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Issue 115, Winter 2021

Manhattan in East St. Louis

Ike & Tina Turner and the scene that formed their art

The cover for the 1973 album Nutbush City Limits offers a visual representation of the Southern roots and the movement to other parts of the country that are crucial to the biographies of Ike and Tina Turner and numerous other African Americans. Both the front and back feature a four-color, cartoonlike illustration of the Tennessee countryside with photos of Tina (without Ike) superimposed into the scene. On the front, the sun sets behind Tennessee mountains dotted with pine trees; to one side is a wooden house with smoke rising out of its chimney and, across the way, a small wooden outhouse. A yellow traffic sign that reads entering nutbush city limits sits in the foreground to the right of a barefoot Tina Turner in a long purple cotton-print dress, her eyes shut and teeth bared in a grimace as she puts her foot up against the front grille of a 1950s-era Chevrolet pickup truck. The back cover shows a similar mountainous background, but the sign in the foreground now reads leaving nutbush city limits. Tina’s attire and vehicle have also changed. She wears a fur coat, a long black skirt, and high-heeled black pumps. She is sitting, with her legs crossed, on a late-model silver Rolls Royce, one hand resting on the gleaming hood and her face turned to the camera. The picture of elegance, she wears an expression of subdued satisfaction. The car’s blue-and-gold California license plate is personalized with bolic, the name of the studio that Ike built in Inglewood, California, and the place where they recorded the album. It is an image of the kind of arrival that African American migrants leaving the South might have dreamed of achieving, heading out west to Los Angeles where the Turners put down roots in the early 1960s. Between the truck and the Rolls, Tina and Ike met and forged their professional and personal partnership in the Up South metropolis of St. Louis, or more specifically, East St. Louis, Illinois, across the Mississippi River. The album’s familiar opening title track, which reached number eleven on Billboard’s r&b chart and rose to number twenty-two on the magazine’s pop chart, kicks off with a concise sketch of Tina’s Down South hometown: “A church house, gin house / A school house, outhouse / On Highway Number Nineteen…” Closing side two, the less known “Club Manhattan” travels upsouth to East St. Louis and slows things down as it recalls the nightlife scene that sustained Ike’s band, the Kings of Rhythm, and launched Tina’s career in the 1950s. The two songs are companion pieces—featuring the same roadhouse-style guitar and soul horn arrangement—and the lyrics Tina wrote for them draw on her memories of key places of her youth and celebrate the communities found in them.

“Club Manhattan” describes one of the African American cultural spaces in which rhythm and blues and its descendent rock & roll were created. The club was part of the chitlin circuit, the network of venues that ranged from legitimate theaters like the Apollo to small clubs to makeshift stages in barns and Elks clubs where African American musicians, singers, dancers, and comedians performed for African American audiences. The goings-on at the Club Manhattan were rooted in the African American Southern traditions that Black migrants carried with them when they moved from the South to towns and cities in other parts of the United States. The song is a mid-tempo track whose twanging guitar rhythms and backing horns evoke late nights at a roadhouse, as Tina describes an evening at “the swinging little club.” There were “women dressed in satin,” people “playing craps in the back,” someone “frying fish up in the front,” and “a whole lot of romping foot stomping” inspired by “the man on the stand, children…Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm.” She even provides driving directions: just go “Over across the Eads Bridge, / By East St. Louis, / Six blocks down Broadway.” Take that ride across the Mississippi River and, seven nights a week, you could join the party. For a few years during the 1950s, the Club Manhattan was home base for the Kings of Rhythm, participants in the area’s vibrant music scene, one that spanned jazz, blues, classical, rhythm and blues, and rock & roll. (Tina calls the spot “Club Manhattan” in the song and in her memoir; Ike calls it the “Manhattan Club” in his memoir, and that was the name on the front of the building.) St. Louis and East St. Louis count among their native and adopted mid-century African American musicians jazz trumpeters Clark Terry and Miles Davis, pioneering rock & roll guitarist Chuck Berry, blues guitarist Albert King, opera singers Grace Bumbry and Robert McFerrin Sr., r&b and soul singer Fontella Bass, avant-garde jazz musicians Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake, and, of course, Ike and Tina Turner.

Ike Turner and Anna Mae Bullock met in St. Louis, but they were not from St. Louis. They had moved to the city known as the “Gateway City to the West” within a few years of each other in the mid-1950s and were among the estimated six million African Americans who left the South for the Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1916 and 1970 to seek economic opportunities and relief from the daily violence of the region’s entrenched system of segregation. This Great Migration was the largest internal movement of U.S. citizens in American history, and it reshaped the nation’s social and cultural landscapes. In their new homes, usually cities, recent arrivals from the South maintained some of the old Southern ways, but they also adopted new practices. The making and consuming of music continued but adjusted to the pace and energy of their new environs. This rural-to-urban, South-to-elsewhere movement of African American musicians shaped the sound and feel of genres such as gospel, jazz, blues, r&b, and rock & roll. Musical styles were altered and created through the use of new instruments such as the electric guitar in the blues; new styles of playing such as the honking solos of r&b saxophone players and the rapid-fire, virtuosic chord changes and improvisations of bebop musicians; and the making of new connections such as the mixing of secular rhythms and sacred subjects that propelled gospel, and the fusion of blues, r&b, country, and Latin music that produced rock & roll. The music these innovative artists created and performed gained popularity among non–African American audiences and was soon being performed by non–African American artists. In time, these African American–rooted forms became representative of American music, a radical development in a segregated country that relegated its African American citizens to second-class status. 

