The Pop History Dig

“Sixteen Tons”
1955-1956

Record sleeve cover for January 1956 Capitol album that included ‘Sixteen Tons’ by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Record sleeve cover for January 1956 Capitol album that included ‘Sixteen Tons’ by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
     The top song in America during late 1955 and early 1956 was a tune about coal mining — a song about the hard life and poverty of being a coal miner.  Its title was “Sixteen Tons” and it was made popular by a singer named Tennessee Ernie Ford.  The song had actually been written in the 1940s, its verse grown piecemeal from oft-heard phrases and the lives of miners dating to the 1930s.  And although the song had been previously recorded in the 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that it became a big hit.

 

By Merle Travis

     In the mid-1940s, Merle Travis was a guitar-playing, country musician from Kentucky who had worked in radio, studio recording, and live stage shows.  He also had bit parts in Hollywood films singing in B Westerns.  In 1946, he signed a recording contract with Hollywood-based Capitol Records and had some early hits.  Capitol also asked him to record an “album”of folk songs — four 78 rpm disks — three of which were songs that Travis wrote about coal mining.  They were about life in the mines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where his father had worked.  One of the songs was “Dark As A Dungeon” and another, “Sixteen Tons.”  For the latter song, Travis had pieced together fragments of phrases he had heard while growing up and in later life.  A letter his brother sent during WWII made a comparison to working in the coal mines, saying:  “You load sixteen tons and what do you get?  Another day older and deeper in debt.”  Travis had also heard an expression his father used with neighbors, which Travis adopted for “Sixteen Tons,” as he later recounted:  “…The chorus is from a saying my Dad often used.  He never saw real money. He was constantly in debt to the coal company. When shopping was needed, Dad would go to a [coal company] window and draw little brass tokens against his account.  They could only be spent at the company store. His humorous expression was, ‘I can’t afford to die.  I owe my soul to the company store.’ “

A later compilation of Merle Travis music.
A later compilation of Merle Travis music.
     Travis’ version of “Sixteen Tons” was released by Capitol records in 1947 on Folk Songs of The Hills.  But the song did not receive much notice.  In fact, during the Cold War hysteria of the late 1940s, songs dealing with workers’ woes by “folk music activists,” as they were called, became suspect.  Ken Nelson, a Capitol record producer who had also worked at WJJD radio in Chicago in the 1940s, later explained in 1992 that FBI agents advised the radio station not to play Travis’ records because they considered him a “communist sympathizer,” which Travis was not.  Although his version of “Sixteen Tons” — produced with a single guitar — did not become a hit, Merle Travis continued his music career, becoming one of the most highly regarded country guitarists in history.  His “Sixteen Tons” would be made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

 

“Tennessee” Ernie’s Big Hit

Ernie Ford in Capitol recording session.
Ernie Ford in Capitol recording session.
     Ernest Jennings Ford was from Bristol, Tennessee, where in high school his baritone voice had first been noticed.  After a stint in the military during WWII, he adopted the stage name “Tennessee Ernie.”  He began his career as a singer of country music on radio stations in San Bernardino and Pasadena, California.  By 1949, he signed a contract with Capitol records, had a few hit records and also became a local TV star on the popular Southern California show, Hometown Jamboree

     In 1954 Tennessee Ernie Ford became nationally known through his several appearances on the I Love Lucy TV show as a visiting “country cousin.”  Ford knew the “Sixteen Tons” song from working with Merle Travis who had appeared on Hometown Jamboree.  Ford’s grandfather and uncle had also worked in the mines.  In early 1955, Ford did a version of “Sixteen Tons” on television.  Within five days, NBC received over 1,200 letters from viewers asking about the song.  In July 1955, Ford performed the song again at the Indiana State Fair before a crowd of 30,000 and the response was “deafening,” according to one report.

Label on 78 rpm version of ‘Sixteen Tons’.
Label on 78 rpm version of ‘Sixteen Tons’.
     Capitol Records, meanwhile, informed Ford in September 1955 that he needed to produce a new record to meet the terms of his contract.  Shortly thereafter, a two-sided single was produced.  “You Don’t Have To Be A Baby To Cry” appeared on the “A” side and “Sixteen Tons” on the B side.  Capitol believed that the A-side song was destined to be Ford’s biggest hit yet.  On October 17th, 1955, Capitol shipped the new record to radio DJs who began playing the B side, “Sixteen Tons.”  In about ten days’ time, the record promptly sold 400,000 copies.  Demand for “Sixteen Tons” became so great that Capitol geared all its pressing plants nationwide to produce the record.  In less than month after its release, over one million recordings of “Sixteen Tons” were sold.  It became the fastest-selling single in Capitol’s history.
Sample record sleeve, 'Sixteen Tons'.
Sample record sleeve, 'Sixteen Tons'.

