The first time Ike Turner told me I’d been sent to him by God, I should have known enough to bolt. But instead, seated with a musician who was legendary for all the wrong reasons, plus his abrasive manager, in an only-in-LA-setting, a Westside Mexican restaurant helmed by a French chef and catering to an upscale, almost entirely gringo crowd, I continued to speak—or should I say pontificate—about what could, or should, be done to rehabilitate a shattered image and thereby increase his ability to bring in revenue.
The Ikester, as I took to calling him, was at that point an international icon but a financial catastrophe, embraced as a player by the hip-hop world, but demonized as a wife-beater and crack-addled ex-con almost everywhere else (though both characterizations were not merely exaggerations, they were also ancient history). He had paid his debt to society, sworn off booze and drugs, and was ostensibly wiser and chastened—or as chastened as anyone wearing a bright yellow suit not for sale west of Crenshaw in Los Angeles, and driving a bright yellow Mercedes convertible, could possibly be. More importantly, Ike swore to me, he wanted desperately to be known for his musical contributions rather than for the sordid aspects of his past.
Our paths had crossed repeatedly thanks to mutual friends in the music business, among them Ray Charles and Solomon Burke. But it was really a couple of backup singers—women who were the unsung heroes of many a hit record—who pushed Ike to reach out to me.
“America loves tales of redemption,” I told Ike, which seemed to appeal to him, while clearly irritating his manager. “People who come clean and apologize are not only given a second chance – they become more human in scale, which allows them to be embraced in a way that’s more personal, and therefore more profound.” Citing examples as diverse as Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant, George W. Bush, and, gulp, David Hasselhoff, I talked about the public’s willingness to forgive and, if not forget, at least to allow for a fresh start.
“So what do I need to do?” Ike asked, much to his manager’s chagrin.
Off the top of my head, I rattled off a sequence that not only made sense, but seemed achievable. First would be to do a Public Service Announcement—in which Ike would be seen on TV screens denouncing domestic violence. If the PSA went as planned, that would be followed by talk show appearances, hopefully including “Oprah,” where Ike would have the opportunity to demonstrate his contrition and talk about a proposed foundation for battered women.
“There goes his goddamn street cred!” the manager interjected.
“Fuck my street cred!” Ike blurted before again addressing me. “What about a record deal?”
“It’s not a record deal you need right away, it’s a fresh beginning. And after that, it’s not about a deal, but the right deal.”
“You mean my kind of terms?”
“I mean a company with the appropriate image.”
“Image my ass!” the manager bellowed.
“Who asked you?” The Ikester dismissed his protest with a wave. “What kind of image?”
“Preferably a place run by a woman of a certain age—and with a strong feminist reputation.”
“Why not make it a diesel dyke while you’re at it!” the manager shrieked, as surrounding diners grimaced.
“Shut the fuck up!” Ike said, soft yet forceful. “What company you thinking?” he asked me.
When I mentioned the name of a Boston-based label, the manager snickered.
“What’s so goddamn funny?” Ike demanded.
“They do folkie shit. And old-time shitkicker Country.”
“That true?” Ike asked me.
“So why the hell them?”
“Because their list also includes Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, James Booker—”
“The best of New Orleans—”
“Plus people like John Lee Hooker, the Persuasions, and our buddy Solomon Burke.”
Ever the showman, Ike allowed a moment to pass for dramatic effect then glared at his manager. “You calling my friend folkies and shitkickers?”
“Give me the keys so I can wait in the car,” the manager muttered.
“There’s a bench at the goddamn bus stop,” Ike answered. “Sit there.”
We watched as the manager stood and trudged toward the door. Only then did Ike turn toward me.
“Know anybody at that company?”
“The woman who runs it is a friend.”
“I love it.”
“But that’s not all.”
“I think there’s got to be a duet or two.”
“Like I used to do with Tina?” he asked, referring for the first time that evening to the most famous of his ex-wives, together with whom he made the rise from the Chitlin’ Circuit to stardom.
“With people who can endorse, or even strengthen, the new image.”
“Bonnie Raitt. Maybe Alison Krauss.”
Ike looked at me blankly.
“They any good?” the Ikester asked, making it clear he hadn’t the foggiest idea who they were.
