The Last Days of Ike Turner
The last days of Ike Turner: the story of a rock 'n' roll legend who lived hard, loved life but couldn't quite let go of his past
Ebony, Oct, 2008 by Margena A. Christian
Going to jail in 1989 was the best thing that ever happened to Ike Turner.
Locked up as prisoner #E4678 at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, the pioneering rock 'n' roll musician who invented a genre of music and trained several rock legends at his knee, was able to end his "15-year party" with drugs while serving two years and two months on drug charges.
Turner, who had more musical talent than a busload of today's popular bands, stayed drug-free for more than a decade. He even talked to others about the importance of not making the same mistakes he had made.
But, in 2004, while reaching out to help another person turn away from drugs, Turner was lured back into the drug world.
Three years later, he would be dead.
Looking back, Phil Arnold, Turner's longtime manager, recalls the moment when someone in need, a crack house and a puff of smoke charmed the troubled legend down that one-way path to hell.
"Ike responded to a cry for help and went to the wrong place at the wrong time to rescue a crack addict he knew. Ike said, 'Smoke blew up in my face, and that is all it took--that first whiff.' He was the fireman who went into the burning building one too many times."
In the end, Turner, who stood 5-foot-8, never really got past his drug relapse four years ago. His chronic emphysema, diagnosed in 1994 just a year after he quit smoking, forced him to rely on either a bulky electric oxygen tank or a portable model to help him breathe. He would often cry, say family members, expressing frustration that he wasn't able to move beyond his addictions.
On Dec. 12, 2007, with his caretaker by his side, a thin, 76-year-old Ike Wister Turner died from the very thing he thought he had beaten in jail.
Those two words led the San Diego County Medical Examiner to list Turner's death as an "accident." The autopsy and toxicology reports also listed contributing conditions as "hypertensive cardiovascular disease" and "pulmonary emphysema."
Background singer Falina Rasool, Turner's personal assistant and caretaker who was with Turner the day he died, remembers, "When people heard this, a lot of people were disturbed that this man was still using. I know he was trying to quit. It had a hold on him. It was too strong for him. He tried with everything he had. He wanted out."
LIVING WITH THE PAST
In the last days of Ike Turner, the groundbreaking musician and bandleader behind the first rock 'n' roll record found it difficult to let go of many things.
He never got over the 1976 divorce from his ex-wife, Tina Turner. And he never got over their career split and the professional union as Ike and Tina Turner, which won them international acclaim as one of music's first crossover acts. Ike was the force behind the duo's musical success and was also the engine that helped drive it into trouble.
"There was not a day that would go by that he didn't watch videos with Tina," says Rasool. "Two days before he died, we were watching Tina. He could tell you everything that happened at that time, like the arguments they had before they got onstage. He could remember everything. Nothing altered his mind."
Ike and Tina Turner were together 16 years before divorcing. Her accounts of spousal abuse were documented in the 1986 autobiography I, Tina, and in the 1993 movie What's Love Got To Do With It. Tina Turner has since expressed her disappointment in the movie, saying, "I would have liked for them to have had more truth, but according to Disney [owner of the film's production company], they said, it's impossible, the people would not have believed the truth." She declined to speak with EBONY magazine for this story.
The two had no contact in more than three decades even though one son, Ronnie Turner, was born during this union in 1960.
"I know everything that has happened all through his life and through my parents' divorce," says Ronnie, 47, a musician and songwriter who learned to play the bass from his father. "He wasn't happy and still working. I could just tell and feel it. He never acted like he got over [the divorce] ... My father used to come to my house a lot. I never kept my phone book around. He used to ramble around and try to look for my mom's phone number."
A MAN AND HIS 14 WIVES
Ike Turner claimed to have been married 14 times. In his 1999 autobiography The Confessions of Ike Turner: Takin' Back My Name, at least five names were listed before he even mentioned marrying Tina in 1962. After they divorced in 1976, five years later he married former "Ikette" Margaret Ann Thomas, with whom he had a daughter, Mia, now 39. Turner married a St. Louis native, singer Jeannette Bazzell, in 1995.
Jeannette, 45, who was divorced from Ike in 2000, says, "I don't want his death to be in vain. I want the truth exposed. He was a man who stood on his own courage. He was very demanding, controlling and, yes, he was a womanizer. But he gave his heart. When he was up, he was all the way up. When he was down, he was all the way down. There was no middle. That's how he lived his life."
Ike met singer Audrey Madison in 1993. She started out as an Ikette, but after hearing her gutsy voice, he made her the lead singer. Some even described Audrey as a Tina clone.
