“Rolling on the River”: Ike & Tina Turner’s blistering “Proud Mary” highlights our “Take Off to Rock Legends”

By on October 1, 2016

In this full-length hour-long episode of “Night Flight,” originally airing on November 16, 1984, we presented our “Take Off to Rock Legends,” featuring clips of performers and recording artists who have had a profound influence on popular music over the decades, including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes and many more, including a fantastic live version of “Proud Mary” by Ike & Tina Turner from the German music show “Beat Club.” Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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This blistering “Beat Club” episode — which originally aired on German TV on February 21, 1971 — is really something special to see, featuring a spoken intro by Tina Turner who warns us that they’re going to start the song off “nice and easy… but there’s one thing… we never, ever do nothin’ nice and easy, we always do it nice and… rough.”

Then, after a sultry gospel-tinged couple of verses, Ike & Tina and their back-up singers, the Ike-Ettes, and their rockin’ band kick the song into high gear, and by the end, they’re all percolating at a frenetic, almost hyperkinetic pace, everything sounding vibrant and soulful.

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These two rock legends — Ike & Tina Turner — would end up winning a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group in 1972 for their version of “Proud Mary.”

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Tina Turner was born Anna Mae Bullock on November 26, 1939, in Nutbush, an unincorporated area in Haywood County, Tennessee (sometimes the city given is Brownsville), and she would grow up in Knoxville, attending a Baptist church and singing gospel tunes in the choir, and singing a little opera in high school.

She moved to St. Louis, Missouri, at at sixteen, to live with her sister, and was mesmerized by Ike Turner the first time she saw his band, the Kings of Rhythm, playing a gig at the Club Manhattan, located at a club in East St. Louis, across the Mississippi River.

During one of the band’s sets that night, the drummer went into the audience with a microphone, which he set up in front of Tina’s sister, who was too shy to say anything, but Tina — still called “Annie Mae” at the time — wasn’t shy, and she started singing.

Ike Turner was impressed by both her powerful voice and the raw sex appeal she would become known for.

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Turner was apparently quite taken with Tina that first night, who at age seventeen, would become a featured singer in Ike’s band — singing with them on the weekends — beginning what would end up to be a tumultuous twenty-plus year personal and professional relationship.

Ike Turner was by then already a veteran rock ‘n’ roller, starting out professionally in Clarksdale, Mississippi, at age eleven, and by the time he’d entered his teenage years, he was already playing piano and backing up Robert Nighthawk and, later, Sonny Boy Williamson.

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In 1952, he’d moved to Memphis and began playing with a host of different bands which were led by legendary artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Parker, and he also began scouting for record labels — Kent and Modern — and he also worked in the recording studios too, recording artists like B.B. King, Roscoe Gordon, Johnny Ace and others.

He was soon writing songs that were becoming regional hits for these artists, but he was also taken advantage of by the record companies, who paid him a flat salary of $150 a week when he should have been getting songwriting royalties from the publishers.

One of the songs he wrote, “Rocket 88,” earned him just $40 for writing, producing and recording the track. Today the tune is considered one of the first true rock ‘n’ roll songs.

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Ike Turner knocked around Memphis and went back to Clarksdale, and eventually he ended up in St. Louis, playing with his band, the Kings of Rhythm, in venues and clubs and bars all around the city, between the years 1954-1957.

By the time 17-year old Tina did her impromptu audition for Ike Turner, he was already a legendary figure in St. Louis.

They would marry in 1958 — Annie Mae’s name now changed by Ike to Tina — and in another two years the now-named Ike & Tina Turner Revue would have their first hit with 1960’s “A Fool in Love,” a demo track Ike cut with Tina when the original singer didn’t show up for the recording session.

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Onstage, Tina was a whirlwind, wearing sparkling short dresses and high heels, accompanied by the Ikettes in similar fashion, but never upstaging Tina (wearing shorter high heels than she did), shimmying in sequined mini-skirts and mini dresses, whipping and tossing their long hair around while dancing to the groove.

Towards the end of the decade, after years of struggling and Ike Turner releasing solo albums and the band constantly touring but producing no hits, things started to pick up for Ike and Tina.

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They would appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in September of 1969, but the real highpoint for the group was yet to come, when they picked as the opening act for the Rolling Stones 1969 tour (the Stones are also featured in Night Flight’s “Take Off to Rock Legends” episode, performing “Time is on My Side” on the TAMI Show).

The breakout song for the Ike & Tina Turner Revue on that particular tour was their cover version of “Come Together,” the Beatles tune written by John Lennon.

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Meanwhile, rock periodicals and other pop culture magazines were starting to pay attention to the group. Tina would appear on the cover of the newly-published Rolling Stone magazine in 1969, and two different publications that year (Look magazine and Playboy), writing about the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, characterized Tina’s entrance onstage with the same phrase, saying she looked like “a lioness in heat.”

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They would sign with Liberty Records in January 1970, and released their first album, Come Together, in May, with Ike using advance money from the label to build his own recording studio.

