May 30, 2023

The Invincible Anna Mae Bullock

Reborn thanks to her resilience, tenacity, talent, intelligence, loyal friends, and good management.

I listen to a broad and eclectic variety of music, but if pressed for an answer on what type I like most, that would be the categories of Irish Folk and Bluegrass — and the latter’s cousins, Southern Acoustic Gospel and Blues. I am also a fan of a few Southern rock bands, particularly the Allman Brothers, Gregg and Duane also being Tennessee natives. Because I had older brothers who were “children of the ‘60s,” I was introduced to their Motown collections, which I liked.

That being said, I have never written on any high-profile rock musicians because I find the vast majority of “entertainment industry” faux personalities in music and on screen despicable — to put it mildly. But after a noted entertainer’s death last week, I set about to learn more about her because I knew her story was different than most. Despite the fact I did not listen to her music, I discovered that her life was a testament to overcoming almost insurmountable odds, and it is for that reason I devote this column to her invincibility.

In November 1939, Anna Mae Bullock was born in Brownsville, Tennessee, near Memphis, the youngest daughter of Floyd and Zelma Bullock. She lived in a small house near the Poindexter Farm, where her father was an overseer of sharecroppers, mostly cotton pickers. She and her two older sisters lived in relative poverty, and their father was a violently abusive alcoholic who physically assaulted their mother regularly.

As a child, Anna Mae sang in the choir of nearby Spring Hill Baptist Church. It was one of the few activities that was “normal” in her young life, and she thrived as a singer. When she was 11, her mother abandoned the family to get away from her father and, two years later, Floyd remarried and also abandoned the children. The sisters were turned over to their maternal grandmother until age 16, when Anna Mae reunited with her mother in St. Louis.

In her 1986 autobiography, I, Tina, Anna Mae, who most would recognize as the high-energy global entertainment phenomenon Tina Turner, wrote that being abandoned by her parents left her with a sense of not being loved or worthy. That abandonment plagued her with an even more difficult path, strewn with bad decisions related to her low self-esteem. Her sense of worthlessness is a tragic imprint on millions of young people from broken homes, particularly those abandoned by fathers.

No doubt some reading these words recognize the hard legacy of a broken home. Tina wrote for the world to read an account of the abuse she and her children suffered under her former husband, Ike. She wrote it hoping it would become an inspiration for others suffering similar circumstances.

I recall hearing about “Ike and Tina Turner” in the '70s, 15 years after Tina connected with Ike in a St. Louis night club. He gave her the stage name “Tina” because it rhymed with the comic book jungle heroine Sheena, “Queen of the Jungle.” Until their split in 1976, the two of them had numerous hits and had made a name for themselves on the pop charts. But as is often the case with children of abusers, the pattern of abuse Tina witnessed as a child she lived with in her marriage to Ike, who was much more violent than her own father.

After their breakup in 1976, Tina was considered a vintage or nostalgia entertainer. She made ends meet with celebrity TV appearances on “Hollywood Squares,” “Donny & Marie,” and “The Sonny & Cher Show.”

That was until 1983, when, as a result of her resilience, tenacity, talent, intelligence, loyal friends, and good management, she recreated herself as the solo “Tina” and released the first of her own albums, “Let’s Stay Together,” followed by “Private Dancer.” Then came her 1985 film hit “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” with Mel Gibson. She recorded several hits from that film and launched what must be the most amazing entertainment resurgence to stardom in the history of music, appearing in peer stage performances with the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and other rock music icons.

Twenty years after her self-makeover, that poor little girl from a cotton farm who became a battered and abused wife had overcome obstacles that would have left others in the trash heap of entertainment history. I should add that among the most formidable obstacles were being a black female in the white male-dominated world of rock 'n’ roll. In 2005, Tina was in the White House with George W. Bush being recognized among other Kennedy Center Honors entertainers as Tony Bennett and Robert Redford.

That was followed by her last public circuit in 2008, “Tina!: 50th Anniversary Tour.”

In 2013, Tina retired and moved to Switzerland. Her life was the subject of a 2019 Broadway musical, “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.” In 2020, Turner released a third book, Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good, a testament to overcoming oppressive odds, a true story of turning tragedy into triumph. She died on May 24, at the age of 83, of cancer.

Over the last 40 years, there have been thousands of profiles on Tina’s career, awards, and life, but I would guess none better than the HBO documentary profile by her name, “Tina,” featuring her life in her words and those of her closest friends and colleagues.

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