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Elwood Interviews Legend Ike Turner

ELWOOD: I’m Elwood Blues, and my guest is a man who the word “legend” is probably not enough for. He was there at the beginning of rhythm ‘n blues, and rock ‘n roll, Mr. Ike Turner. Sir, it’s an honor to have you on the show.

TURNER: It’s great to be here. Thank you.

ELWOOD: You’ve been such an incredible influence to so many musicians. You have influenced generations of musicians, but who were some of your influences? Who did you listen to when you were growing up?

TURNER: Well, when I was in the 2nd grade, I was coming home from school, and I passed by this house coming from school, and I looked through the window. I heard this music playing at my friend’s, Undice Lane’s house—at his father’s house. We went across there and looked through there, man, and it was Pine Top Perkins playing the piano, and man! That excited me. You have no idea. The next day I went right back. It was Sonny Boy Williamson —Pine Top was playing piano for Sonny Boy Williamson and I went home, the second day, and told my mother, “Man, I want to do like that man.” So anyway, she told me that if I’d promoted to the 3rd grade, that she would get me a piano and so, sure enough, man, when I got home to show her my report card, she had already put the piano in the living room, and that was the beginning of my life with music.
ELWOOD: Do you remember your first paying gig?

TURNER: Yeah, I remember a lot about it. I didn’t know anybody at school knew I played piano because I’ve always been bashful. Even today I’m bashful. And I was in school. I don’t know who told them I could play piano, and we was having chapel in school, and they called me up and said, “Right now, we’d like to Ike Turner to come up and play a number for us the piano.” Man I could have went through the floor! I was so ashamed. I guess you’d say embarrassed, but I would say ashamed, but I didn’t have nothing to be ashamed of, but that’s the way I felt. It was the same feeling, like being ashamed or embarrassed. I got up and was sitting there, like I am at this table, and the wall was right here—like maybe 4 feet between me and the aisle, and man, I got up with my eyes closed, and held onto the wall and got down to the piano. I played something about 30 seconds and then went back to my seat, and then I was ashamed to face anybody then. So, anyway, that was one first.

Then they had a school. There was 32 of us, called the Top Hatters, and we played up Oklahoma, Mississippi, at some—Raymond Hill used to box, and he was having a boxing match up there, so we decided we were going to play up there, the whole 32. And so we played up there at this boxing match. So, anyway, we ended up with 18 cents a piece, and so that’s my first playing the piano before the public, and that’s my first time I played and got paid.

ELWOOD: Do you remember the first time you played with somebody where you actually were on stage and you said, “Oh, man. I am playing with—“

TURNER: No, I never had that feeling. People ask me, how does it feel to be in the rock ‘n roll Hall of Fame? I don’t feel nothin. And they ask me, how do you feel to be a legend? I don’t feel nothing. I don’t even know what a legend is, man, and I’m serious. They say how does it feel to be the one who gave Tina Turner her start? I don’t feel nothing. It’s like Ike and Tina, to me, was a product that you sell. Although music is my life, but I never looked at it like—any imperfect—I don’t even like entertainers that look down on other people, that think that they’re above other people because to me—it’s like you’re in radio and the president is the president. I have as much respect for you, and I think that your job is as important at the President’s. I also feel the same way about the garbage man. I don’t feel any one of is is any more than the other one; we just have different careers. That’s don’t make us be any more—you know what I mean. So, when people take themselves and put themselves up on pedestals, I’m not there.

ELWOOD: I’d like to talk about some of the folks you encountered early in your career. Tell me about Willie Dixon.

TURNER: You know, I don’t really remember Willie Dixon that much, man. I just know—I remember the town where he was from, but I don’t even know where that was because when I met him was during the time I met Ray Charles, and Ray Charles wasn’t even known. I don’t think he had ever had a hit record in those days when I met these people. I don’t know that much about him. It’s like I was asked also about Otis Rush. You know, we were in Chicago recording at Cobra studio, and the guy that owned the record company, Cobra label, he said, “Ike, I have a singer. Will you produce a record on him?” And I just told him, “Yeah,” it would only take a few minutes. And so, anyway, this was Otis Rush. And like today, every interview is about Otis Rush and man, I wouldn’t know Otis Rush if he came in that door right now! No offense, but I don’t live the life that people think that I live. I live a very simple life. I’m happily married, and we just do what we—we wake up and we do—I enjoy life, man. I get up and we walk a couple of miles, or whatever we walk, a mile and a half. Sometimes I feel like walking a mile.

ELWOOD: Well, you look really healthy.