Unlike a lot of people who discovered Blues, Gospel, and what used to be known as R&B (before it morphed into black pop) in high school, college, or even later in life, for me that music—and the comedy that often accompanied it—was never a discovery. It was simply always there. Spending my early years in what was considered a rough area (though as a kid it never seemed the least bit rough to me), those sounds were everywhere. Morning, noon, and night, to my parents’ dismay, the kind of music I still love poured forth from apartment windows, car radios, storefront churches, and especially the soul food place across from the local playground, where aside from treats that, in contrast to what I was served at home, actually had taste, there was a jukebox that provided a never-ending source of wonderment and joy.
In those days before over-zealousness, soccer moms, and the advent of play dates, I didn’t need plans, phone calls, emails, texts, or even a ride in order to have companionship. Thanks to the population density from which my parents were desperate to escape, I had the privilege of spontaneity. By walking out the door I could find everything I wanted: basketball, baseball, football, stickball, ringolevio, smothered chicken with dumplings and sweet potato pie on days when I had money in my pocket, and above all music.
Artists including Wynonie Harris, Guitar Slim, Big Maybelle, and above all Archie Brownlee of the Blind Boys of Mississippi —about whom I would later have lengthy conversations with Ray Charles—became part of me because of what was playing in the neighborhood. As did songs by the Clovers, Big Joe Turner, and Clyde McPhatter, thanks to the radio I hid under the covers every night. The same was true of the comedy routines I would later reminisce over with Solomon Burke, especially those by Pigmeat Markham and Moms Mabley.
Though my parents were convinced what I was listening to was leading me astray, it was not until we moved into a house of our own—in a largely white area—that I began to appreciate just how much the things I learned to cherish—whether the Drifters, Big Momma Thornton, and Frankie Lymon, or baseball, basketball, and boxing—really meant to me.
There was no way for me to expect—or even dream—that one day, three thousand miles away from urban New Jersey, I would befriend, and on many occasions work with, so many of the people who had unknowingly given me hope.
Still, there was no way for me to expect—or even dream—that one day, three thousand miles away from urban New Jersey, I would befriend, and on many occasions work with, so many of the people who had unknowingly given me hope.
Nor in my wildest flights of fancy could I have ever imagined the call I got from Ike the morning after our heart-to-heart conversation.
“I did it,” he announced.
“Dumped the idiot manager.”
“Can’t say I blame you, but now what?”
“Now it’s you and me.”
“W-what are you talking about?”
“You’re the one who should be my manager,” the Ikester stated.
Instead of laughing, or telling him he was nuts, I didn’t utter a word. So it was left to Ike to break the silence.
“You’re in, right?” Ike asked.
“Let me think about it.”
By not saying no immediately, I knew—and I suspect Ike did as well—that my fate was likely sealed.
That suggests the key question: Why? The answer, like so much in life, is both incredibly complicated and ridiculously simple. On the complicated side was the fact that, despite my parents’ pleas, I had always deliberately avoided a plan for my life, which meant that almost all key decisions were made ad hoc. While that meant little stability and even less security, it also allowed for happenstance and serendipity, which enabled me to delve into all sorts of interests and pursuits, most of which proved to be fun. I’d taught French, then later screenwriting; written travel guides; been a film critic and a newspaper columnist; written for the screen; directed documentaries, instructional films, music videos, commercials, and a thriller; produced albums; and penned countless liner notes. I’d traveled the globe and met fascinating people from a million realms, all the while accepting challenges galore, often simply because I’d never done them before.
And, in part because I’d never repped anyone, but also because of who Ike was—musically and otherwise—the prospect of managing him was sorely tempting.
If there’s a Rosebud to my story, it’s probably that despite all my experiences, I still love thumbing my nose at authority. Despite having heard over and over, from my parents, from teachers, from cops, and others that one is judged by the company he keeps, I willfully made a baseball instructional video with Pete Rose. And interviewed mobsters. And gang members. And was on the verge of doing business with Ike Turner.
“Let’s get something straight,” I said when Ike and I met at a coffee house later that day. “This is not something I in any way need.”