 

No. 1 Hit

     “Sixteen Tons” hit Billboard’s Country Music charts in November 1955, and held the No. 1 position for ten weeks.  By December 15, 1955, more than 2 million copies were sold, then making it the most successful single to date.  It then crossed over to the pop charts, and held the  No. 1 position there for eight weeks into early 1956.  Ford later gave some background on the song’s recording in an interview he did with the Saturday Evening Post:   
    
(…continues, at right…)

Sixteen Tons

Now, some people say a man’s made out of mud,
But a poor man’s made out of muscle and blood,
Muscle and blood, skin and bones,
A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong.

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store

Well, I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine.
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mines.
I loaded sixteen tons of Number Nine coal,
And the straw-boss said, “Well, bless my soul.”

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store

Well, I was born one mornin’, it was drizzlin’ rain.
Fightin’ and trouble is my middle name.
I was raised in the bottoms by a mama hound.
I’m mean as a dog, but I’m as gentle as a lamb.

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store

WeIl, if you see me a-comin’ you better step aside.
A lotta men didn’t and a lotta men died.
I got a fist of iron, and a fist of steel.
If the right one don’t get you, then the left one will.

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store

Ford interview:

     “…Sometimes it’s a new twist that boosts one of those songs up into the million sales class.  ‘Sixteen Tons’ was written eight years before I recorded it, too.  I’d sung ‘Sixteen Tons’ years before [on radio], but it hadn’t been any blockbuster, and Merle Travis, who’d written it, had put it in an album of his songs called Folk Songs of the Hills.  Nothing happened then either.  Then we decided to do some of Merle’s things with modern instrumentation [on television].  When Merle did them, he’d used a straight guitar music background.  When we did them we used a flute, a bass clarinet, a trumpet, a clarinet, drums, a guitar, vibes and a piano.  They gave it a real wonderful sound.”

     “I snapped my fingers all through it.  Sometimes I set my own tempo during rehearsal by doing that….  After I was through rehearsing that song, Lee Gillette, who was in charge of the recording session for Capitol Records, screamed through the telephone from the control room, ‘Tell Ernie to leave that finger snapping in when you do the final waxing.'”

     “They liked ‘Sixteen Tons,’ all right, at Capitol, …but nobody threw a fit over it.  Nobody said, ‘We’re glad you brought this along because it’s sure to sell a million copies in twenty-one days.’  They didn’t say that because anybody in his right mind knew that wouldn’t happen.  Yet that’s exactly what did happen.”  [end Ford interview]

     “[N]o American song in many a generation has got as much [play] in such a short time…as ‘Sixteen Tons’,” wrote a Time magazine reporter in December 1955.  “It is currently the No. 1 hit on almost every list.  It has been called deeply American by some and dangerously radical by others.”

Coal mining town of Dehue, West Virginia showing a 1934 labor march.
Coal mining town of Dehue, West Virginia showing a 1934 labor march.

 

Danger & Debt

     The song’s lyrics hinted at the dangers of working in mines and the hard times of living in mining communities.  And indeed, from the early 1900s through the 1940s, life in the coal mining communities all across the country was pretty grim. Mineworkers were frequently killed in mine accidents and most who worked in the mines developed “black lung” disease from years of breathing coal dust. Although mine conditions improved following the unionization of mine workers in the 1930s and subsequent mine safety laws, even in the mid-1950s when “Sixteen Tons” was at the top of the charts, mine accidents and deplorable conditions in mining communities were still found throughout the coal fields.

     And as “Sixteen Tons” made plain in its lyrics, indebtedness to the company was also a problem in some coal communities, especially before labor reforms were adopted.  Coal miners often became indebted to the “company store,” also known as the general store in some locations.  With no competition, the company could keep prices high for everyday items, and employees — especially those with families — often needed to pay in credit with tokens or scrip.  A never-ending cycle of debt often resulted, meaning essentially that the workers were perpetually bound to the company. 

Coal Mine Dangers
1950s-2010

Miner working in a confined, cramped position inside a narrow coal seam on a piece of equipment called a ‘lizard.’  (photo, Earl Dotter).
Miner working in a confined, cramped position inside a narrow coal seam on a piece of equipment called a ‘lizard.’ (photo, Earl Dotter).

     Although mine safety has generally improved over the years — and “Sixteen Tons” spoke largely to an earlier era — coal mining accidents were still occurring through the 1950s and 1960s, as they have to the present day.  In December 1951, for example, the Orient No. 2 mine in West Frankfort, IL exploded killing 119 miners. In Farmington, WV, the Jamison No. 9 mine exploded in November 1954 killing 16. And in McDowell County, WV, the Bishop No. 34 mine had two fatal explo- sions in the 1950s — one on February 1957 that took 37 lives, and another in October 1958 that killed 22.  The 1960s saw more of the same. A March 1960 mine fire killed 18 in the No. 22 mine at Pine Creek, WV. Suffocation took the lives of 6 workers in a Dora, PA mine in June 1966.  And in 1972, a collapsed coal wastewater impoundment at Buffalo Creek, WV killed 126, injured more than 1,000, and displaced thousands more after flooding several downstream communities.  In recent years, mine accidents have continued to occur, as in the May 2006 Darby Mine explosion in Harlan County, KY that took five lives; the August 2007 Crandall Canyon Mine cave-in of Emery County, Utah that killed six miners and later three rescuers; and the Montcoal, WV mine explosion of April 2010 at a Massey Energy mine that killed 29 miners.


