Opening with ‘I Might Have Been Queen’, Tina Turner’s ‘Private Dancer’ captured her at a pivotal moment in her career. Passing away last month, at the age of 83, Turner had gone on to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, once for her work with Ike Turner and again as a solo artist, and has become globally recognised as ‘the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll’. This stunning career almost didn’t happen, if not for the revival of her fortunes thanks to the success of ‘Private Dancer’. Here we look back at that classic album as we celebrate her work.
Having begun singing with Ike Turner in the late 1950s, Tina Turner, born Anna May Bullock, had her first hit with ‘A Fool in Love’ having been given her stage name by Ike Turner as he wanted to control the copyright. Their work as hit-makers blossomed and by the mid-60s Ike and Tina Turner were working with Phil Spector and releasing classic cuts like ‘River Deep - Mountain High’. By the mid-70s, however, Ike’s cocaine addiction and physical abuse had spiralled, culminating in Tina Turner filing for divorce in 1976. While live and television work was forthcoming, Turner struggled to capture her previous success on record.
Change came when Turner met Capitol Records A&R John Carter, who signed her to a deal and arranged for her to record a cover of Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ with production from Martyn Ware of The Human League and Heaven 17. At first glance an unusual pairing, the track made the most of Turner’s raw Soul vocal style, setting it against a soft synth-pop backing that fits perfectly with a revivalist streak in British Pop that was melding American Soul with electronic Pop. Immediately charting, Capitol Records now saw the promise, and soon Turner was recording tracks that would become ‘Private Dancer’ in just a two-week window of sessions in London.
Working with a range of producers, including Ware, Turner was joined by Rupert Hine, Terry Britten, and John Carter crafting a collection that was dominated by covers. Opening with the autobiographical ‘I Might Have Been a Queen’, an original, Turner starts with a bold confidence that declares a new chapter is born. Driven and forceful, it captures the bold, amped-up take on synth-rock that was yet to become ubiquitous as the decade unfurled.
‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’ is now recognized as Turner’s biggest solo hit, lending its name to the autobiographical film of her life released in 1993, but unlike the album opener, it was not written for her. Originally written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, the track was initially offered to Cliff Richard who rejected it, before passing through several hands including Donna Summer and Bucks Fizz, none of whom managed to release a finished recording. Instead, Turner was presented with the opportunity and delivered an impassioned, world-weary take that would become a number-one hit in 1983, the first Turner had ever had, having found the top spot elusive even with the most successful tracks she had recorded with Ike Turner. From there the track would pick up a trio of Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year, and would later be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The first standout cover of the group is a version of Ann Peebles’ ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’ which retains the weary melancholy of the original and adds a combative, self-assured strength that has become Turner’s calling card. Replacing the timbales with a synth line, the Turner version smooths out the uncanny creep of the original, opting for a propulsive beat and an accentuation on the ‘bringing back sweet memories’ lyric that opens the track up to a warmer retelling more in keeping with Turner’s character.
Elsewhere there is a cover of David Bowie’s ‘1984’ and ‘Better Be Good to Me’, originally released by Spider. The album closes on the title track, written by Mark Knopfler for his band Dire Straits but never completed or released. Instead, Turner’s version was recorded with members of Dire Straits, minus Knopfler due to legal considerations, with the main guitar solo provided by Jeff Beck. Turner’s vocals took a new direction, balancing an unusual cadence for her in the verses with her trademark exuberance let loose on the chorus. The result was a song that was sexually charged but high in artistic depth, showcasing a side of Turner that was new and filled with promise.
Finding immediate success in the charts, ‘Private Dancer’ changed Tina Turner’s fortunes overnight. Recasting her as a unique voice that was adaptable to new genres and styles, she went from being seen as a legacy act to a top-billing hitmaker with superstar potential. By taking a British attitude to Pop and Rock from her cohort of producers, and marrying it to her American Soul and R&B heritage, ‘Private Dancer’ hits on the recurrent formula of repackaging Black American music with British Pop and selling it on to white America to great acclaim. Unlike many other instances of that formula, however, this time a Black woman was the undoubted, undisguised, and fully credited star.
Perhaps the most significant comeback album of all time, ‘Private Dancer’ established Tina Turner as a Pop star in her own right. Critical and public acclaim came swiftly, and forty years later it's hard to imagine that this mid-career peak almost didn’t happen for the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. A celebration of talent, perseverance, and strength, ‘Private Dancer’ is a bold classic that helped establish a decade of stadium Pop Rock and helped cement the legacy of one of the most distinctive voices in Rock and Roll history.