Ike Turner: November 5, 1931 – December 12, 2007

It’s March 1951. Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm have just torn up about 50 miles of Highway 61 to get to Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Company on Union Avenue. They’ve set up their gear in the boxy space, about the size of a one-car garage, lined with cheap perforated paperboard tiles to keep the sound from bouncing around.

Turner’s at the piano. Raymond Hill and Jackie Brenston are hitting a few warm-up notes on their saxes. Willie Sims is tightening the heads of his drums and Willie Kizart has plugged his guitar into a little amp that’s spent plenty of nights turned up full in the juke joints around Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Maybe too many, because it’s distorting like crazy. Later a myth develops about the amp falling off the roof of Turner’s car on the way to Memphis, but nobody who was there recalls that happening. At any rate, it takes an executive decision by Phillips—who’s used to hearing some pretty funky equipment with the black bands he’s been recording recently—to continue the session.

When the red light flashes on, Turner dives into the keyboard, Kizart chops out a dirty riff and Brenston steps up to the microphone to sing. And they make history. The song they cut, "Rocket 88," is a smash for Chess Records, reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart. It was also, most music historians acknowledge today, the first rock and roll record.

Thus Ike Turner, who died at his San Marcos, California, home on Wednesday, December 12, entered history.

Getting there wasn’t easy. After his father died terribly from an industrial accident and his mother had a nervous breakdown, Turner was raised by Mrs. Z.L. Ratliff, the proprietor of Clarksdale’s Riverside Hotel, a former African-American hospital where the blues singer Bessie Smith breathed her last. As one of the few hotels in the then-segregated region serving African-Americans, it catered to a cast of notables ranging from Sonny Boy Williamson II to Duke Ellington.

Turner discovered his future when piano man Pinetop Perkins, who is still playing at age 94, began giving him lessons. At age 11 Turner joined his first band, accompanying slide guitar legend Robert Nighthawk.

B.B. King befriended Turner after the young pianist sat in with King’s group around Clarksdale and took him into the studio. Turner played on many of King’s early recordings, including his first big hit "Three O’Clock Blues."

King introduced Turner to Sam Phillips, who regarded Turner as the finest musician he ever encountered—high praise from the man who recorded B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley.

Working with Phillips, Turner became the first A&R man of the budding rock and roll era. He brought Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, Roscoe Gordon, Little Milton Campbell, and others to Sun and played on many of the resulting sessions. He did the same for the Los Angeles-based Bihari Brothers (who he also met through King), locating Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Bobby "Blue" Bland for their Modern and Meteor labels.

In 1952 and ’53, Turner began taking guitar lessons from Kizart and Nighthawk. He quickly became adept. Turner bought his first guitar out of the window of a Memphis music store.

"It had a whammy bar on it," he explained decades later, "but I didn’t know about vibrato. I thought it was on there to make it scream. I had never seen a guitar with a bar until I bought mine."

Thus Turner developed his own radical style based on pentatonic runs, grinding chords, and wailing cries from his whammy, best exemplified in his 1959 instrumental hit "Prancin’," a tune that was a show-stopper when it was new and again 45 years later when Turner returned to his early style of music making.

As the ’50s continued Turner led his own band up and down the East Coast and across the Midwest. In Chicago he began scouting talent for Eli Toscano’s Cobra Records, along with the great songwriter and producer Willie Dixon.

That’s actually Turner playing the classic riff on Otis Rush’s 1958 "All Your Love," a song that would enter the rock canon when it was covered by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers nearly a decade later, with Eric Clapton quoting Turner’s lick verbatim. At Cobra, Turner also participated in sessions with Buddy Guy and Magic Sam.

Ike and Tina TurnerTurner’s approach changed in 1959 when he met 18-year-old Ida Mae Bullock. He discovered her singing in a St. Louis nightclub during his band’s breaks. Male vocalists fronted most of the day’s R&B groups, but Turner was smitten by Bullock’s voice and beauty. He hired her and slowly worked her in as front woman. Shortly after, she changed her name to Tina Turner and they married in Mexico.

Their first recorded duet, 1960’s "A Fool in Love," became a hit, prompting Ike to rename his band the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. The song reached No. 2 on the R&B charts and broke into the pop Top 40, paving the way for a string of smash singles—"It’s Gonna Work Out Fine," "I Idolize You," the Phil Spector-produced "River Deep, Mountain High," "Proud Mary," "Nutbush City Limits"—and successful albums. They made the leap to rock stardom in 1966 when they toured the U.K. with the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds.