“That’s why I want you. Everybody else I ever worked with, it’s what they did, and all they did. Meaning they cared more about the labels and bookers they dealt with on a regular basis than they ever cared about me. Plus—”
“They were churning commissions every way they could, even on shit I shouldn’t have been doing.”
“And how do you know I won’t do the same?”
“I know. Because like I said, God sent you to me.”
Once again, those words should have been my cue to run for the hills. But I made no effort to leave.
“If we go forward—” I began, after studying Ike for a couple of moments.
“There’s one thing I insist on.”
“I trust you with my life.”
“Your life is one thing. How about your money?”
Ike laughed heartily, then nodded. Only then did I go on.
“I need some promises. Once we agree on something, no second-guessing.”
“And no sniping if something goes south.”
“Time will tell. And more important than all the rest, no going around my back or doing anything that shows me up.”
“I promise from the bottom of my heart.”
I studied Ike as I took a sip of green tea, watching him tap a funky rhythm on the table with his left hand.
“Ike, listen to me,” I said after letting him sit a few beats. “Though it may well be for the first time in your life, there’s got to be loyalty. And I mean loyalty across the board.”
“When was I ever not loyal?”
“What happened every single time you had a hit record?”
Clearly uncomfortable, Ike shrugged. “You tell me.”
“You jumped companies.”
“To get a better deal,” he said proudly.
“Which meant short-term gains, but long-term losses.”
“What was the result of Muddy staying with Chess for so many years? Or Miles staying with Columbia instead of hopscotching from label to label?
“Compilation CDs. Best Ofs. And, ultimately, Boxed Sets. All of which brought in a whole lot more than the little windfalls you made from label-jumping. Which means what?”
“I’m listening .”
“You really know how to hurt a guy,” Ike said.
“Except I’m trying to help. In a lifetime of being slick, what’s your slickest move of all?”
Ike leaned back, thought for a moment, then smiled. “I had a deal once to buy songs for a hundred bucks apiece.”
“Instead of paying other people, I wrote most of ‘em myself.”
“And signed, if what I heard is correct, names like D. Duck and M. Mouse.”
“The publishing on some of ‘em is now worth tens of thousands, which never comes your way.”
Ike frowned. “What point you making?”
“If we work together—and it’s still if—we’re gonna play it smart rather than slick.”
Ike took a deep breath, then nodded.
“With me?” I asked.
“Through thick and thin.”
Though my plan had been to focus first on funding for a PSA, as luck would have it, something came up that caused me to fly to France. Instead of going non-stop, I booked the trip via Boston, then set up a pre-flight office meeting with Ike, asking him to bring someone along with him, which elicited the response I expected.
“Because when we talk shop, I want witnesses.”
“Which means you’ll have one, too?”
“I thought you were insisting on trust.”
“Insisting? Yes. Taking chances? No.”
“Nope,” I said. “Just careful.”
In case I needed proof that I was dealing with a universe totally different than my own, Ike arrived with a singer who was soon to be not the second, third, or even fifth Mrs. Ike Turner (and whom I soon referred to as Tina Lite, as opposed to the recently divorced but still oft-present Mrs. Turner #13, a blonde named Jeanette, whom I dubbed Tina White).
With a colleague of mine recording the session, I outlined my plans for Boston. First I would meet with a top booking agent, Jack Randall. Based upon the financial records I’d seen, the agent Ike had been using was not merely missing opportunities, but also blatantly stealing. Though Randall had spurned Ike’s overtures on several occasions, I outlined a plan for him over the phone, and, leveraging our years of shared history, he was willing to reconsider. This pleased Ike immensely.
“That’s a move up,” he announced to his lady friend.
“If I can make it happen,” I said.
“You will. You’re coming through, and I love it!”
But what he didn’t like was hearing the concept I’d proposed to my friend at the record company, who, I learned, had rejected several inquiries about Ike since his release from prison. The notion was a journey of sorts, thanks to songs I’d selected, in which Ike would trace the evolution of black music from Blues through R&B and on into Rock & Roll, Soul, and Funk.
With his consort whispering in his ear to goad him, Ike pondered for a moment, then started to pace, unnerving my colleague, a Brit named Brian.
“If you’ve got a problem, let’s hear it,” I said to put an end to the melodramatics.