"Sixteen Tons" record sleeve photo.
"Sixteen Tons" record sleeve photo.
Song Resonates

     “Sixteen Tons” caught on all across the country in 1955 and 1956, as it offered a distinctly different sound; somber and fatalistic, in sharp contrast to the up-beat pop ballads of that day.  Rock ‘n roll was just starting its rise to prominence then.  Still, the chorus of “Sixteen Tons” offered memorable lines and helped bring the plight of miners more into general pubic awareness at that time.  Some listeners were also thought to identify with the tune in their own lives, as they too were living on credit or stuck in never-ending jobs, seeing themselves as “owing their souls” to a kind of “company store.”   In any case, Capitol Records was certainly happy, as “Sixteen Tons,” along with other songs, helped improve 1955 sales to a record $21.3 million, up 25 percent over 1954, with profits up by 33 percent.

Cover of 'TV Guide' in March 1957, one of four he would appear on.
Cover of 'TV Guide' in March 1957, one of four he would appear on.

 

Ford’s Career Soars

     Tennessee Ernie Ford, meanwhile, went on to a successful TV career hosting prime-time network music and variety shows from 1956 to 1965.  Ford proved a versatile performer, cutting across comedy, film, and various music genres, including country, pop, gospel and religious music.  Ernie Ford also appeared in Hollywood films, sang the title song for the Marilyn Monroe/Robert Mitchum 1954 film, River of No Return, a song which became a pop hit.  He also did the “Ballad of Davy Crockett,” another 1955 hit record.  His music career continued through the 1970s, as he completed a 1975 album with Glen Campbell, as this and other music from his past enjoyed a second life with new listeners and CD sales in the 1990s.  At age 71 in 1990, Ford was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  He passed away the following year due to liver cancer.

     In 2005, some fifty years after “Sixteen Tons” had made its run at the top of the music charts, the General Electric Co., the giant industrial corporation, used the song in a TV advertising campaign designed in part to promote the use of “clean coal.”  For more on that story see “G.E.’s Hot Coal Ad.”

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Date Posted:  6 October 2008
Last Update:  20 May 2012
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Sixteen Tons, 1955-56,”
PopHistoryDig.com, Octobe 6, 2008.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

'Music of Coal' CD
'Music of Coal' CD
“Tennessee Ernie Ford,” Wikipedia.org.

“Merle Travis,” Wikipedia.org.

“The Wild Birds Do Whistle,” Time, Monday, December 19, 1955.

“High-Priced Pea Picker,” Time, Monday, May. 27, 1957.

Pete Martin, “Tennessee Ernie Ford Interview.” Saturday Evening Post, September 28, 1957, p. 124.

Archie Green, Only a Miner, Urbana, Illinois 1972, pp. 301-302.

George Korson, Coal Dust on the Fiddle, Hatboro, Pennsylvania, 1965, pp. 72-73.

George Vecsey, “Strike Frees Miners From ‘Dungeon’ Peril”(Dante, VA), New York Times, Saturday October 2, 1971, p. 16.

Herbert C. Bardes, “A Chronicle of Coal Company Scrip,” New York Times, Sunday, April 1, 1973, p. 183.

Leonard Sloane, “The Company Store Comes Out of the Coal Mines; The Company Store, Revised for 1975,” New York Times, Business & Finance, Sunday, June 22, 1975, p. 147.

Coal mining folk music.
Coal mining folk music.
“Kentucky Coal Area Recalls Days of Token Money”(Dunmor, KY), New York Times, Sunday, May 4, 1980, p. 59.

Ace Collins, The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs, New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1996, pp. 91-93.

The Billboard Book of Number One Hits (fifth edition).

 “Sixteen Tons: The History Behind the Legend,” formerly at: ErnieFord.com.

Rhonda Janney Coleman, “Coal Miners and Their Communities in Southern Appalachia, 1925-1941″ West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly, Volume 15, Nos. 2 & 3.

Dehue, West Virginia, “Past & Present: Another Day Older…” (Dehue labor photo from this site).

“Coal Mining Disasters,” (incidents with 5 or more fatalities), NIOSH Mining Safety and Health Research, National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.

Tennessee Ernie Ford website, TEF Enterprises, LP.

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“Rocker Supreme”
1958-2007

Album cover to Turner's 1991 'Simply the Best,' a compilation of her 1980s' hits.
Album cover to Turner's 1991 'Simply the Best,' a compilation of her 1980s' hits.
      She walked away from her husband and a successful musical career with some loose pocket change, a gasoline credit card, and little else.  It was early July 1976, just after the 4th.  For a time, she relied on friends and food stamps to survive.  But Tina Turner never lost her moxie or her grove.  She rose from the ashes of her earlier troubles, having endured years of physical abuse and indignities in a marriage and professional music relationship with her partner and husband, the late Ike Turner (charges which he disputed).  Picking up the pieces and taking control of her career, Tina Turner worked her way back into the entertainment world she loved.  By the mid-1980s, she began one of rock ‘n roll’s greatest second acts ever, gaining the respect of the music community and beyond with her stunning comeback. Her story has been chronicled in both the best-selling 1986 book, I, Tina, and the Oscar-nominated 1993 film, What’s Love Got To Do With It.

