How Tina Turner and Frank Zappa Whipped Up Some Dirty Love

Before Tina Turner was doubly inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, she heated up some tracks for Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.

Tina Turner in 1971
Photo: Apple

Tina Turner joins the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2021 in Cleveland this October, along with Jay-Z, Gil Scott-Heron, Todd Rundgren, Carole King, Foo Fighters, and The Go-Gos. Tina is already an honoree as a member of Ike and Tina Turner, and she is also once again distinguishing herself from the group. Even before she went solo, Turner had star billing, such as her turn as the Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s film adaptation of The Who’s Tommy.  But Tina had to skip the credits for her work with Frank Zappa, who was posthumously inducted into the Rock Hall in 1995.

Turner recently made a gracious exit from the stage in HBO’s feature documentary Tina. She is also highlighted in Apple TV+’s upcoming 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything. This was the year Ike and Tina’s cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” hit No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100, becoming their biggest hit. Tina had already established herself as the draw of the musical couple when they signed to Phil Spector’s Philles label. The legendary producer paid extra to highlight Tina’s dynamic range on the single “River Deep – Mountain High,” which was released in May 1966.

Both documentaries skip one of Tina’s artistic highlights. 

Ike and Tina Turner opened the Bolic Sound studios complex at 1310 N La Brea Avenue in Inglewood, California, in 1970. It boasted incomparable state-of-the-art audio equipment for the time. “Bolic was one of the greatest studios I’ve ever seen,” Little Richard wrote in his introduction to Ike Turner’s 1999 autobiography Takin’ Back My Name. “He had everything in this studio. He had his own booking agency, and he was showing people how to produce.” Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Duane Allman recorded at Bolic Sound.

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Frank Zappa recorded and produced two of his most recognizable albums at the studio: his ironically titled 17th album Over-Nite Sensation, which came out in 1973, and Apostrophe from 1974. Zappa was at the forefront of the avant-garde musical movement at the time. During his sessions, Ike and Tina Turner and the Ikettes were recording in the same studio complex. Zappa took advantage of the proximity to expand on his sonic landscape.

“I wanted to put some back-up singers on the thing, and the road manager who was with us at the time checked into it and said, ‘well, why don’t you just use the Ikettes?’ I said, ‘I can get the Ikettes?’ and he said ‘Sure,’” Zappa is quoted as saying in Barry Miles’ 1993 book, Zappa: A Biography.

The vocal trio The Ikettes were already iconic. They were one of the first recognized “Girl Groups” in rock and roll history. The ensemble was formed as the backing group of Art Lassiter and were originally called The Artettes. Ike saw the success Ray Charles had with his backing vocal trio The Raelettes. The original Ikettes included Robbie Montgomery, Venetta Fields and Jessie Smith. They became the Ikettes after Ike and Tina Turner’s first single “Fool In Love” became a hit in 1960, and the Ike and Tina Turner Revue wanted to play it live. Onstage, The Ikettes pushed soul music dance choreography into the stratosphere.

For Over-Nite Sensation, Tina Turner, Linda Sims, and Debbie Wilson appear on the songs “I’m The Slime,” “Dirty Love,” “Zomby Woof,” “Dinah-Moe Humm,” and “Montana.” You can hear them on Apostrophe on the songs “Cosmik Debris” and “Uncle Remus.”

Ike agreed to rent out his signature sounding vocal stylists while still stamping the project with his authority. “But you know what the gimmick was? We had to agree, Ike Turner insisted, that we pay these girls no more than $25 per song, because that’s what he paid them,” Frank says in Miles’ book. “And no matter how many hours it took, I could not pay them any more than $25 per song per girl, including Tina.”

That turns out to be a bit of an exaggeration. The singers were actually paid $25 per hour, according to the session’s invoice, which shows they got $187.50 each for 7 1/2 hours of service. But the singers worked for that money. The song “Montana” not only has constantly evolving time signatures, but also passages which change of speeds. The middle section is especially challenging. Besides the time changes, the harmonic progressions and the way they play against the bass counterpoint is unusual for rock, and challenging to perform.

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“It was so difficult, that one part in the middle of the song ‘Montana,’ that the three girls rehearsed it for a couple of days,” Zappa recounted. “Just that one section. You know the part that goes ‘I’m pluckin’ the ol’ dennil floss’? Right in the middle there. I can’t remember her name, but one of the harmony singers, she got it first. She came out and sang her part and the other girls had to follow her track. Tina was so pleased that she was able to sing this thing that she went into the next studio where Ike was working and dragged him into the studio to hear the result of her labor. He listened to the tape and he goes, ‘What is this shit?’ and walked out.”

After hearing some of the recordings, Ike Turner insisted the Ikettes not be credited on the released albums. According to CD reissues, it appears he did not approve of the content. “Dirty Love” and “Dinah-Moe Humm” were among the most overtly sexual songs in Zappa’s catalog. These two songs may be the reason Ike wouldn’t sign off on letting his singing stable put their name on the record sleeves.

Of the other songs, “Zomby Woof” takes a bite out of lycanthropic fare, while “Cosmic Debris” turns the tables on a spiritual guru. “I’m The Slime” is about the brainwashing of everyday television. “Uncle Remus,” which takes its name from Joel Chandler Harris’ Br’er Rabbit stories, is an indictment on the then-current state of the civil rights movement compared with the time of Zappa’s 1966 song “Trouble Every Day.” That song looked at the Watts riots when Black folks were burning down buildings as well as the old status quo. In “Uncle Remus,” the most damage being done is “knocking the little jockeys off the rich people’s lawns.”

Ikettes Linda Sims and Debbie Wilson also recorded “Cheepnis,” Zappa’s classic ode to B-movies at Bolic Sound studio on December 12, 1973. This song was the “elsewhere” on the otherwise live album Roxy & Elsewhere (1974). The rest of the album was recorded at The Roxy Theatre.

You can see that exceedingly fun footage here at The World of Ike & Tina YouTube Channel:

Both the Tina documentary and 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything include segments covering the wounds Turner suffered as an artist, married to her boss, at the dawn of any kind of gender equality. The oppression she suffered under Ike’s tyrannical reign did not escape Zappa’s eye.

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“I don’t know how she managed to stick with that guy for so long,” Zappa said in the Miles book. “He treated her terribly and she’s a really nice lady. We were recording down there on a Sunday. She wasn’t involved with the session, but she came in on Sunday with a whole pot of stew that she brought for everyone working in the studio. Like out of nowhere, here’s Tina Turner coming in with a rag on her head bringing a pot of stew. It was really nice.”

1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything premieres May 21 on Apple TV+.