“D-damn right, I’ve got a p-problem,” Ike grumbled, stuttering the way he did when he was agitated or nervous. “When I was with Tina, I picked the songs.”
“Then go get Tina,” I answered, knowing full well my chances of my playing for the Lakers or Ike becoming a ballerina were greater than an Ike and Tina reunion.
“W-what do you expect me to say?” Ike asked.
“There are two choices. Do right by saying thanks—”
“Stop wasting my time.”
To his lady friend’s dismay, Ike burst into laughter.
“I love this motherfucker!”
My plans to sleep on the red-eye to Boston were disrupted by thoughts about Ike. While it was indisputable, to me at least, that he was a giant in the world of popular music, the more I thought about his life and work, the more I noticed a strange pattern: an asterisk next to many, if not all, of his major accomplishments. Though he was thought to have made the world’s first rock & roll record, a marketing move by the distributor released the song not under Ike’s name, but with an otherwise completely forgotten singer’s moniker on the label. On the biggest-selling Ike & Tina song, the signature guitar licks that are imitated to this day were actually played by a brilliant hired gun named Mickey Baker, not Ike. And on another of their great cuts—one on which a legendary Phil Spector ran the session—Ike was actually paid a bonus not to attend the recording session.
Worse still, because of his ego and his insecurities—both of which became even more pronounced during coke sprees that, to my dismay, still occurred during periods of inactivity or stress—Ike had effectively alienated nearly everyone who mattered in the music biz, to the point where, on a day when Ike muttered something about being his own worst enemy, I hushed him with a “Shhh!”
“Why Shhh?” Ike asked.
“Because if you say it too loud, five hundred guys might come running up screaming, Don’t be so goddamn sure!”
The truth about Ike was simple: he was a study in contradictions. Though known as a guitarist, he was actually a far better keyboard player. As he once explained to me, “On guitar, I’m a guy with a handful of tricks.” Yet despite his self-deprecating remark, an instrumental track he cut called “Doodlin’” was not merely astonishing, but also monumentally influential among even the greatest guitarists. And though unable to read or write music, Ike was also, in my judgment, one of the three greatest band leaders of the R&B era, along with Ray Charles and James Brown.
Plus, he was remarkably perceptive and astute, often in surprising ways. It was Ike who taught me that, sight unseen, one could differentiate a white audience from a black one simply by listening. A white audience, he pointed out, taps its feet on the one, whereas with blacks the foot-tapping is always on the two. And it was he who explained that Ray Charles’ band sounds distinctive because he used the instruments like a vocal choir, whereas in the great James Brown band, the foundation is a percussive drive deriving from African drumming.
As for his own band, starting with a belief that a black audience is always in search of something new, while whites clamor for favorite hits from the past, Ike consciously created a hybrid that allowed for the best of both worlds—especially during the days when out in front, microphone in hand, was the one-and-only Tina (as opposed to Tina-Lite, Tina-White, or any of the other singers who, to me at least, were little more than X-Marks-The-Spot).
But with the real Tina long gone, Ike’s belief about what was expected of the band almost torpedoed our professional relationship. The conversation in question began, as so many did with Ike, with his demand that I be completely open and frank about what we were to discuss—which meant, I came to realize, that he simply wanted to be told that he was brilliant and great. In this case what he wanted to know was simple: “What did you think of my current live act?”
My answer, to Ike’s irritation, was not that it was wonderful, marvelous, and perfect. Instead, I stated the word that came to mind: misguided.
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“For one thing, why is there so much Ike & Tina?”
“Because that’s what they want, goddamnit!”
“Oh yeah? Then tell me who’s they.”
Ike looked at me like I was from another planet. “The audience, for Chrissake.”
“But you’re not giving ‘em Ike & Tina” I responded. “They’re getting Ike & Tina-Lite or Ike & Tina-White.”
“S-so you’re saying I should j-junk it?” he asked, starting to stutter as he did when confronted.
“Not junk it. Give ‘em a nice little medley, then move on to the new Ike we’re trying to create.”
Like a child after a scolding, Ike glared, then hung his head. But to my surprise, a moment later he looked me in the eye and nodded.
“Do me a favor?” he asked.
“Keep standing up to me.”