     By 2005, Tina Turner had become one of the most successful female rock artists of all time, with record and CD sales in excess of 180 million copies.  Her live performances from the mid-1980s through 2001 set audience attendance records from London to Rio. In fact, she sold more concert tickets in that period worldwide than any other solo performer in history.  During those years, Tina Turner became the economic equivalent a modest-size corporation, generating revenues well north of $500 million.  She didn’t do it alone, of course, but her personal odyssey and successful comeback resonated with millions of fans, friends, and admirers. As Oprah Winfrey put it at the 2005 Kennedy Center Honors celebrating Turner’s achievements: “Tina Turner didn’t just survive, she triumphed.” Consider first, her beginnings.

Cover of recent CD captures the happier days of the 1960s & 1970s 'Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Ike shown at right.
Cover of recent CD captures the happier days of the 1960s & 1970s 'Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Ike shown at right.
      Born Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee in 1939, Tina Turner’s first act as a rock ‘n roller came at the age of 19 when she linked up with St. Louis guitarist Ike Turner in 1958.  Turner gave the young girl the stage name Tina and also married her in 1960. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the Ike & Tina Turner Revue did quite well, playing just about anywhere. They opened for acts like the Rolling Stones, appeared on national television, and hit the pop and rhythm and blues (R&B) charts with their own songs — among them, “River Deep, Mountain High,” a 1966 Phil Spector-produced hit.  They also made a popular version of the Creedance Clearwater Revival tune, “Proud Mary,” which peaked at #4 in March 1971 and became part of their live routine for many years.  It also won a Grammy for “Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Duo or Group.”  In 1975, Tina first appeared in film as the Acid Queen in the adaptation of the rock opera Tommy, based on the 1969 album of that name by the British rock group The Who.

 

Hard Times & Comeback

     By the mid-1970s, however, things began to fly apart for the Ike & Tina Turner Revue and the marriage of Ike and Tina.  Known to have suffered the whims and abuses of Ike throughout their marriage, Tina walked out on him and the Revue in 1976.  She divorced Ike in 1978, emerging with only her stage name and a sizeable debt from cancelled performances.  She then tried to make her way back into recording and performing, cutting two albums in the late 1970s, both of which foundered.  In Las Vegas, where she was performing, she met Roger Davies who became her manager and helped her gain more visibility“Tina Turner didn’t just survive, she triumphed.”
- Oprah Winfrey, 2005.

Davies had her perform in the New York rock club The Ritz, and also helped establish her in Great Britain. In the early 1980s she made a version of the Al Green song ”Let’s Stay Together.” Released on Capitol Records, the song rose to #6 on the U.K. singles charts and into the Top 20 on U.S. charts. Lionel Richie invited Turner to join his tour in the spring of 1984. Capitol Records, meanwhile, noticing the success of “Let’s Stay Together,” decided to do a whole album with Tuner in 1984 named Private Dancer. The album hit #3 on the U.S. charts and also spawned five Top 40 singles. Worldwide, Private Dancer is estimated to have sold at least 11 million copies, with some estimates nearly double that at 20 million. It became one of the best-selling albums of all time, and put Tina Tuner squarely on the comeback trail.

Tina Turner
Selected Albums

Album/Date

# Sold

Private Dancer
1984
20 million
Break Every Rule
1986
12 million
Tina Live in Europe
1988
6 million
Foreign Affair
1989
9 million
Simply the Best
1991
10 million 
What’s Love Got…
1993
13 million
Wildest Dreams
1996
6 million 
Twenty Four Seven
1999
3 million
All The Best
2004
5.5 million

     Her 1985 single “What’s Love Got to Do With It” hit #1 and also won Grammys for Record of The Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. In July 1985, at the Live Aid benefit concert at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Turner joined The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger on stage singing “State of Shock” and “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll.” Also that summer, she co-starred with Mel Gibson in the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and sung on the movie’s soundtrack, producing the hit songs “We Don’t Need Another Hero” and “One of the Living.” “Hero” peaked at #1 and #2 in the U.K. and U.S. respectively and won Turner another Grammy, this one for Best Rock Vocal Performance.

