Tina Turner: 10 simply the best songs and the stories behind them (2023)

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Tina Turner: 10 simply the best songs and the stories behind them (1)Image source, Getty Images

By Ian Youngs & Emma Saunders

BBC News

Tina Turner, who has died at the age of 83, created many classic recordings with her winning combination of R&B, funk, rock and pop, all performed with her distinctive raw vocal power.

The songs trace her story from her unhappy partnership with first husband Ike to her 1980s comeback courtesy of a British synth pop group.

Here's the pick of her most popular and best-loved hits.

1. River Deep, Mountain High (1966)

Tina found success with Ike in 1960, and one of pop music's masterpieces came her way six years later when producer Phil Spector asked to work with her.

Although the song was credited to the duo, Spector didn't want the controlling Ike in the studio, and Tina was happy to work with someone else.

She was astounded to find the producer had assembled a full orchestra and choir to create his famous wall of sound. "I was just a girl from Tennessee who got caught up with Ike and became a singer," she wrote in her autobiography. "Never, ever had I seen anything like this, except in a movie."

The record went to number three in the UK, but it flopped in the US. Radio DJs "said it wasn't 'black' enough to be rhythm and blues, or white enough to be 'pop'," she said.

2. Proud Mary (1971)

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After this song was a hit for Credence Clearwater Revival in 1969, Ike and Tina transformed their unhurried country-rock vibe into an explosive and epic funk ode to freedom.

Starting with her sultry spoken introduction before then bursting into life with her exuberant vocals, this one did make an impression on US music fans. It reached number four in the Billboard chart and won a Grammy Award.

When Beyonce paid tribute to Tina at the 2005 Kennedy Center Honors, this was the song she chose to perform. Three years later, the pair teamed up to sing it as a duet at the Grammy Awards.

3. Nutbush City Limits (1973)

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"A church house, gin house/a school house, outhouse" - Tina famously immortalised her Tennessee home town in these lyrics.

The upbeat tune was a nostalgic memory from her disruptive childhood, during which she spent some time picking cotton. "You go to the field on week days/And have a picnic on Labor Day."

Three years after this song came out, Tina left Ike after suffering years of his abuse, leaving her career in the balance.

4. Let's Stay Together (1983)

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Tina had to start again and build herself back up as a solo artist. The pivotal moment in that comeback - which would lead to even greater success than before - came when she met two members of English electro-pop group Heaven 17.

Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory were looking for one last singer for an album of cover versions for their British Electric Foundation project, and Tina was without a record deal.

When she walked into Abbey Road Studios, there were no other musicians there. "Where's the band?" she asked, expecting a Phil Spector-esque orchestra. Instead, the music was made by synthesizers.

They first recorded The Temptations' Ball of Confusion, then Al Green's Let's Stay Together - which became her first UK top 10 hit for a decade.

5. What's Love Got to Do With It (1984)

She cemented her status as a solo star with this song, written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, which had already been offered to Sir Cliff Richard, Donna Summer and Bucks Fizz. Tina initially thought it was too light and poppy.

But she agreed to record it - if she could do it her way, "forcefully, with gravity and raw emotion". It worked - her sexy, defiant rendition, accompanied by a music video featuring her striding along the streets of New York in denim and black leather, gave Turner her only US solo number one and won record of the year at the Grammys.

It also made her oldest woman (at the time) to land a US number one single at the age of 44.

6. Private Dancer (1984)

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The title track from the best-selling album was first recorded by Dire Straits, having been written by the band's frontman Mark Knopfler. But he decided it didn't suit a male vocal. Tina later said in an interview that she hadn't realised the song was about a sex worker.

"I never had to stoop to that in my life," she wrote in her autobiography. "But I think most of us have been in situations where we had to sell ourselves, one way or another.

"When I gave into Ike, when I kept quiet to avoid an argument, when I stayed with him despite longing to leave, that's what I was thinking about when I sang the song, the sadness of doing something that you don't want to do, day in, day out. It's very emotional."

The song features Jeff Beck on guitar, while the video, filmed in London's Rivoli Ballroom, was choreographed by former Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips.

7. We Don't Need Another Hero (1985)

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Another track penned by Britten and Lyle, this song - and Tina herself - appeared in the Mel Gibson film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

A classic 80s power ballad, the lyrics chimed with the desolation of the film's post-apocalyptic world. Turner appeared in the music video as her character Aunty Entity, who she said she connected with because she was "strong and resilient".

"She lost so much, and then she went through so much to get the men in her world to respect her," Tina said. "I related to her struggles because I lived them."

The song was another hit, making it to number two in the US and earning a Grammy nomination and an Ivor Novello award.

8. The Best (1989)

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This was originally written for Bonnie Tyler, but was only a minor hit for the Welsh singer in 1988.

The following year, Tina added some extra vocal force and a new soft rock production - and it became one of her signature songs and one of the decade's defining anthems.

The song is often mistakenly called Simply The Best, a line from its famous chorus. It's been featured in numerous commercials over the years, including a Pepsi ad featuring Turner herself. It was also used to promote rugby league in Australia.

9. Steamy Windows (1989)

This was also on Turner's 1989 album Foreign Affair, and the sultry bluesy track's lyrics left listeners in little doubt as to what was going on in the back seat.

It was another empowering and feminist track from Turner, singing about taking the lead in a sexual encounter. Music Week described it at the time as "a delightfully risqué number" featuring "mischievous guitar runs".

The single got a surprise outing during an Emma Watson interview on ITV's Lorraine a few years ago when the A-list actress's phone rang and the ringtone was… Steamy Windows. A true Tina fan.

10. GoldenEye (1995)

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A James Bond theme is a milestone for any artist. Following the success of Tina's Oscar-nominated 1993 biopic What's Love Got to Do With It, the Bond producers called on her for Pierce Brosnan's debut as 007.

The GoldenEye theme itself was written by U2's Bono and The Edge. The frontman gave her a demo of sorts - but she had a lot of work to do.

"He didn't make a proper demo, someone had just thrown the music together," she told the BBC in 2018. "I thought, how do I put this together? It wasn't showing me what the melody was. So I created as close to what I thought the melody was of that.

"I had to work really hard. I knew then that I could sing anything put before me."

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