What's Soul Got to Do with It?

Despite her success, Tina Turner has done her best to obscure the fact that she's a great singer. It doesn't help that she just launched her latest solo album, Wildest Dreams, and her first U.S. tour in six years (which will kick off Thursday and Friday at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion) at the same time one of her most incendiary early-'70s performances is available for the first time on CD. And while What You Hear Is What You Get: Ike & Tina Turner Live at Carnegie Hall won't touch the sales of Turner's new effort, it's by far the finer of the two. Hearing them back-to-back makes you wonder what happened to her.

Turner insists she's a rock singer, not a soul diva. But Wildest Dreams isn't rock or soul. It's crammed with smooth, banal disco-pop that's sporadically enlivened by Trevor Horn's production tricks. Thirty minutes with it is like being battered senseless with foam bats. The gizmos -- a full orchestra, a guest performance by Barry White -- are all in the service of corny bravado. The legend of "Tina as survivor" has consumed all available oxygen.

It's disconcerting to think that Turner now has fans who only know her recent work, and don't realize what she veered away from artistically when she finally walked out on Ike after 20 years. I want to be very clear here: No one should have to endure the abuse Tina recounted in her autobiography. But no one should have to listen to Wildest Dreams, either. From the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s, the Ike and Tina Turner Revue constituted one of the hottest live acts on any stage, rivaled only by James Brown. Fortunately, the Carnegie Hall disc captures them in their glory.

Live albums usually suck because musicians either try to reproduce their recordings -- if not impossible, then dull -- or inflate them with vain frippery. But for the Turners in their heyday, the show was the point; the records, which rarely charted, were the novelties. Ike led his band through covers that left the originals bleeding. The Carnegie set starts with backup singers the Ikettes ripping through "Piece of My Heart," a minor hit for Aretha Franklin's sister Erma, followed by Sly Stone's "Everyday People." When Tina emerges, she hammers three Otis Redding compositions, Jesse Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" and the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women."

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The Revue had just come off a tour opening for the Stones, and the double LP What You Hear would be its first gold album, to be followed by its first million-selling single, a cover of John Fogerty's Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Proud Mary." Creedence never imagined the sass and sex Tina could ladle over even pedestrian fare. Her introduction to the song, on the single and at Carnegie Hall, was itself an achievement: "Right about now I think you might like to hear something from us nice, easy," she purrs from the Carnegie stage. "But now -- I'd like to do that for you, there's, there's, there's just one thing: We never do anything nice and easy. We always do it nice and rough." What follows is a delicious vamp, replete with Ike's strumming, that suddenly explodes into a throttling, horn-driven release. You can taste the sweat flying from Tina's fringe.

To understand what made the Ike and Tina collaboration great, you have to start with Ike, who brought history and chops to the party. Born Izear Luster Turner in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931, he was gigging with an R&B combo by the time he was in high school. Not long after that, he and his Kings of Rhythm hit Memphis and laid down "Rocket 88," argua-bly the first rock and roll song.

After "Rocket 88" hit on Chess in 1951, Ike was in demand as a session guitarist, thanks to his shattering tone, and as a talent scout and producer, cutting sides with B.B. King, Otis Rush, Junior Parker, Howlin' Wolf and Bobby "Blue" Bland. In 1956, he moved his Kings of Rhythm to St. Louis. It was there, during a local nightclub run, that he met Bullock sisters Annie Mae and Ailene. Sixteen-year-old Annie wanted to sing with the band, and pestered Ike until she got her shot.

Ike was always a low-rent entrepreneur who resembled nothing so much as the emperor of a tiny island nation. He changed Annie's name to Tina, to rhyme with Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, his favorite TV character. Then, when a scheduled singer failed to show for a 1960 recording session, he put Tina in front of the mike on "A Fool in Love."

For people who associate her principally with Private Dancer, Tina's voice on that first single is startlingly rough. Her early style was neither church nor country, but some sandpapery amalgamation of both that remains instantly identifiable and thrilling. Most listeners, especially white ones, associated it with carnal pleasures. It was raspy. It lacked polish. But it was indisputably authentic, the essence of roots music.

What's particularly notable, right from her very first recording, is the way Tina used sounds -- gasps and groans -- in place of words in a lyric line, something familiar in the Southern black church, but radically new then in pop music. "A Fool in Love" went to number two on the R&B charts and number 27 on the pop rankings. Ike and Tina were ushering in the era of what we now call classic soul.

Ike hopped labels like freight trains through the '60s, looking for another hit. When it didn't happen, he kept pushing, whipping the Revue into shape and keeping it on the road 51 weeks a year for several years. The Revue's live show was paced like the best porn or horror flick. Ike was the ringmaster, cracking tough guitar lines; Tina, the scared and scary kitten, matching him note for note with growls when words failed. When they hit Carnegie Hall in 1971, teasing and satisfying a crowd was second nature. Looking back, it was their high-water mark.

Tina has been understandably praised for resurrecting her life from the hell she says Ike made it. Her comeback in the '80s, beginning with Private Dancer, was an unlikely feat. But it's clear now that when she walked out on Ike, she left not only him, but also the legacy of soul behind. Now, people seem to love her story as much as they do her music. Yet think how much finer it would have been if she'd escaped an abusive relationship and bloomed artistically. Instead, she just got watered down.

Tina Turner performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 1, and Friday, May 2, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Cyndi Lauper opens. Tickets are $15, $20 and $45. For info, call 629-3700.

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