Guitarist James (Bino) Lewis, who played with Ike and Tina Turner in the late '70s and on the classic song "Nutbush City Limits," says, "After Tina left, he just never got it again. Audrey was the closest thing entertainment-wise and vocal-wise, but she was a copy of Tina. He always tried to find that again, but he never found it."
Audrey says that she and Ike had become common-law husband and wife in 1999. They married in Las Vegas on Oct. 8, 2006. But on Dec. 22, 2006, Ike Turner had already filed for a divorce, allegedly telling people he believed someone was trying to affect him with prescription medicine.
THE BATTLE FOR IKE'S MIND
Audrey, 49, calls those claims "nonsense." She contends that Ike suffered from bipolar disorder. She was helping him but that there were people who wanted to use his illness to keep him off-balance. "In order for them to take control, they wanted him on drugs. They wanted him to be this way so they could tell him not to take his medication."
Ike's daughter Mia disagrees, "Daddy is not bipolar ... He was so heavily medicated. He could hardly speak. He was double stepping and walking sideways."
Dr. Carl Bell, professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, described bipolar as a mental illness where people go through two phases--a manic phase and a depressive phase.
"People who are bipolar wax and wane between mania and depression," says Bell. "The symptoms of depression are typical. You lose interest and have a sad mood. You lose weight. You lose sleep. Your thinking is sluggish. You might be suicidal and you have crying spells. Symptoms typical of mania are pressured speech, dated mood, grandiosity and hyperactivity."
In the coroner's investigative narrative that accompanied Turner's autopsy and toxicology report, the medicine Seroquel was listed as a drug he was taking at the time of his death and is often prescribed to treat bipolar disorder.
Rasool, the caretaker who administered Turner's medicine, says that Ike was taking Seroquel, because he was indeed bipolar. "I would come in the room and see him change like a lightbulb, switch on and switch off. I did ask him about it. He said he made a song about it and we started laughing," says Rasool, referring to his song "Bi Polar" on the 2006 Grammy-winning album Risin" With The Blues. "He said, 'I know I'm bipolar.' He says, 'And I've been bipolar, but a lot of people is bipolar.'"
YOUNG, IN CONTROL, UNTIL ...
Before 30, Turner was a different kind of man. He didn't drink and he didn't use drugs. His band, The Kings of Rhythm, were forbidden to use drugs or drink. He was noted for firing anyone he suspected of drinking, using marijuana, cocaine, or any kind of substance. When it came to business, he didn't tolerate distractions.
"He was one of the first Black musicians to keep control of his music and he taught others," says daughter Twanna. "To me, that's why [the industry] wanted to keep him down. He taught people how to not be manipulated and how to take control. When Salt 'n' Pepa used his song 'I'm Blue' for their song 'Shoop,' they paid him for that. 'I'm Blue' was also used in the movie Kill Bill. They paid him for that too. He owns publishing on it. He was a very intelligent man and very insightful."
In his autobiography, Turner revealed that he was first introduced to cocaine by two well-known performers in Las Vegas, both now deceased. Two weeks after being given the powdered substance wrapped in a dollar bill, he tried it for the first time late one night while writing songs at the piano. It wasn't long before he was hooked, purchasing "pure cocaine" from South America.
And after years of snorting, by 1974, Turner says he had burned a hole through his nose. He was then introduced to another way to get high--freebasing.
"A lot of people were trying to take my mom [Tina Turner] and do other projects with her," Ronnie says. "He was possessive. It caused friction. After a while my dad got introduced to drugs. To me, it was a setup ... He was such a good, strong businessman that sometimes people will give you things to bring you down a little bit. Once he was brought down, he couldn't pull away from it."
"SONNY" FROM MISSISSIPPI
Born in Clarksdale, Miss., on Nov. 5, 1931, Ike was the son of a Baptist minister, Izear Luster Turner, and a seamstress, Beatrice Cushenberry. Ike, who had an older sister, Lee Ethel, was very close to his father and always believed he was named after his dad until he first applied for a passport and found that he was registered as Ike Wister Turner.
Ike, nicknamed "Sonny," was only 3 years old when his father was nearly kicked to death by a group of White men for speaking "to a White woman and they did not like it," says Turner's niece, Willie Mae Lowery. His injured body, "with holes in his stomach," was tossed in the front of the yard. When Ike turned 5, his father died.
Forced to be the man of the house, Ike was taught by his mother how to hustle by taking scraps and sewing rugs to sell or selling potato pies. When Ike was 6 years old, a 45-year-old female neighbor molested him. Before the age of 12, he had been molested by two other older women.
