that first blast of fame in a famously mentally and physically abusive marriage, she began again, leaving the union penniless with only her stage name. A mediocre stint on the nightclub circuit that turned to multiplatinum albums and sold-out concert tours across the globe. 

Tina Turner, who died yesterday in Switzerland at eighty-three, wasn’t just a singer to me. She was a supernatural force. An action hero. (Aunty Entity in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome—of course Tina could survive and thrive during the apocalypse!) A woman who possessed a voice that could reach you down and deep. Both soulful and edgy, Tina owned any song she chose. She was famous for covering everyone from the Beatles to Creedence. Somehow, she made their songs even better, even deeper, even more filled with meaning.

photo: Rusty Kennedy/AP
Turner with Mick Jagger at Live Aid in 1985.

She was MTV. She was the voice of celebration. I was in Miami to see the 49ers win their third Super Bowl in 1989, and guess whose video pops up on the jumbotron? “Simply the Best,” blaring through Joe Robbie Stadium. The perfect song for world champions. Four years earlier, HBO released a Tina concert that I’d watched endlessly. She took on Mad Max that same summer. No one looked like her. No one spoke like her, with that sharp elocution. But he’s just a raggedy man…

Tina Turner was well established before I ever came into this world. My mother saw Ike and Tina’s Revue in the late sixties at Troy State University in Alabama, and the band was asked to leave early due to their risqué material. We all know their story and have seen the movie—of how Ike sexualized Tina despite her stellar voice, moves, and stage presence. 

I remember her first as a tremendous singer who’d show up on the glossy variety shows of the seventies, someone who at that point was remembered for glory days past, just part of a once-famous duo. But then the summer of ’84 happened. Tina Turner was the phoenix who came back and slayed the world. She gave us multiple hit singles and some badass videos. She’d soon perform with Jagger (“It’s Only Rock and Roll,” during Live Aid!), Bowie, Rod Stewart on the almost-written-for-her “Hot Legs,” and Bryan Adams. Her duet with Adams on “It’s Only Love,” from his Reckless album, is absolutely phenomenal. I played it endlessly on my Walkman.

photo: Frank Augstein/AP
Performing in 1996.

She had reinvented herself as a rock goddess, no longer half of a duo but wholly herself. She’s one of the only musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice: once as Ike and Tina, and again as TINA TURNER, all in bold, all on her own.

When I saw Tina live in the fall of 1984 at Auburn University, she was in her mid-forties and a full-out global rock star. At that point, Tina Turner owned the world. Her band was already famous from their TV appearances, the muscle-bound Tim Cappello on saxophone and the charismatic Kenny Moore on keyboards. The old Coliseum hadn’t had that kind of energy since Elvis performed there in ’74. She hit almost all of the Private Dancer album, while also reaching back to her Ike and Tina days. “Proud Mary.” “Nutbush City Limits.”

I still have the poster I bought that night. As good as Tina is on vinyl, seeing her live is on an entirely different level. Later on, I went back to discover all those old Ike and Tina albums. (Not so easy to find in the eighties.) To listen to Tina reworking “Honky Tonk Women” or “Let It Be” is to hear those songs for the very first time. Who else could do that?

So let us flash forward to 2005 at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. A buzz ripples through the crowd that Tina Turner was there and—gasp!—performing with Ike. I ran straight for the big tent rocking with a full-out “Proud Mary” number. And there was a world-class band fronted by guitar virtuoso Ike and a woman in a sequined mini dress with incredible legs. Her movements looked familiar. I knew that hairstyle. But despite the props and the band, the magic just wasn’t there. It was a karaoke, a mere imitation—Ike’s latest wife doing her Tina stage show. I’d seen the real thing, and this wasn’t even close.

After all, there was only one Tina Turner. Her musical legacy has no end, only a beginning.

Ace Atkins is the New York Times bestselling author of several novels. The former newspaper reporter and SEC football player lives in Oxford, Mississippi.