The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Tina Turner – “What’s Love Got To Do With It”

HIT #1: September 1, 1984

STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks

There aren’t too many feel-good stories in the history of popular music. That whole saga is a crushingly sad parade of idealistic young geniuses used up and ripped off and exploited and disillusioned. In rock ‘n’ roll, way too many of the early greats didn’t live to see old age, dying young in plane crashes or overdoses or shocking acts of violence. So when someone does beat the odds, overcoming hardship and abuse and industry disinterest to attain whole new levels of stardom in middle age, it’s cause for celebration. That’s Tina Turner. She’s the exception.

You probably know Tina Turner’s story already. She’s the rare music legend who lived to see her own biopic. Brian Gibson’s film What’s Love Got To Do With It — which came out in 1994, when Turner was still a commercially relevant artist — told the story of a furiously talented young woman who endured years of torment and abuse before finally escaping her mythically terrible husband and making her own way in the world. What’s Love was adapted from I, Tina, Turner’s 1986 memoir, and it earned Oscar nominations for Angela Bassett, who played Tina, and for Laurence Fishburne, who played Ike Turner. The movie remains a touchstone, a constant source of rap-lyric references. Thanks in part to the song that gives the movie its title, that story has a happy ending.

Anna Mae Bullock was born in Brownsville, Tennessee, and she spent much of her childhood picking cotton and singing in the church in nearby Nutbush, where her father worked as a sharecropper overseer. Bullock’s family life was chaotic, and she bounced around between her mother and her grandparents. In the late ’50s, she settled in St. Louis, where her mother was living. That’s where Bullock finished high school, went to work as a nurse’s aide, and met Ike Turner.

One night at the East St. Louis nightclub known as the Manhattan, Anna Mae Bullock saw Ike Turner leading his band the Kings Of Rhythm. Ike Turner was a powerful showman and an R&B superstar; he was one of very few people who can credibly claim to have invented rock ‘n’ roll. (In 1951, the Kings Of Rhythm, working under the name Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats, had released the single “Rocket 88,” one of the foundational documents of the genre.) Bullock basically elbowed her way into the band. Turner wouldn’t give her an audition, so during an intermission at a 1957 show, she grabbed a drummer’s microphone and sang. Bullock sang with the band for the rest of the night, and she became a regular featured singer from that night forward.

Anna Mae Bullock, first credited as Little Ann, first appeared on Ike Turner’s 1958 single “Boxtop.” In 1960, when singer Art Lassiter didn’t show up for a session, Bullock sang lead on a recording of Ike’s song “A Fool In Love.” Ike figured he’d just use her version as a demo, but the owner of the R&B label Sue Records heard Bullock’s version and wanted to release it. So Ike changed Bullock’s name to Tina Turner, figuring that he could just replace her with another Tina Turner if she ever left the band. “A Fool In Love,” released in July of 1960, was a hit, peaking at #2 on the R&B chart and #27 on the Hot 100.

When “A Fool In Love” blew up, Ike changed everything around, transforming the Kings Of Rhythm into the Ike & Tina Turner Revue and assembling the Ikettes, a trio of backup singers for Tina. By that point, Tina had already become a teenage mother, having had a baby with a former Kings Of Rhythm saxophonist. In 1960, Ike and Tina became romantic, and they got married two years later. In the years that followed, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue earned a reputation as an absolutely fearsome live act on the chitlin circuit.

Phil Spector caught a performance and signed Ike and Tina to his Phillies label. The 1966 single “River Deep – Mountain High” is credited to both Ike and Tina, but Ike doesn’t really have anything to do with it. It’s all Tina. Spector considered the song to be his masterpiece, and when it failed commercially, peaking at #88, Spector announced his (temporary) retirement at the age of 25.

Through the ’60s and early ’70s, Ike and Tina kept working. They played Vegas and opened for the Rolling Stones. Tina appeared in the Who’s movie Tommy. She became the first woman and the first Black person to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. If you watch any of the duo’s TV appearances from the ’60s and ’70s, Tina Turner stands out as an obvious star, a tornado of charisma. Ike & Tina Turner only made the top 10 once, with their immortal 1971 cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” but they stayed busy. (The Ike and Tina Turner version of “Proud Mary” peaked at #4. It’s a 10. The 1969 Creedence original peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)

What the public didn’t know about Ike and Tina’s marriage, at least at the time, is that Ike, bipolar and addicted to cocaine, was a terribly abusive husband — someone whose name would eventually become shorthand for abuse. Ike beat her, cheated on her, humiliated her, and profited on her work. Tina finally left Ike in 1976, famously escaping from a Dallas hotel room with 34 cents and a gas card in her pocket. After living on food stamps and singing in small cabarets for two years, she divorced Ike and began her solo career. But Tina’s early solo records didn’t sell, and her career only really picked up steam when she sang on the UK production duo BEF’s synthy 1982 dance-pop cover of the Temptations’ 1970 classic “Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today).” (The Temptations’ original “Ball Of Confusion” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.)

BEF and Tina Turner were an odd pairing. Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh had been founding members of the Human League, but they’d left that group long before the Human League became global stars with “Don’t You Want Me.” BEF was just a side project for Ware and Marsh’s main group, the synthpop act Heaven 17. (Heaven 17’s highest-charting US single, 1982’s “Let Me Go,” peaked at #74.) That “Ball Of Confusion” cover was only a hit in Norway, but it got club play around Europe, and there was something intriguing about the combination of BEF’s chilly sonics and Turner’s rasping, howling delivery. Turner’s BEF-produced 1983 cover of Al Green’s 1972 chart-topper “Let’s Stay Together” reintroduced Tina Turner to the world. It went top-10 in the UK and peaked at #26 in the US.