 

Book & Movie

     In 1986, an autobiography, I, Tina, co-written by MTV news correspondent and music critic Kurt Loder, was published by William Morrow. The book reached the New York Times hardback best seller list in October 1986. A year later, it appeared as an Avon paperback peaking at #6 on the best seller list in early August 1987. Her sixth solo studio album also appeared that year, Break Every Rule, another big-seller, producing hit singles including “Typical Male,” which peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the United World Chart. The world tour touting the album produced record-breaking tickets sales, including one of the single largest-paying audiences ever to see a single performer — more than 184,000 at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Sponsored by Pepsi, the concert was also broadcast live to a worldwide audience

Her 1986 autobiography.
Her 1986 autobiography.
      In 1993, Turner’s autobiography I, Tina was made into a motion picture using her song What’s Love Got to Do With It? as the film’s title. Angela Bassett played Tina and gave and Ocar-nominated performance. Laurence Fishburne played Ike and was also Oscar-nominated. In a review of the movie, Roger Ebert wrote, “It’s a story of pain and courage, uncommonly honest and unflinching, and the next time I hear Tina Turner singing I will listen to the song in a whole new way.” The film spurred renewed interest in Turner’s music and her earlier autobiography. I, Tina, which returned to the New York Times best-seller list in July 1993, again as an Avon paperback. Tina Turner, meanwhile, kept performing and became more popular than ever. Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, she continued to churn out best-selling albums coupled with very successful world tours, becoming known for her energetic performances

     Observed New York Times reporter Robbie Woliver writing a review of Turner’s work and touring in June 2000: “While Ms. Turner, who turns 60 in November, is still touring, her music and once-explosive stage performance has become more polished… The suggestive shimmies and shakes have yielded to more sophisticated stances and struts, but in this era of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, she still puts performers one-third her age to shame. She is part of the rare breed of truly electrifying performers, a singular artist who does not need VH-1 to designate her a diva.”

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Tina’s Tours

Private Dancer Tour: 1984-85

This tour began in February 1984 and ended in late December 1985. It was her first major arena tour and the first in her rising comeback. It consisted of three legs – North America, Europe, and the Pacific. She gave 171 shows, the bulk of them in Europe and the U.S., ending with shows in Australia and Japan. The tour was a sell out, and produced a VHS titled The Private Dancer Tour Live, which included footage from a March 1985 show in Birmingham, England with guests Bryan Adams and David Bowie.

Poster & DVD cover for 1993 film about Tina Turner.
Poster & DVD cover for 1993 film about Tina Turner.
Break Every Rule Tour: 1987-88

More than 4 million fans saw Tina Turner in action on this tour, which consisted of 173 shows between March 1987 and March 1988. The shows ran mostly in Europe and the U.S., with 2 in South America, one of which was the record-setting night at the Maracana Soccer Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil that drew 186,000 fans — a turn out of Guiness Book proportions. The Rio show was also filmed and released in both VHS and DVD as Tina Live in Rio 88.

 

Foreign Affair Tour: 1990

In a period of six months from April 1990 through November 1990, more than 4 million fans saw Tina Turner perform in one of 121 shows in her Foreign Affair Tour, a mostly European tour with 2 shows in Asia. Undertaken in support of her 1989 album Foreign Affair, the tour helped the album sell more than 10 million copies worldwide. A performance of this tour was filmed in Barcelona, Spain and was released as a video titled, Do You Want Some Action. The European leg of the tour surpassed a tour record previously held by The Rolling Stones for number of shows in that region.

 

What’s Love Tour: 1994

Mostly a North American tour with 63 of the 72 shows held there, this tour was rolled out to help promote the soundtrack album to her 1993 biographical film, What’s Love Got To Do With It? Unlike the preceding tour which included more stadium-like setting with crowds of 100,000 or more, this tour, at Turner’s request, was geared to smaller arena-type settings, with crowds less than 25,000 so she could be closer to the audience. The tour ran from June 1994 through October 1994 and also included 3 shows in Australia and 6 in Europe.

Poster for 1994 'What's Love?' tour.
Poster for 1994 'What's Love?' tour.
Wildest Dreams Tour: 1996-97

The Wildest Dreams Tour was a record-breaking worldwide tour by Turner, running from early May 1996 to mid-August 1997, consisting of 250 total shows, according to one source. It sold out stadiums and arenas all over the world, and grossed a reported $100 million in Europe alone and around $30 million in North America. More than 3.5 million fans saw the show, which also included 18 performance in Australia, 2 in Africa, and 2 in Asia.

24-7 Millennium Tour: 2000

Consisting of 120 shows in Europe and North America, and running from March to December in the year 2000, the Twenty-Four Seven Millennium Tour was Turner’s effort to promote her album Twenty Four Seven. Released in Europe in late 1999, and February 2000 in the U.S, the album reached #9 on the U.K. charts and #21 on the U.S. Billboard 200. It reportedly sold 60,000 copies in its first week. The Twenty-Four Seven tour, meanwhile, sold out stadiums all over the world, and made more money than other touring artists that year, including Barbra Streisand, the rock group Phish, and boy band, ‘N Sync. Turner’s 95 North American shows on this tour earned more than $80 million. Tens of millions more dollars came in on this tour with her 23 sold-out international shows. When the dust cleared, more than 3 million fans saw Tina Turner perform on this tour. The Wembley Stadium U.K. concert on this tour, her last in the UK, was performed before some 85,000 fans and was filmed and released as a VHS and DVD, entitled One Last Time Live!