Inspired by the passion of Yardbirds and Stones fans, Turner began adding contemporary rock covers to the Revue’s sets. He developed a unique way of interpreting the material—a fusion of rock, soul, and primal funk. In ’69 Ike and Tina toured with the Stones again, this time in North America. They appear briefly on stage in the documentary of that tour, Gimme Shelter.

In the 1970s, Turner descended from fame to notoriety. His abuse of cocaine fueled increasingly erratic behavior and strained his and Tina’s relationship, which became stained with violence. The hits also stopped coming after "Nutbush City Limits" in 1973.

Ike’s growing dysfunction and abuse were chronicled in Tina’s autobiography I, Tina and the 1993 film it inspired, What’s Love Got to Do With It, where Laurence Fishburne portrayed Turner as a drug-fueled monster. Tina left Ike in 1976. (When Ike died she issued a press release saying she had no contact with him during the past 35 years.)

From then on Ike Turner’s history as a musician was overshadowed by his reputation as a wife beater. His 1989 drug bust and subsequent 17 months in prison didn’t help his profile. Nonetheless, two years later he and Tina were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame together.

Turner spent most of the ’90s attempting to recapture his late ’60s and ’70s glory years—playing guitar and bass, writing songs, and recording and touring his Ike Turner Revue in search of elusive hits. When he returned to Clarksdale, Mississippi, for a homecoming concert mid-decade, he was leading a group that followed the blueprint of his ’70s outfits—a little big band fronted by this thirteenth wife Jeanette, controlled from the back of the stage by Turner.

That concert was a pivotal experience for Turner. Although he hadn’t taken the spotlight on stage in decades, the organizers of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival urged him to play a few of the piano instrumentals that were once his trademark in the local juke joints, as well as his historic "Rocket 88" and some old-school guitar. His pal Little Milton was also on the bill. Milton invited Turner to the piano during his own headlining set.

"That felt so good, but it was just the beginning," Tuner said when he spoke about the show two years later. "Then [modern bluesman] Joe Louis Walker asked me to tour Europe with him, and wanted me to play the old songs. He said, ‘Man, I bet most people don’t even know you play the piano.’ So I figured I’d better study up on me.

"When I dug up some of my stuff from the ’50s and tried to play it on piano or guitar, like ‘Prancin’, it was so difficult. I had gone into a different mindset, trying to keep up with what the industry was doing in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. So I had to relearn how to play my own stuff."

Which he did, recording the brilliant return-to-original-form Here and Now for Rooster Records’ Ikon subsidiary in 2001. The album sparked a career renaissance, returning Turner to the international festival circuit. The disc’s openers "Tore Up" and "Baby’s Got It" are flashbacks to his Sun days, the latter displaying his cranked-up take on the pure barrelhouse style he learned from Perkins as a boy. "Ike’s Theme" is a six-string jewel that’s cousin to "Prancin’." It builds a stack of pentatonic melodies that he then demolishes with his whammy bar. There’s also a spiky re-do of "Rocket 88" and a raw "Catfish Blues" that features what Turner described as "the kind of pickin’ I learned following Sonny Boy Williamson around."

Here and Now won Turner two Handy Awards, the Blues Foundation’s equivalent of Grammies, for Best Traditional Blues Album and Comeback Album of the Year in 2002.

"I never thought I would be accepted the way I’m being accepted today," he said after receiving his Handys. "I always thought somebody else needed to be in front. I was insecure. Now I’ve made my best record in my life because I’m not hiding behind anybody, and I’m playing what’s in my heart."

After the Here and Now sessions Turner cut a solo piano album for Rooster, but the label ceased operations and it has never been released. Earlier this year Turner’s latest CD Risin’ with the Blues won the Grammy in the Best Traditional Blues category. He shared his first Grammy with Tina in 1972 for "Proud Mary."

As of this writing, the cause of Turner’s death was undisclosed. He was already struggling with emphysema when he made his comeback, but to hear Turner tell it, he was on a mission.

"I love what I’m doing again," he explained, "but there’s more to it than that. Now we got rap and hip-hop, but we lost what we had in black music. There are no more Ray Charleses or Sam Cookes or Coasters. You got ugly music where they just make a loop and call women bitches and say they’re gonna get a gun. No melody, no harmony—just rhythm. I’m gonna give it my all until my last breath to get good music back on the radio, ’cause kids don’t know nuthin’ about it. Somebody’s gotta teach them."

Click here to read the Gibson Interview with Ike Turner.