Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns
The Songs That Define Tina Turner
From “River Deep Mountain High” to “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” these are the songs that define the legacy of Rock ‘n Roll’s greatest show woman — Tina Turner.
As Questlove stated in an Instagram tribute amid her passing, Tina Turner was the king and queen. Rock ‘n Roll was built on the backs of legendary Black women: Bessie Smith, Odetta, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and, of course, Tina Turner. While the input of Black women in rock has often been copied, debated, and erased, Tina managed to reinvent herself after being a part of a duo that nearly broke her, transforming into a one-of-a-kind iconic rockstar who forced the industry to acknowledge her as our greatest rock frontwoman.
Raw, magnetic, commanding, sexual, elemental, and liberating, it’s these characteristics that made Tina such a revered artist, with countless artists across decades and genres — Janet Jackson, Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, Janis Joplin, and Madonna — emulating her. Through her music, many women have found their voice and confidence to be who they want to be, or free themselves from the same relatable pain conveyed through her artistry. Before we could name movements as #MeToo or identify ourselves as feminists, there was Tina: ascending from earthy Tennessee girl to refined rock royalty while remaining strong in the face of so much adversity. From the Chitlin Circuit to Ed Sullivan, she soundtracked the lives of women who could relate to her devoted sensuality and unrestricted femininity through songs like “Proud Mary,” Nutbush City Limits,” “Getting Nasty,” and “Shake a Tail Feather.” Unfortunately, those songs were tied to a traumatic history that would be married to Tina’s legacy for years to come.
When counted out and living in the shadow of her carefully-crafted persona, Tina transformed into another hero we needed and, more importantly, she needed. Making her major comeback in the mid-‘80s with Private Dancer, Tina shed the pain of her past to continue to be a vessel for a new generation of women. Power ballads and stadium anthems like “The Best,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” “Private Dancer,” and Mad Max’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” showed what we knew all along: that Tina was the real star of the show. Faced with ageism and sexism, Tina emerged as a blueprint for other Black women who aspired to be mega pop and rock stars. While the last 30 years of her life were summed up by her autobiography-turned-iconic biographical film What’s Love Got to Do with It (with Angela Bassett offering up one of her greatest performances as the legendary singer), her comeback would be seen as resilience exemplified. In reality, Turner had returned because she felt she needed to, telling theNew York Times in 2019: “I don't necessarily want to be a ‘strong’ person. I had a terrible life. I just kept going. You just keep going, and you hope that something will come.”
With her passing on Wednesday, there’s a new generation of women and youth that has the chance to rediscover Tina’s sheer talent, raspy voice, and those perfectly sculpted legs that danced across stages throughout the world.
From “River Deep Mountain High,” to “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” these are the songs that define Tina Turner.
“Bold Soul Sister” (1969)
“Bold Soul Sister” is a funky-rock soul jam from Ike and Tina’s 1969 album The Hunter. Their most blues-oriented album, the song features electric blues guitarist Albert Collins, better known as The Ice Man. With her distinct raspy wail, Tina declares she’s a “bold soul sister, B.S.S.” over Collins’ playing, as the Ikettes harmonize to “do your thang, soul sister.”
“River Deep Mountain High” (1969)
Although now seen as a legendary song in the Turners’ discography, “River Deep Mountain High” wasn’t a major hit when released in the United States in 1969. The song marked a change in Tina’s idea of what her talent was and who she could be outside of her combined marriage and business dealings with her then-husband. Having caught one of the Turner revue shows, famed record producer (and convicted murderer) Phil Spector was impressed with Tina’s voice, and wanted to see how her vocals paired with his Wrecking Crew production collective and his innovative “Wall of Sound” production technique. Costing an unprecedented (at the time) $22,000 and including 21 musicians for the sessions, the recording process was strenuous, with Tina stating: “I must have sung that 500,000 times. I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing.” Despite Spector’s idea of perfectionism and Ike’s lack of participation, the song proved to Tina that she could create a masterful piece of orchestral rock ‘n roll music as a solo artist.
“Proud Mary” (1971)
Arguably the most well-known song in her discography, “Proud Mary” is a cover of the 1969 song by rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival. The iconic 1971 version by Ike and Tina is a sobering rendition that drastically differs from the original. Beginning with a slow and sultry tone, Tina introduces the song with a warning — that the duo prefers to do things “nice and rough.” Softly reciting the lyrics as the instrumentation builds up, Tina’s voice gives way to those instantly recognizable horn hits, the song turned into a driving funk-rock anthem in her hands. While John Fogerty wrote “Proud Mary,” its story of poverty, classism, and societal gender roles is truly brought to life in Tina’s hands, the grit in her voice capturing the frustration of working for the man night and day just to survive.