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Larry King Interview

'Larry King Live,' Feb 1997.
'Larry King Live,' Feb 1997.

     In 1997, in the middle of her comeback popularity, Tina Turner appeared on the Larry King Live TV program on the Cable News Network (CNN). She was then in the middle of her Wildest Dreams Tour, headed for Australia. During the program, King asked her a range of questions, including those about her former husband Ike Turner, her biography, the movie about her life, and her conversion to Buddhism. Turner came across as a person at peace with herself, her career, and the decisions she had made to set her life on course since the early 1980s. Videos of that interview are available on You Tube and elsewhere. King noted at one point in the interview that she was a superstar, with Turner explaining she had a much bigger following in Europe than the U.S.:

TURNER: . . . Private Dancer [album] was the beginning of my success in England, and basically Europe has been very supportive of my music.

KING: More than America?

TURNER: Yes, yes, hugely.

KING: Hugely more – but you’re a major star here. You’re a superstar here in America.

TURNER: Not as big as Madonna. I am as big as Madonna in Europe. I am as big as, in some places, the Rolling Stones.

KING: In Europe?

TURNER: In Europe.

Turner told King she was not as big a star as Madonna in the U.S., but was in Europe.

Tina Turner on Larry King Show.
Tina Turner on Larry King Show.
      King also talked with Turner during the interview about her being a hero to many people; a feminist hero:

KING: …[D]o you realize you’re a feminist hero in America, a heroine?

TURNER: . . .I am beginning to. You see, it wasn’t something that I planned. I kind of see it as a gift. Because of the life I lived, it had a meaning, and I think that the meaning was all of what is hatching now. I think that if I had not had — if I had not given the story to the world, maybe my life would not be as it is. I believe.

KING: So you are aware or not aware?

TURNER: No. I am becoming more and more aware.

KING: Going public with that story, was that difficult?

TURNER: Yes. Because I had had a lot of violence, houses burnt, cars shot into, the lowest that you can think of in terms of violence, and I didn’t know what would happen at that point because it had kind of died down and the divorce was final and my life was kind of getting back on the road, and I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know what kind of mess it would stir, so I — I had to really take a deep breath and make a decision. I felt somehow like getting it out — I guess it was instinct. Buy I felt that getting it out would be not suppressing it anymore, letting the world really know, because they were constantly talking to me about why I cannot separate. I could never tell the truth; nobody really understood, and they still don’t understand, but I think slowly now they’re beginning to.

KING: Did the picture [the movie, What’s Love Got To Do With It? ] do it justice?

Tina Turner on Larry King Show.
Tina Turner on Larry King Show.
TURNER: Yes, I think in a way. I would have liked for them to have had more truth, but according to Disney, they said, it’s impossible, the people would not have believed the truth. And I understand that.

KING: They wouldn’t have believed all you had to take.

TURNER: That’s right.

KING: All right, if it’s difficult to sum up, even take some time, why did you stay?

TURNER: Ike was very good to me when I first started my career. I was in high school and started to sing weekends with him, and we were close friends. We had a very fun life in some kind of way. The mistake was when. . . it became personal and wasn’t my doing, and actually I think he realizes that. Had it not become personal, we would have possibly still been together today. . .

     During the interview, Turner also revealed that she had turned down an opportunity to be in the Oscar-nominated 1985 Stephen Spielberg film The Color Purple. Based on the Pulitzer prize-winning novel of that name by Alice Walker, the book and the film tell the story of the trials and tribulations — including abuse, sex, and racial discrimination — of a young African American girl named Celie, who with the help of friends, finds her self worth. King asked her about the film:

KING: . . . It said here you turned down The Color Purple.

Of The Color Purple, she said: “It was exciting and flattering I was asked by Mr. Spielberg, but it was the wrong movie for me at that time.”

TURNER: I denied The Color Purple because it was too close to my personal life. I had just left such a life, and it was too soon to be reminded of [it] . . . Acting for me, I need something else. I don’t need to do what I’ve just stepped out of. It was exciting and flattering I was asked by Mr. Spielberg, but it was the wrong movie for me at that time.

KING: So no regrets over not doing it, even though it was a tremendous hit?

TURNER: No.

     Elsewhere, Turner is also quoted as saying she turned down The Color Purple film role in part, because, “I lived Celie’s life with Ike. I don’t want to live it again”.

     During his interview with Turner, Larry King took call-in questions as he normally does, with one caller from Copenhagen, Denmark asking if Turner had any idols or favorite actors.

Tina Turner on Larry King Show.
Tina Turner on Larry King Show.
KING: Who flips you?

TURNER: My one idol was Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Her grace, her style, her intellect was how I modeled myself in terms of how I wanted to present myself off stage, so to speak. For my work, of course, the guys, the Stones, Rod Stewart. The rock ‘n’ roll guys. That was what I wanted and that’s what I did.. . .

KING: Did you ever get to meet Jackie?