"He knew it was wrong. In his mind he had endured that sexual abuse from those women," says Rasool. "Part of inflicting pain on women brought out the pain that was inflicted on him as a child. Had he not gone through that, he probably would have been a better man when it came to relationships and women. He said, 'That's probably why every relationship I was in was surrounded by sex. Sex was power to me.'"
Turner described himself as "whorish" to Jet magazine in 2007, before his death. His weakness was ladies.
"The ladies liked him too. His charm. He was a likable guy," says his former guitarist Lewis. "It was like he was a magnet. There were five or six women a day back in them days."
Jeannette, who says her ex-husband cheated on her many times, says he "couldn't help it. Girl, he was weak in that area."
Turner's niece Lowery once asked one of her uncle's many lovers what was his charm. "She told me, 'Once you go to bed with him, you wanted to stick around.' I fell out laughing," says Lowery, "and told her I didn't want to hear anymore."
THE MUSIC OF HIS LIFE
In his youth, Ike's mother later remarried. He recalled his late stepfather to be "an alcoholic" who often fought with his mother.
Ike escaped the blues in his life through music. He was mesmerized after seeing Mississippi blues great Pinetop Perkins play the piano. Ike would save the 25 cents a week his mother gave him and secretly took private lessons with Perkins.
He started his first band, the Kings of Rhythm, in high school. At 19, Turner and his band went to Memphis to record the No. 1 hit "Rocket 88." He only earned $20 and never received credit. The song would be noted as the first rock 'n' roll song in history. Turner became distrustful of the industry and worked for control of all of his work.
Little Richard, Turner's longtime close friend, was inspired to play the piano after hearing the song. He admitted to taking the introduction of "Rocket 88" for "Good Golly, Miss Molly" and making a "huge hit."
Turner's piano abilities were so magical that while playing at a Black club in Memphis, a White truck driver would park around the back and sneak in the side door and hide behind the piano to watch him. Years later, while performing in Vegas, that White man introduced himself as the guy who used to hide behind the piano and watch him. His name was Elvis Presley.
Turner, who also was a talent scout and sideline musician from 1951 to 1955, discovered Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. On early recordings for B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf, Turner played accompaniment. Turner himself began playing the guitar in 1953. He recalled kicking out a guitar player in his band because he "liked gimmicks." Ike told him to lay off the pedals, but he wouldn't. That guy was Jimi Hendrix, known to swing his guitar wildly like Turner did back in the day.
Turner moved to St. Louis in 1954. His band ruled the city's nightlife both in St. Louis and in East St. Louis, Ill. He refused to play to Black-only crowds and helped to integrate the social scenes there.
"Oh, he could play. They were the hottest thing going then," says Ruby Aillene Selico, Turner's former sister-in-law. "That was the place in those days."
Selico was dating drummer Eugene Washington and would go to Club Manhattan often and take her little sister, Anna Mae Bullock. Selico, who says she wasn't a singer, encouraged her sister to sing. One day, 17-year-old Anna Mae performed with the band. That was the beginning of Ike and Tina Turner.
In an effort to control his career, Turner became his own booking agent and owned a booking agency, publishing and management company. He designed the uniforms for the band and the costumes for the Ikettes, including the wigs and makeup. He created the dance steps, choreography, lighting, sound and stage effects in an effort to cut out the middleman and make as much money as possible to support his family.
Few people know that Turner, who had his own gold signature Stratocaster Fender guitar, could also play every instrument. "This man had the capacity to cast a spell on people with his music that emoted power that no one could resist," says veteran music executive Robert Johnson, who helped propel Turner's music rebirth. "He could play almost every instrument better than anybody else in the band. He worked hard, but he had a gift. It was unbelievable."
After Ike got out of jail in 1991, Johnson reached out to work with Turner on the 2001 album Here and Now. It was his first commercial release in 23 years. It was heralded as a "masterpiece" and earned him a Grammy nomination.
Johnson says: "God gave this guy a gift. I challenged Ike and said, 'Do you want your description of your life to be you had a drug problem, spousal abuse problems and then essentially made a movie that exaggerated and amplified that, but he spent his life hiding under a rock?'"
Brian (Danger Mouse) Burton, of the Grammy-winning group Gnarls Barkley, befriended Turner five years ago. Burton's work with the rock group Gorillaz and the Black Keys allowed Turner to reach a new generation with musical talent.
"Musically a lot of stuff we listen to comes from the original school where he was," says Burton. "The things he has done and the way the world looked at him--and he lived with that every day--was humbling for me to watch."
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Turner survived jail, remained clean and sober for more than a decade and eventually showed the world he still had what it takes as a musician when he won his first solo Grammy in 2006 for Risin' With The Blues.
A couple of weeks before Turner's death, his daughter Mia says she reached out to a member of her father's band, keyboardist Paul Smith, to suggest having a surprise gathering.