“Nutbush City Limits” (1973)
Tina Turner’s love for her home of Tennessee is well-documented across her discography, but “Nutbush City Limits” is the clear standout. A simple song written solely by Tina, she recalls her memories of the city she grew up in, Nutbush, where you go to town on Saturdays and church every Sunday. It’s a Southern Gothic funk song that is more than just rural homage to home. Released in 1973, it was one of the last hit records made by Ike and Tina Turner before their divorce. With her then domestic life shattered by abuse and her husband’s addiction, Tina’s first self-written song was a stance of artistic and personal independence.
“Private Dancer” (1984)
In the rolodex of songs about sex work, there’s Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” and Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer.” Lyrically, the song is presumed to be about a sex worker who prefers to consider herself a “private dancer." Dark and ambiguous, the song exhibits a magnetic sexuality and jaded vulnerability as Tina sings passionately from the worker’s point of view. She yearns for a peaceful life, wanting to live out by the sea with a husband and some children. Then, reality returns: “Deutsche Marks or dollars / American Express will do nicely, thank you,” she says as she offers up her services. The smokey and sensual atmosphere created by the song is nailed by Turner, who showcases the versatility of her talent not just as a singer and performer, but interpreter of the songs she covers.
“What’s Love Got to Do with It” (1984)
Written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, “What’s Love Got to Do with It” is a tale about a growing attraction between lovers, soundtracked by smooth, ‘80s pop percussion and synth harmonica. But it's the song’s connection to her 1993 biopic that is the reason for its undeniable magnitude and influence. Using the title of the song for the movie, which starred Angela Bassett as Tina and Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner, What’s Love Got to Do with It became the thread that linked Tina with a new generation of people who weren’t aware of her music or story. Despite Tina not wanting to record the song at first (it was first offered to Phyllis Hyman and Donna Summer), she managed to make this song her own, launching a triumphant chapter in her life that would turn her from victim to survivor.
“We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” (1985)
In the ‘80s, your blockbuster film always needed a power ballad — and Tina was ready. Starring in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Turner also contributed to the film’s soundtrack with this Grammy and Golden Globe Award nominated song that could’ve easily rivaled Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Part rousing post-apocalyptic anthem, part sentimental ballad, “We Don’t Need Another Hero” is a perfect fit for the desolate movie epic, with Tina giving one of the best vocal performances from her second era. “Out of the ruins, out of the wreckage, can’t make the same mistake this time, we are the last generation,” Turner sings. Only her textured voice and visceral energy could fully squeeze out the explosive power of this signature ‘80s soundtrack anthem.
“The Best” (1989)
Bonnie Tyler might have written this epic single from Tina’s 1989 Foreign Affair album, but only Tina could make it one of her signature songs. A decade defining anthem, it’s the pulsating build-up and iconic arena performances of the song that has solidified its place in her legacy. It’s a stunning rendition that is the foremother to anthems like Janet Jackson’s “Together Again,” Beyonce’s “Halo,” or Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” Tina Turner’s rendition of “The Best” is a megahit without her even trying. As she growls over electric guitars, saxophone solo, and ‘80s signature bass, you’re instantly transported to a live Tina show — cherry picker over the crowd and all.
“When the Heartache Is Over” (1999)
By 1999, icons like Tina had begun experimenting with bright-eyed dance tracks, as was the case with the millennium epic, “When the Heartache Is Over.” Made in the same vein as Cher’s “Believe,” the single is the first from her final studio album, Twenty Four Seven. With a colossal chorus that easily helped the song crack the charts, the song differs lyrically from her previous work with Ike or even songs from her Private Dancer era. “Sometimes I look back in anger, thinking about all the pain / But I know that I’m stronger without you and that I’ll never need you again,” Turner croons over layers of Euro pop-inspired synth. Though not having the same exact vocal strength from the ‘70s or mid-‘80s, the song is Turner’s swan song. Coming into the 2000s, Turner found solace in retiring from recording new material, touring until 2009 and living the rest of her life in peace after finding love. When the heartache finally ended for Turner, she found what she was looking for on the other side — freedom.
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