Ike Turner focus of weekend celebration

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 6, 2010

JACKSON (AP) — Rock icon Ike Turner is about to get recognition in his Mississippi hometown nearly three years after his death.

This weekend in the Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale, officials and music fans will gather to unveil two markers honoring Turner and his musical legacy. The unveilings coincide with the 23rd annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, a free event dedicated this year to ‘‘Rocket 88,’’ the 1951 Turner tune often cited as the first rock ’n’ roll song.

‘‘Turner is one of the most important figures in American music. He deserves credit for what he did musically. He was the mastermind, but always somewhat in the background with what the public saw,’’ said Jim O’Neal, research director for the blues trail and a co-founder of the festival.

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Long before the turbulent years of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, Turner was already a pioneer of the rhythm and blues sound, playing in Robert Nighthawk’s band and on WROX radio. He learned to play piano by watching bluesman Pinetop Perkins through peepholes at juke joints.

‘‘He could pick up finger movements in an instant and he’d run back home and try them on his own piano,’’ said his cousin C.V. Veal. ‘‘From that, being a natural talent, it didn’t take him long to catch on.’’

Turner, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, died in 2007 of a cocaine overdose at his home in San Marcos, Calif. He was 76.

Back in 1951, Turner and his band mates were living in Clarksdale when they drove about 70 miles north on U.S. 61 to Sun Studios in Memphis to record ‘‘Rocket 88’’ with the legendary Sam Phillips. Jackie Brenston sang lead and Turner played piano.

Turner, acting as a sort of talent scout, later helped get Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf recorded at studios.

A crowd of 25,000 is expected at the festival that runs Friday through Sunday. The event features 40 performers, including Big Jack Johnson, Robert ‘‘Bilbo’’ Walker, Cedric Burnside and Eddie Cusic. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker for Turner will be unveiled Friday outside the Hotel Alcazar, where he worked as a youth as an elevator operator. Another Walk of Fame marker will be unveiled for him at the Delta Blues Museum later that day.

Veal, who also played drums at times in Turner’s Kings of Rhythm band, said the tribute is overdue.

‘‘Just like all festivals, I don’t know why they wait until everybody’s dead. They can’t smell no flowers,’’ Veal said. ‘‘It’s good for the community and whatever family is left, which is not many.’’

Velma Davis of Yazoo City, who was married to Turner when he recorded ‘‘Rocket 88,’’ said she’ll attend the blues marker ceremony.

Davis said Turner kept in touch with her over the years, but she has always kept a low profile about their relationship.

‘‘His music was his sole purpose,’’ she said.

Though he has been called the bridge between Mississippi Delta blues and rock-n-roll music, Turner probably could not have expected this kind of reception in Mississippi years ago, said O’Neal.

O’Neal said most people don’t know about Turner’s accomplishments before meeting Anna Mae Bullock in 1959 and renaming her Tina Turner. Later, his career was overshadowed by Tina Turner’s accounts of his abusive behavior, along with his admitted drug abuse and a stint in jail. When Turner died, a spokeswoman for Tina Turner said the divorced couple hadn’t spoken in decades. No one expects Tina Turner at the festival.

Back in 2008, some Mississippi senators reluctantly voted to pass a resolution commending Ike Turner only after changing the legislation to honor his ‘‘musical contributions’’ rather than his life.

‘‘He managed over the years to make some sort of comeback, not only with his music, but image-wise,’’ said O’Neal who cited Turner’s 2006 Grammy-winning album, Risin’ With The Blues.

‘‘He did do some bad things, absolutely. We can’t forgive him for that, but he had one of those brains that never stopped and he was highly creative,’’ said Brett Bonner, editor of Living Blues Magazine. ‘‘If you go back and listen to his music, he was playing amplified guitar with distortion 15 or 20 years before anybody else.’’

This weekend’s events also include a panel discussion of Turner’s life Friday at Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Morgan Freeman and businessman Bill Luckett. Veal will be among family members, local residents and a historian who will share stories about him.