“Ike Turner spends most nights in his private apartment — ‘the Whorehouse’ — a mile away at his new studio, Bolic Sound, but Tina says she stays there whenever she can. And yet she’s upset now because Ike was talking to the telephone man the other day about cable lines, so he can hook up another remote camera from his office and watch what’s going on at home.” ~ Rolling Stone, October 14, 1971

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Within another year they were enjoying their first breakthrough hit, “I Want to Take You Higher,” followed up by their next, “Proud Mary,” a track which came about because they were a couple of songs short while recording their album and Tina had remembered hearing one of their backup singers auditioning for the group by performing CCR’s hit, some eight months earlier.

They decided to try recording the John Fogerty-penned song, changing it around a bit and making it their own in the process.

Here’s the full-length version of their “Beat Club” performance:

Fogerty had written the song in the summer of 1968, in a small, barely furnished apartment in El Cerrito, California, where he lived with his wife and two young sons.

According to Fogerty, in interviews he’s given over the years where he’s talked about the origins of the song itself, the lyrics came to him almost immediately on the same day that he received a package in the mail, stamped “Official Government Business,” which informed him that he’d been given an honorary discharge and was no longer considered a member of the Army reserves.

Fogerty had been drafted in 1966 and was part of a Reserve unit, serving at Fort Bragg, Fort Knox, and Fort Lee. Since the war in Vietnam was still going on, Fogerty was waiting to see what might happen next — since he was still technically in the reserves — now that his band was beginning to take off.

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Realizing he wasn’t going to Vietnam, and he was free to live his life, he turned a cartwheel on his front lawn and suddenly had an idea for a new song, rushing inside to write down the first few lines: “Left a good job in the city, working for the man every night and day”.

When he got to the chorus, he quickly wrote down the words as they were coming to him, “Rolling, rolling on the river,” and he already had a title, which he’d written down in his notebook previously, something he figured he’d use someday, and on this day in ’68, the opportunity had come for him to use the title “Proud Mary.”

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He actually ended up combining lyrics from three separate song title ides, the other two being “Riverboat” and “Rolling on a River” (a title or lyric he’d thought of after hearing it said in a Will Rogers movie).

He hadn’t originally thought of Proud Mary as representing a steamboat or any kind of boat; he’d originally considered that it might be about a “domestic worker.. a maid, or a washer-woman,” he would later say (“She gets off the bus every morning and goes to work and holds their lives together, then she has to go home”) , before images of a very specific type of riverboat — a stern-wheeler — sailed into his life.

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The images conjured up in the songwriting process continued as he worked on the song’s lyrics, Fogerty later saying they were inspired by his memories of seeing the John Ford film Steamboard Round the Bend and watching episodes of TV’s “Maverick,” a western starring James Garner as a cardsharp (it was actually Stu Cook who had mentioned something while the band were watching the TV show together, calling on the riverboat to ring its bell, which John remembered, jotting it down, and later adding it to the song’s lyrics).

The song’s opening riff — now recognized as being one of rock music’s most memorable, a fusion of blues and country influences, a seamless mix of both black and white roots music and 100% pure Americana — came to Fogerty as he began working on chords, and “playing around with the famous riff of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony”, and he began to strum his guitar and string the chords together in a steady rhythm that, to him, sounded like water gushing through a paddle wheel.

Recording the track at RCA recording studio in Hollywood, CCR bassist Stu Cook added the bassline that propels the song forward as if it were steam-powered.

Additionally, the band members all attempted to sing the backround harmony parts the way Fogerty wanted — he was hearing them in his head sounding like something an old gospel group would do, or maybe a mellow black four-part harmony group, like the Ink Spots or the Mills Brothers — but Fogerty didn’t think they were doing it right and so he sang all the harmony parts himself, double-tracking his voice.

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Fogerty decided the song was about a guy who hitches a ride on a riverboat queen, bidding farewell to his low-wage job and leaving the city behind, only to see the city’s “good side” from a distance as he moves down the river, which offers him an escape, and a rebirth. Much like Mark Twain’s writings about traversing the difficult Mississippi River, “Proud Mary” had imagery that was about as purely American as you could get.

In his liner notes to Chronicle, an anthology of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s greatest hits, author Greil Marcus wrote that “Proud Mary” (and three other CCR hits) “literally define rock and roll — as a musical form, as a recurring event, as a version of American spirit.”

The 1969 song hit #2 in the US, reached #8 in the UK, and #1 in Austria. It was the first of several songs to reach #2 — and they would have five singles total that stalled out in the same spot and never made it to #1.

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More than five hundred artists have recorded “Proud Mary” over the years — over 35 covers in 1969 alone — many of them charting hits, including Elvis Presley, Solomon Burke (#45, 1969), Phil Spector’s recording with the Checkmates Ltd. (#69, 1969), Neil Sedaka, George Jones and Johnny Paycheck (a duet!), and, most famously, Ike & Tina Turner, whose version of the song — the single was taken from their Workin’ Together album, released in 1970 — reached #4 on the pop charts on March 27, 1971, two years to the week after Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version was at its peak, about a month after this “Beat Club” episode aired in Germany.

(For more about the “Beat Club” TV show, see this post).

Check out Night Flight’s “Take Off to Rock Legends“– featuring music clips and performances by Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and many, many more — at Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.