That “Let’s Stay Together” cover was the new template. Turner recorded all of her 1984 album Private Dancer in the UK, with different British production teams. She moved completely away from the sound of the raw, fiery soul that had first made her famous. Turner kept her wild and explosive vocal style, but now she was singing over smoothed-out, keyboard-based dance-pop.

Terry Britten and Graham Lyle had written “What’s Love Got To Do With It” years before, and the song had been rejected by singers like Cliff Richard and Donna Summer. The UK pop group Bucks Fizz had actually recorded a version of the song before Turner got ahold of it, but they shelved it once Turner recorded it. (Their version came out on a reissue decades later.) Turner hated the song, but her manager convinced her to record it.

“What’s Love Got To Do With It” isn’t a love song. If anything, it’s a song about the idea that love is stupid, that people should just fuck without getting their feelings all entangled: “What’s love but a sweet, old-fashioned notion?” Turner sings it with a real intensity, adding emotional nuances that might not be there on paper. She sounds wounded and desperate, like she’s determined to convince herself not to get invested in another person’s feelings. The line she hits the hardest is the one that hints at deeper complications and past traumas: “Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?”

In the video, Turner, with hungry eyes and an amazing lion mane of hair, struts down New York sidewalks, enjoying moments of eye contact with street dancers. (One of them is Pamela Springsteen, Bruce’s sister.) It’s a remarkably naturalistic, low-concept video, and it depends almost entirely on Turner’s towering charisma. When Turner finally hit #1 with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — almost exactly 24 years after she’d landed on the Hot 100 for the first time — she became, at 44, the oldest woman who had ever topped the chart.

I love the whole story behind “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” I wish I liked the song better. Turner works so hard on the song, pleading and growling and wailing. The song itself isn’t worthy of all that work. The production, from Terry Britten, is a cheap, chintzy clatter with one of those half-hearted reggae hiccups so prevalent on ’80s pop songs. For me, Turner’s voice clashes with that mechanized, barely-there beat, and the breezy harmonica solo toward the end is especially grating. The song’s hook and Turner’s voice are both big, but everything else is way too small. It’s an awkward contrast.

After “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” though, Turner became a star in ways that she’d never been when she was still with Ike. Two other singles from Private Dancer went top-10. (“Better Be Good To Me,” a cover of a 1981 song from the new wave band Spider, peaked at #5. It’s an 8. “Private Dancer” — written by Mark Knopfler, whose band Dire Straits will eventually appear in this column — peaked at #7. It’s a 6.) Turner became a tremendous live draw around the world. When my wife was in fourth grade in 1987, she saw Turner play a stadium in Jakarta. A year later, Turner played for 180,000 people in Rio De Janeiro — at the time, the largest crowd of paying customers at any concert ever.

Unless you count her participation in “We Are The World,” Tina Turner will not appear in this column again. But she came close. In 1985, Turner played Aunty Entity in George Miller’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Weirdly, it’s the only substantial acting role she’s ever done, and she kicks ass in it. She got to #2 with “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome),” a song from the soundtrack. (It’s a 7.) Then, in 1986, Turner got to #2 again with her single “Typical Male.” (That’s another 7.) Turner landed her final top-10 hit, “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” in 1993. The song comes from the soundtrack soundtrack to Turner’s own biopic. When that song, hit, Turner was 53. (“I Don’t Wanna Fight” peaked at #9. It’s an 8.)

These days, Tina Turner is retired, living in a Swiss chateau with her German record-exec husband. She seems to be living a great life. Lord knows she deserves one.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1996, Warren G and Adina Howard recorded a version of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” for the soundtrack of the truly great Jackie Chan movie Supercop. (I cannot possibly stress this enough: Michelle Yeoh jumps a fucking motorcycle onto the roof of a moving train.) Here’s the video for the Warren G version, which ends with a delightful Jackie Chan cameo:

(The Warren G/Adina Howard “What’s Love Got To Do With It” peaked at #32. Warren G’s highest-charting single is the 1994 Nate Dogg collab “Regulate.” It’s a 10. Adina Howard’s highest-charting single, 1995’s “Freak Like Me,” also peaked at #2. It’s another 10.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1998, Wyclef interpolated “What’s Love Got The Do With It” on “What’s Clef,” his underwhelming entry into the otherwise-great Canibus/LL Cool J feud. Naomi Campbell is on the Wyclef song for some reason. Here it is:

(As lead artist, Wyclef Jean’s highest-charting single is 1997’s “Gone Till November,” which peaked at #7. It’s a 10. As a guest artist, Wyclef will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2002, Fat Joe and Ashanti had a huge hit with “What’s Luv?,” a song that interpolated the hell out of “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” Here’s the video:

(“What’s Luv?” peaked at #2. It’s a 3. Ashanti will appear in this column. As a member of Terror Squad, Joe will appear in the column, too.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s J. Cole interpolating “What’s Love Got To Do With It” on his 2011 track “How High”:

(J. Cole’s highest-charting single is 2019’s “Middle Child,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Norwegian producer Kygo just released his remix of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” in July. Here’s his video for it:

(Kygo’s highest-charting single is the 2017 Selena Gomez collab “It Ain’t Me.” It’s an 8.)

Tags: Tina Turner