TURNER: Yes. Do you want to hear the story?

KING: Yes.

“My one idol was Mrs. Jacque- line Kennedy Onassis. Her grace, her style, her intellect was how . . . I wanted to present myself off stage. . . .”

TURNER: We were checking into a hotel, and for some reason she was there, and at the time she was with Mr. Onassis, and I was standing at the reception, and I looked down and I wasn’t sure that it was her. But then she made a gesture of how she usually carried her person, and before I knew it I was running towards her. I was totally out of control. And by the time I got to the swinging doors, I said, “Oh, Mrs. Kennedy, Oh, I mean Mrs. Onassis.” And she turned very gracefully, and I said, “I’m Tina Turner. I just wanted to say hello.” And she extended her hand and had this big smile on her face, and I thought, “I’m saved.” She could have been rude. . . . She could have been, but wasn’t. She was very kind. And who was rude was the lady standing with her, she was looking down her nose at me like I was some disease. She says, “Oh, hello. My children would be pleased.” [W]e had just played Hyannisport, and I had been with Robert Kennedy’s family and we had been boating and dancing with them, and so they had told Caroline and John John, and therefore, she knew who I was. And I was very excited and she shook my hand and left, and as I turned there’s Mr. Onassis, and I said hi, I had to control myself. . . . And I went to my room [and privately celebrated over the chance encounter]. I can understand now sometimes when some of the fans come [to me at performances]. I try to be as compassionate as I can because I can relate.

“[W]e had just played Hyannis- port, and I had been with Robert Kennedy’s family and we had been boating and dancing with them. . .”

KING: And as you explain to yourself, and you continue to lose it even remembering it.

TURNER: Yes.

KING: She obviously was a major idol.

TURNER: She was bigger than life. She was absolutely wonderful.

Tina Turner on Larry King Show.
Tina Turner on Larry King Show.
     In her personal life, Turner told King she’d found a partner in Erwin Bach, a native of Germany who she met and lived with in Germany in the 1980s. Bach, a record executive at EMI, one of the world’s largest music companies, was later moved to Zurich, Switzerland with the company, and he and Turner now live there. Turner also has a home in the south of France at Nice which she had previously bought and remodeled. She told Larry King in 1997, although she lived in Europe, she paid taxes in the U.S.

 

A Sports Franchise

     Turner also told Larry King, in response to a call-in question about which of her songs she liked the most, that the song “The Best,” also known as “Simply the Best,” was her favorite. That song has also become a staple in certain sports venues, a development that Turner herself foresaw when she pushed for the song with her studio. “I felt it would be great for sport, and it ended up in many different countries for sport. I mean — my dream came true with that particular song,” she told King.  But when Turner first got the idea of recording this tune, which was first made by Welch pop singer Bonnie Tyler, “no one believed in it but me,” she said. Turner’s version of the song was released as a highly successful single in 1989 from her hit album Foreign Affair.  The single peaked at #15 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and #5 in the U.K. It’s popularity in the U.K. was boosted by legendary British world champion boxer Chris Eubank who made it his theme song. Turner’s hit song “Simply The Best” has been used in advertising and by sports stars — from Martina Navratilova to HBO.It was also adopted by tennis star Martina Navratilova and became the theme song for Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna, who later died. Another version of “Simply the Best” that Turner recorded in 1992 as a duet with Australian rock star Jimmy Barnes, became a Top 40 hit single in Australia, where it was also used in a promotional and advertising campaign for the New South Wales Rugby League, Australia’s professional rugby league football. The campaign brought a great deal of interest to the league and its games. Turner also performed the song at the 1993 New South Wales Rugby League premiership’s Grand Final. A rugby league video version of the song was also released around that time and remained among Australia’s top ten videos for some weeks thereafter. In April 2006, the National Rugby League of Australia and New Zealand announced that Turner would return in her popular promotional role for the league in 2008. Outside of sports venues, “Simply The Best” has been also used in Home Box Office (HBO) advertisements for years, previewing shows and movies, unofficially becoming something of a second HBO theme. Turner’s version of the song also appears on the SingStar 80’s video game for Play Station 2.

 

DVD cover of concert filmed at Wembley Stadium in London, U.K., year 2000 tour.
DVD cover of concert filmed at Wembley Stadium in London, U.K., year 2000 tour.

A Giant Legacy

     Although there are few second acts in any lifetime, Tina Turner is among those who have defied the odds by having a very successful one, adding to her earlier accomplishments. In her musical career, she has received eight Grammy Awards and was nominated for another 12. To date in the U.S., she has had seven Billboard Top Ten singles and 16 Top Ten R&B singles. In the U.K. she has had more than twenty Top 40 hits.  Among her various music and other awards are the following: the American Music Award, the Billboard Music Award, the NAACP Image Award, MTV Video Awards, and the World Music Award.  In addition to being a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2005, she is also a member of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was ranked #2 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Women in Rock & Roll, and #51 on Rolling Stone’s “Immortals” list.