I almost told him he had no reason to worry, but instead bit my tongue.
Though known as a guitarist, he was actually a far better keyboard player. As he once explained to me, “On guitar, I’m a guy with a handful of tricks.”
For three different reasons, I dawdled before calling Ike after my meetings in Boston and proceeded to downplay my successes there. First, I didn’t want him in on one of my prime selling points, which was that he—largely for all the wrong reasons—had name recognition throughout the world. Nor did I want to stress that a key condition with both the booking agent and the label was that I would have an active involvement both with live dates and with the record deal. Most important of all was that I didn’t want to create the expectation that I would be reporting in or soliciting responses from him whenever there was news.
With that in mind, I chose not check in with him while in France, or, when I first returned to California, return his many messages. Nor did I accept any of the weekly invitations to drop by his place on Sunday afternoons, or take his calls when he was checking in, coming up with ideas, or simply looking for someone to confirm his existence. And I flatly refused to be the one to make the decision as to which Tina surrogate (and bed mate) was to accompany him on the European tour we were putting together.
Other than when Ike would drop by on what he claimed was an impromptu basis, almost always with one of the women in tow, our time together was reserved for when there was something very specific that I—not he—wanted to discuss, be it the forthcoming trip, the sequencing of his new act, the choice of a road manager, or the like.
That, not surprisingly, didn’t stop the barrage of calls whether from Ike; from Jeanette, who always wanted info of some sort or other; or worse, from his current lady friend, Arlene, who was infinitely more Machiavellian. She was the one who reached me in the car one Saturday afternoon as I was driving back from Santa Barbara, and spoke in coy, hush-hush tones.
“I don’t know if you know this,” she whispered, “but Ike is getting worked up.”
“You and me.”
“I guess he thinks we’re diggin’ on each other,” Arlene said. “You do think I’m cute, don’t you?”
“Of course you are.”
“And so are you, baby. So what do you think?”
“What do I think about what?”
“If he’s gonna get all jealous and shit, what do you say we give him something to be jealous about?”
Since that was the last thing in the world I wanted or needed, I graciously declined.
In all fairness to Ike, there were times when he could be warm, funny, even charming. Often, he brought me presents for my kids, which was sweet even though they were usually his own CDs, videos, or even vinyl albums. And he never failed to be courtly toward my wife. But the incident that stands out the most was when I took him to a screening of a documentary about the Blues at the Getty Museum. Hardly inconspicuous given that he was the only black person present for a film about black music—and wore a lime green suit and hat that would have stood out in any crowd—it was only a matter of time until a museum official recognized him, then approached in the most unctuous way imaginable. Treating me as though I were invisible, the foppish curator reached across me to introduce himself to Ike, fawning relentlessly, and asked how he could reach the living legend so as to invite him for a meal and perhaps even induce him to speak at a gathering.
“Best way is always through my manager,” Ike said.
“And who is that?”
“The guy you’re leaning over and ignoring,” Ike informed him. “Now if you’ll excuse us…”
Aware that Ike’s finances desperately needed replenishing, it was to Europe that the booking agent and I turned to find some dates, since there, like many black musicians of his vintage, Ike had a significantly larger audience—and one far less judgmental of his personal reputation.
But even as the forthcoming tour began to move from idea to reality, Ike approached me with a dilemma: he needed to find money to pay for band rehearsals.
My response was that instead of scheduling rehearsals, we should solicit some local gigs that could bring in sufficient revenue to pay the musicians and, potentially, put some money into Ike’s own pocket as well. The key would be to do it on a sliding scale, so that if the band were to play alone, the payment would be at one level. But if Ike gave the club one week’s notice that he would appear on-stage, the payment would increase significantly.
Ike was delighted by the idea, and became even more thrilled when I mentioned that, if it proved successful at one club, we could consider adding other venues up and down the Southern California coast. But I cautioned him that first we would have to demonstrate two things: that the band—and he, when he chose to join them on-stage—could draw. Even more important was to show that he was indeed the new man he claimed to be, and no longer the guy always trying to be slick.
“God sent you to me,” Ike protested. “Why would I pull something like that?”
