Tina Turner, who died Wednesday at 83, rarely failed to electrify, not just in person but with cameras as her conduit to the audience, too. Longtime Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich worked with Turner on programs from the late ’70s through the late ’90s, and he shared his memories with Variety of three particularly memorable TV performances.
The first of these was in 1985, when she sang “What’s Love Got to Do With It” on the Grammys, the same year she won record of the year for that song — arguably the peak of her career, though she’d been revered for a quarter-century before that and would become a bigger superstar still in the next 25 years to follow. The second appearance he singles out is a duet between Turner and Elton John for a 1999 “VH1 Divas” special that got more fiery behind the scenes than necessary, albeit possibly to its benefit. Finally, he was an integral part of one of Turner’s last great TV spots, a highly copacetic duet with Beyoncé on the 2008 Grammys telecast.
“I was very lucky,” says Ehrlich. “I’m not sure if she considered these three of her greatest performances, but certainly we did. And personally, she was lovely, and just so great to work with. She was very quiet, always listened, had her own ideas, was open to ideas, and always came prepared to work. … Obviously she got married and moved away to Switzerland. She didn’t need Hollywood; she didn’t need the music industry lifestyle. She was shy off-stage. And yet when she was on stage, she really turned it on.”
Watch the three performances, below, with annotation from the producer:
Tina Turner at the 27th annual Grammys in 1985
“You almost can’t think of that song without thinking of that moment of her alone on that stage, dominating,” says Ehrlich. “Or at least I can’t; granted, I was close to it. I had this idea that I wanted her to come over these steps, be revealed in full profile and then walk down and do the song. No orchestra, no band, no nothing (else on stage), just her. I didn’t want to even do an intro, but to have her just appear there. I did that just a few times, where I felt it was more effective than to have a host or or presenter say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome…’ She didn’t need that.”
But there was an obstacle: those heels and those stairs, in tandem. “At first she had said she didn’t think she could do it, which is rare, because she could do anything,” Ehrlich remembers. “Or that was what came back from Roger (Davies), her manager. I couldn’t believe that she had not done stairs like that before, because, I mean, she knew how great those legs were, and there was no way to show them better than walking up and down a set of stairs like that. I think I said, ‘Let me build a stair unit, and if she doesn’t want it, I won’t use it.’ Because I knew she was gonna love it. And she walked in, looked at it, loved it … and then she wound up buying the stairs so she could take ’em on tour! Actually I’m not positive they took the same unit out, but they took the idea and that became a big part of the tour that happened after ‘Private Dancer.’
“I’m not going to say that it was career-defining for her, because ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ had already been a big hit — it won record of the year that year. But when when you saw her come over and down those steps, even though she was not a tall woman, she was larger than life.”
Turner and Elton John sing “The Bitch Is Back” on “VH1 Divas Live”
Turner and John had done many duet performances over the years and were friends… until the night of this taping, at least. Elton wrote about their fallout during these rehearsals in his memoir, “Me.” In his description of events, Turner tried to direct him and his band on how to properly perform “Proud Mary,” and Elton wasn’t having it. Ehrlich remembers trouble beginning when Turner was late while John and Cher (who also joined in with them on a song) were waiting. The producer believes the two eventually reconciled. But in any case, there was a fire happening on stage that Ehrlich didn’t believe was necessarily detrimental to the performance, as long as the audience didn’t know what lit it.
“They had the fight, then he walked off stage, ran into a dressing room, and I had to reunite the two of them so that that they could do ‘The Bitch is Back’ with more venom than I had ever heard it before, aimed at each other. I think she was late, so Elton was already upset, and when she came in … it was a rocky start to the rehearsal and it didn’t get a whole lot better. And they loved each other, but it really was a divas show. Elton and I have talked about it since… she just wasn’t ready. And it was rough on both of them, but the result was an amazing performance.”
In his book, John went so far as to say the vibes at that show resulted in the cancellation of a joint tour the two had planned. Yet Ehrlich didn’t regret how the heat played out that night, for the show’s purposes, at least. “We could see that there was tension on stage, but it wasn’t public. It probably wasn’t recorded, but there were a couple of times when he was singing the chorus and he’s looking right at her as the lines were being tossed back and forth. It got pretty heated. But I mean, what could be better in life than Tina Turner doing ‘The Bitch is Back’ with a guy who really believed in the lyric?”
Turner and Beyoncé team up at the 2008 Grammy Awards
Says Ehrlich, “I was there the first time they actually laid eyes on each other, out at center stage for the rehearsals. And even though at that time Beyoncé was a force to reckon with and had already become a worldwide superstar, she was so deferential and so respectful and in awe of Tina Turner, and they worked this thing out together —and it was masterful.
“It was this medley that Beyoncé basically put together. She just couldn’t believe that she was having this opportunity of performing with her. And it was amazing. Tina was fine from the beginning, and I don’t know that she came out of retirement for this — I think she was still performing. [The telecast was about a year before Turner’s final show.] But I do remember that, in the beginning of the rehearsal, there was kind of a lot of Beyoncé and not a lot of of Tina. And then as Tina got more comfortable, or they got comfortable with each other, Beyoncé almost brought her out, you know? And I don’t want to say ‘gave her permission’ (to be more upfront), because it wasn’t that she had permission, but kind of worked with her to give more… to be more present.”
In setting up the historic collaboration, Ehrlich says, “I think I may have been gone out on a little bit of a leap of faith and basically figured that neither one of them would say no if I went to them. I think I went to Tina first, through Roger Davies, and I said to him, ‘If I could get Beyoncé to do this, would Tina do it?’ And he went and checked with her and she said yeah. And then I went to Beyoncé and Beyoncé immediately said yes.”
But Beyoncé did more than just assent to an idea — she turned the ultimately nine-minute-long segment into a fully scripted testimonial to a heroine, as well as a duet. “Beyonce wrote something; before they did the number, she came out on an empty stage and she did this three- or four-minute monologue, set to music, that led into Tina. It was really spectacular. I remember that it was very important to her, and she wrote it, and then asked me to look at it; I made a couple of edits that I suggested to her, which I think she took. But basically, this was all her. This was important to her, to do this for Tina.”
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