"I thought it would be cool to get the band members together and have them come to the house and pull Daddy up," Mia says. "At that point he wasn't coming out of his room at all. He didn't have the drive or energy to come out of the room. We thought if maybe he heard his band in there playing, he might come out."
Ronnie says his father was in and out of the hospital within his last year. "I heard he fell a couple of times going to bed. I knew something was coming. I just didn't know when ... He likes people around him a lot. He started being alone more. He knew his health was failing. People started to take advantage of him. He was really getting upset."
Rasool, who was with Ike on and off within the last year doubling as a personal assistant and caretaker, says that on Dec. 10, 2007, she and Ike had a disagreement. He came and apologized right away. "He never did that before," Rasool says. "He said, 'Baby, I'm about to die.' I said, 'Don't say that.' He said, 'I feel it in my soul. Something is coming to get me.' I told him it would be OK. He said, 'No, baby, I won't be here Christmas.' He hung his head and walked away."
THE LAST DAY
Dec. 12, 2007, was the day that Mia set for the band to surprise her father. According to the coroner's investigative narrative, early that Wednesday morning, Margaret Ann Thomas smelled crack cocaine coming from Ike's room.
Between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m., Ike then requested a large breakfast--oatmeal, sausage, eggs, toast and strawberries. "Ann says she had never seen him eat so much. He doesn't eat a lot at all. He ate everything, except the strawberries," recalls Rasool. "I made his last dinner. It was spaghetti. I gave him a big plate of it and he said, 'Girl, who you making all this damn spaghetti for?'"
After eating breakfast, Thomas noticed Turner sitting on the edge of his bed and his body was shaking. Rasool says that Thomas then woke her up to check his vital signs because he "didn't look right. We kept checking on him every 10 minutes. He told us he didn't want to die in a hospital. I talked with Ann about taking him to the hospital. He said, 'No, I will be all right.'"
Rasool made breakfast for the band, which began gathering around 10 a.m. at the house. They began to play music in the studio, she says. "What was odd was that they were singing deep-down-South spiritual hymns. They never ever did that. It had a calming effect. It was a Godly presence."
After walking into the kitchen, Rasool says: "Ann let out this blood-curdling scream. I ran in the room. When I ran in the room, I saw him lying halfway on the bed and his legs were hanging down on the floor. He must have been trying to come out to see what was happening. His eyes were open and his mouth was open. I heard the rattling sound ... It was the death rattle. I administered CPR [Others in the house] called 911. [The 911 operator] told us to put him on the floor. We put him on the floor. I administered CPR again.
"He came to and his eyes started looking around. Then he went right back out. The paramedics pulled him out of the bedroom and administered CPR for 10 minutes. It seemed like it went on forever. With the look on their face, I knew it didn't take that long. The ambulance was outside and everyone inside was going crazy. They looked up at us and told us he was gone. He died in the house. They covered him with a white sheet."
Ike Wister Turner was pronounced dead at 11:38 a.m. According to the report, sheriff department detectives searched his bedroom and bathroom. They say they found drug paraphernalia--a small scale, a plastic baggie containing a small hunk of an off-white colored substance (suspected cocaine), apparent marijuana residue, a clear glass pipe commonly used for smoking illegal narcotics, a syringe and a foil-wrapped pen cap with steel wool at one end.
Tina Turner did not attend the funeral. "I know in my heart that my mother had some time to herself about it," Ronnie says.
"Yeah, she cared," says Selico about her sister's sentiments about Ike's death. "I don't know how sad she was, but she cared. She's a caring person."
Selico says that time and age seemed to mellow her former brother-in-law.
"In later years his conversation was different. He didn't seem to be aggravated all the time," Selico says. "He was generous and jovial. He seemed like he was forgiving and wanted to be forgiven for the things he did in his early years. The media, after he died, tried to destroy his name. They talked about the bad things rather than let it pass, because everybody else has. [My sister] forgave him when she left. People should just leave it alone."
Ike Turner was cremated even though Ronnie says that his father always jokingly said, "When I die, I want to be buried face down so the world can kiss my a--."
[Edited 3/25/10 16:08pm]
[Edited 3/25/10 16:11pm]
[Edited 3/25/10 16:18pm]
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A fascinating read. The man was rock n' roll.
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You can not be SERIOUS!!!
The message you are about to hear are not meant for transmission. Should ONLY be accessed in the privacy of your mind. Words are so intense so if you dare to listen.Take off your clothes and meet me between the lines.
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You can not be SERIOUS!!!
It came from EBONY so if you're gonna laugh at ANYONE, laugh at them.
I'm just the messenger. Leave me 'lone.
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