Despite the hurt feelings he manifested, I explained that the club I had in mind was not merely owned by someone I knew, but more importantly was near to where I lived, which meant that I wanted no embarrassment whatsoever.
“You’ve got my word,” Ike stated clearly, only to demand a renegotiation once the first date was announced. “That’s the way the game is played,” he claimed.
To Ike’s dismay, I not only killed the gig, but also informed him that I was pulling the plug on the European tour.
Instantly calls started pouring in, not just from Ike, but also from Tina-Lite, Tina-White, band members, back-up singers, and even a lawyer who was a fringe member of his crew, all of who begged and pleaded for me to reconsider. Then came emails galore plus all sorts of atonement gifts, including roses and candy for my wife.
For reasons I’ll probably never fully understand, I agreed to meet with Ike, who showed up filled with contrition. “I b-blew it, I’m s-sorry, and I promise I’ll n-never do it again,” he stuttered. “Old habits die hard, but that’s n-no excuse, and I know it. P-please, please. I’ll do anything you say.”
Against my better judgment, I yielded.
To Ike’s surprise—though consternation is probably a more appropriate word—instead of joining him on the swing through France, Italy, Holland, and Germany, or even making a cameo appearance at one of the venues, I sent my British colleague, Brian. Fortunately, or maybe because Ike was careful to be on his best behavior, despite the lost luggage, missed connections, and other screw-ups that are part of life on the road, the only serious complications were of the female variety. Tina-Lite, started the trip, lasting only through four festival dates in France. Then she was dropped in favor of Tina-White, who was flown in to share the stage—and Ike’s bedroom—in Italy and most of Holland. But by the time the band reached Germany, it was she who was back on a plane headed home, while Tina-Lite made a triumphant return.
With both his confidence and his bank account in far better shape, Ike returned to California eager to meet so that we could discuss the forthcoming album. Assuming everything was peachy, he was surprised when I told him to bring someone with him.
“Again with the witnesses?” he asked. “Don’t you trust me?”
“More to the point, can I be certain you trust me?”
Ike laughed. “I’m the most trusting guy I know.”
“And the luckiest in love,” I added, setting a time and date.
It was with Tina-lite, who was wearing a see-through blouse and a mini-skirt that looked suspiciously like a belt, that Ike showed up at my office.
“We’re ready to talk business,” he announced.
“I can tell.”
Leading them into the conference room, where Brian was waiting, I watched the three of them exchange hugs, then encouraged them to sit.
“So I’ve got some ideas about what we should be doing,” Ike said to kick things off.
“What kind of ideas?” I asked.
“About material. Where we should record. What kind of budget.”
“All established,” I stated.
“Before I went to Boston.”
“Then how come I don’t know about it?”
“Don’t know? Or don’t want to know?” I watched Ike squirm for a moment, then spoke again. “Ike,” I said softly but distinctly, “don’t do this.”
“Start playing your Ikester games.”
Ike glared at me, then turned to Tina-lite. “You ever heard about any of this shit he’s talkin’?
“See?” Ike said to me triumphantly.
“Ike, listen carefully.” I said, “I’m giving you one last chance if you want this record deal. But it’s got to be the way we agreed.”
“I didn’t agree to shit.”
I shook my head, then smiled. “If you keep this up, you know it’ll end badly.”
“What the fuck you talking about?”
To Ike’s surprise, it was to my colleague that I turned. “Play it, Sam.”
“P-play what?” The Ikester looked at me warily.
Instead of answering, Brian hit the play button on the tape recorder in front of him.
Ike and his lady friend started fidgeting as my voice could be heard on tape from the meeting in which the Boston deal was discussed. The pair looked seasick when Ike’s recorded voice said, “I love this motherfucker!”
“What do you say now?” I asked Ike.
“H-how do I know it’s m-me?” he mumbled weakly.
Ike’s departure from my office and my life torpedoed his last chance for a record deal, with the exception of a couple of unpromoted releases on the Internet.
Eventually, I did go on to produce a CD by someone named TurnerSeveral months later I got a request from Tina-White, aka Jeanette, who had acquired the funds to record an album. I picked the songs, put together the band, and brought in key people to guest on a few cuts. The result was surprisingly good.
From what I heard, Ike, who died about a year later, was anything but pleased.