TURNER: Thank you. It’s like when I was doing all this stuff, scouting for Modern Record Company and, I went all over Mississippi, man. It’s like, what would happen—after we cut Rocket ‘88–

ELWOOD: That’s another question altogether.

TURNER: Okay, well we better start there and go forward, okay?

ELWOOD: Okay.

TURNER: Well, what happened is B.B. and I—B.B. King, well, he came to Clarksdale—this is when I met him—and he stayed at our house awhile, and then he left to go put some shoes in the shop to be half-soled, and then I didn’t see him anymore. I knew him as Riley King. Later on, a year or so later, we started seeing signs that said B.B. King playing in Chambers, Mississippi, which was a place about 20 miles from Clarksdale, which was my home town, so we had no idea who B.B. was. At that time I had put together my own show. We played in Greenville, Mississippi, which is about 85 miles from Clarksdale, and on our way back, when we’d be coming back from playing on Saturday nights, man, we’d see all those cars down along side of the highway, man. I mean, like two miles of cars or a mile and a half of cars. We’d say, man, who is that who got all those people? And so, you know, we saw it two or three times, and then we decided one night to stop, and we stopped and went in there, and it was B.B., man. It was Riley up there on the stage.

I walked up said, man, you made mama mad at you. You didn’t tell her bye. Anyway, so this—I said, man, can we play a song? The place was jam-packed with people. He said, yeah. So me and my band got up there and played a song. He said, man, as good as you guys are, you need to be recording. I said, yeah, man. We don’t know how to record. What do you do? He said, well, I’m going have this guy where I record at, in Memphis, which he was talking about Sam Phillips. He said, I’m going to have him to get in touch with you, man, and we’ll try and set you up an appointment for Wednesday. I said, man, great. I didn’t know anything about original tunes at the time. So he went and had Sam Phillips call me. I’ll never forget…

My mother’s phone number then was 914W. So, man, I’m laying there by the phone, Sam Phillips calls. He called that Monday and he wanted us to come up. I told the band and we was all excited. We didn’t think about writing no songs or nothing, right? So then we all get in the car, man. It was 8 or 9 of us, man. We was in an old Chrysler, man, and we have the upright bass tied on top of the car, you know, with the tarpaulin over it so it wouldn’t get wet if it rained, and we had the bass drum hanging out of the trunk, and we were going—from Clarksdale to Memphis, Tennessee is about 65 or 70 miles, something like that. Anyway, on our way up there, man, the Highway Patrol pulled us off. We had flats. Man, everything in the world happened to us going up there, man and so finally, one of the band boys said, hey man, you know, we don’t have no original songs. I said, ah man. In my thinking, we were just going up there to play for the guy, and then he’s going to say, well I’ll record you and then you go back to Memphis. I had no idea that this is it! You’re going to record, right? And so then, man, that’s when we started writing Rocket ‘88 in the car. In the car! After the last police turned us loose.

So we went on to—we wrote this song, and so then we get to Memphis, man, so now I got to put it together real fast, so that’s when I—and the ampliflier had got—when you plugged it up in the wall it cracked a tube because some water had got in it. That’s why the guitar sounds (makes a sound) with all that ‘cause there wasn’t no fuzz in those days, right? So we just recorded it like that. Sam Phillips, he tried to fix it. He couldn’t fix it. I’ve heard a lot of stories about that, but that’s what happened. So we recorded with the guitar sounding like that, and we didn’t have no bass on that record. In other words, if you really, really listen that the bass on that record—the bass is hitting any kind of notes because we didn’t know here was certain notes on that upright bass? ‘Cause you couldn’t hear it inside the club, but he just looked good being up there with somebody pulling on it, right? And so we did the same thing in the session, right? And if you listen, you will see that the bass is playing any old note. It don’t make no difference, but it’s just lucky it didn’t come through. It was just a miracle that it wasn’t out loud where you could tell it was all out of key and all of tune, or whatever, ‘ cause we just tightened up the strings to whatever felt good, and that’s how it was played. Willie Kizart was playing the guitar, so we cut it, and then we went back home.

The next thing I know, the guy is calling telling me that the Oldsmobile people was talking about giving us a car, which there had never gave it to the Rocket 88. But anyway, we got $20 a piece for cutting that record. That was our thing.

Anyway, it was hit, and so they put the record in Jackie Brenston’s name because he did the vocal on it, and from what I read a couple of weeks ago, Sam Phillips said that the reason he put it in Jackie Brenston’s name is he was planning on recording me and needed to have two acts. That’s the reason he put that one in Jackie’s. Anyway, that’s what he say, so so much for that.