     Although she retired from global touring in 2001, she has continued working. In 2003, she teamed up with Phil Collins to record the song “Great Spirits” for the Disney film Brother Bear. Her 2004 greatest hits album, All the Best charted in both the U.S. and the U.K., spawning a new single, “Open Arms,” which reached the Top 25 in the U.K. In 2005, she gave live TV performances in the U.S. and Europe and also appeared at a private charity ball in St. Petersburg, Russia. In addition to receiving Kennedy Center Honors, already mentioned, she was also named in 2005 as one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 legends honoring outstanding African American women. In early 2006, the All the Invisible Children soundtrack was released with Turner and Elisa singing “Teach Me Again,”a song which hit #1 in Italy. In recent years, she has also contributed to albums by guitar legend Santana and jazz pianist Herbie Hancock (a tribute album to singer Joni Mitchell). In 2007, Turner was also working on an album of new material. In May 2007, Turner returned to the stage to headline a benefit concert for the Cauldwell Children’s Charity at London’s Natural History Museum. And in Februrary 2008, she performed at the Grammy Awards cermony.

President George W. Bush congratulates Tina Turner during a reception for the Kennedy Center Honors in the East Room of the White House Sunday, December 4, 2005. From left, the honorees are: singer Tony Bennett, dancer Suzanne Farrell, actress Julie Harris, actor Robert Redford, and singer Tina Turner. White House photo, Eric Draper.
President George W. Bush congratulates Tina Turner during a reception for the Kennedy Center Honors in the East Room of the White House Sunday, December 4, 2005. From left, the honorees are: singer Tony Bennett, dancer Suzanne Farrell, actress Julie Harris, actor Robert Redford, and singer Tina Turner. White House photo, Eric Draper.

     In addition to being a successful recording artist and movie actor, Tina Turner has also become a world citizen in the best sense of that term; an ambassador of a human kind, helping where she can, while serving as a living example of personal triumph through determination. As Janet Jackson put it in 2005: “One of Tina’s big hits is ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero.’ Yet the truth is, we really do need heroes, and Tina has become a heroic figure for many people, especially women, because of her tremendous strength.”

For additional stories at this website on pop music history, please see the Annals of Music category page, or visit the Home Page for other story choices. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted:  2 April 2008
Last Update: 8 May 2014
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Rocker Supreme: 1958-2007”
PopHistoryDig.com, April 2, 2008.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Tina Turner on the cover of her 2004-2005 “All the Best” album – a greatest hits compilation released in the U.K. as a two-disc set in November 2004, followed by a February 2005 release in the U.S., and an abridged single-disc version in October 2005.
Tina Turner on the cover of her 2004-2005 “All the Best” album – a greatest hits compilation released in the U.K. as a two-disc set in November 2004, followed by a February 2005 release in the U.S., and an abridged single-disc version in October 2005.

Sara C. Medina, “People,” Time, September 8, 1986.

Mike Joyce, “Tina Turner, Typically Torrid,” Washington Post, August 25, 1987, p. D-8.

Richard Harrington, “Public Danger: Tina Turner’s Turbulent Life Comes to the Screen,” Washington Post, June 6, 1993, p. G-1.

Janet Maslin, “What’s Love Got to Do With It; Tina Turner’s Tale: Living Life With Ike and Then Without Him,” New York Times, June 9, 1993.

Desson Howe, “Love: It’s Got to Do With Grit,” Washington Post, June 11,1993, p. N-42.

Bernard Weinraub, “As Tina Turner, Wig to High Heels,”New York Times, June 23, 1993.

Geoffrey Himes, “Tina Turner,” Washington Post, August 2, 1993, p. B-4.

Richard Harrington, “Tina Turner’s One-Woman Festival,” Washington Post; June 23, 1997, p.D-7.

Richard Harrington, “Tina Turner: The Girl From Nutbush,” Washington Post, July 29, 1993, p. C-7.

Tina Turner on the cover of Vogue magazine, Germany, April 2013.
Tina Turner on the cover of Vogue magazine, Germany, April 2013.

Robbie Woliver, “Queen of Comeback Talks of Retirement,” New York Times, June 11, 2000.

Richard Harrington, “Proud Tina Keep On Burnin’,” Washington Post; June 16, 2000, p. C-2.

Megan Rosenfeld, “Please Tina, Keep on Burnin’,” Washington Post, October 9, 2000, p. C-5.

Janet Jackson, “#61 – Tina Turner,” Rolling Stone, 972, April 21, 2005.

Jacqueline Trescott, “Kennedy Center To Honor Five High-Wattage Cultural Lights,” Washington Post, September 7, 2005, p. C-1.

Teresa Wiltz, “Big Wheels Turning: For a Star-Studded Night, Tina Turner and Four Other National Treasures Rule on a River Called the Potomac,” Washington Post, December 5, 2005, p. C-1.

“Tina Tuner,” Wikipedia.org.

Tara Hayes, “Turner Is Simply The Best For NRL,” B&T (Australia media & advertising magazine), April 11, 2006

 

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