In spite of movement and change, mid-century Black Southern migrants noted that the racial dynamics in their newly adopted cities were similar to conditions they had hoped to leave behind. They coined the term “Up South” to mark the persistent presence of the South’s racially restrictive practices in regions that were outside of the South. Historian Walter Johnson observes that this was certainly true of St. Louis and, in The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, argues “that St. Louis has been the crucible of American history—that much of American history has unfolded from the juncture of empire and anti-Blackness in the city of St. Louis.”  In an introduction to a collection of interviews with African American residents, Lift Every Voice and Sing: St. Louis African Americans in the Twentieth Century, Ann Morris observes, “Missouri had been a slave state before the Civil War but stayed in the Union during the rebellion. After the war, St. Louis and Missouri continued to observe many of the customs and practices of the South. All public schools in Missouri were segregated by law, and most public facilities, including restaurants, hotels, department stores, theaters, and hospitals, were segregated in practice.” Upon her arrival in St. Louis in 1956, Anna Mae Bullock would have found that the city operated according to many of the rules of Jim Crow she had experienced in Tennessee. She enrolled at Sumner High School, founded in 1875, the first high school for African Americans established by a public school district west of the Mississippi. Efforts to desegregate the city’s schools began in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, but the stark residential segregation, buttressed by restrictive covenants, redlining, and practices of steering Black home buyers to a limited set of neighborhoods, undermined the process. The opening lines of Gail Milissa Grant’s book, At the Elbows of My Elders, about her middle-class African American family’s experience in St. Louis, capture the social and racial contours of this time. “When I grew up in St. Louis in the 1950s,” she writes, “it was a town of contradictions: at once brawny and slumbering, industrial and mom and pop, ethnically diverse and staunchly segregated, corn fed and among the ten largest cities in the United States. It was also known as the American city that typified the most Northern of the Southern cities and the most Southern of Northern.”

Ike Turner (1931–2007), born and raised in Clarksdale, Mississippi, moved to St. Louis in 1954. He was already, at age twenty-three, a professional musician and chose to settle in a city with an active live music scene and proximity to even more clubs across the river in the Illinois towns such as East St. Louis and Brooklyn. Turner gravitated to music at an early age and learned to play boogie-woogie-style piano from bluesman Pinetop Perkins, a local fixture in Clarksdale. Turner joined a swing-style big band in high school, meeting the musicians who would eventually form the group known as the Kings of Rhythm. In early 1951, this band recorded “Rocket 88,” a swinging, slightly distorted number that many rock history aficionados identify as the first rock & roll record. To Turner’s everlasting chagrin, the song, which went to number one on the rhythm and blues charts, was credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, foregrounding the track’s vocalist and leaving off Turner and the Kings of Rhythm. This denied Turner the recognition and promotional benefits of being associated with a hit record. He nevertheless subsequently connected with Joe Bihari of Modern/RPM Records and began a stint as a talent scout, locating promising blues and r&b musicians in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, traveling throughout the region with Bihari to record them. In many cases, he wrote songs for these artists so they would have original material for their records. Turner played piano on a number of sessions—perhaps most notably on the track “Three O’Clock Blues,” the single, released late in 1951, that earned blues great B. B. King his first number-one r&b hit—and continued to work with his own band, taking up the guitar when he determined that reliable pianists were easier to find than reliable guitarists. 

In 1954, Turner brought his band to Ned Love’s Club in East St. Louis. The Kings of Rhythm, an ensemble featuring guitar, bass, drums, trombone, saxophones, and male vocalists, were a hit, and the band quickly got bookings at other clubs in the area. Turner’s band was soon playing fourteen jobs a week around town and quickly became a well-regarded local act. Recalling the crowds at their shows, Turner said, “You couldn’t get in no place we were playing at.”  The lucrative live music scene and the fact that his older sister had put down roots in St. Louis and had been encouraging him to do the same convinced Ike to make St. Louis his home.

Two years later, when Anna Mae Bullock arrived in St. Louis, Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm was firmly established as the city’s hottest act. Fellow rock & roll pioneer and St. Louis native son Chuck Berry was also a presence on the scene, but with nationally charting hits he was usually on the road. Week in and week out, the Kings of Rhythm played the circuit of local clubs, often ending the night at the Club Manhattan where they rocked and rolled until the break of dawn. Anna Mae’s older sister Alline wanted her to experience the vibrant nightlife, so one evening she took her, at only sixteen, to the Club Manhattan. It would be Anna Mae’s introduction to the big city she had only recently moved to from Nutbush. 

Anna Mae Bullock was born in 1939 in Brownsville, Tennessee, and grew up in Nutbush, a small farming town in western Tennessee. When she was three years old, her parents moved to Knoxville and then on to other cities seeking lucrative wartime employment, while Anna Mae and Alline remained behind and were primarily raised by their grandparents and other relatives. Although she spent a brief time in Knoxville with her parents, Turner describes herself as a “country girl” in her memoir. She was also someone who loved music: the country music she heard at the first live band performance she ever saw; the music she heard at the Pentecostal church she sometimes attended with a neighbor; the country, blues, and r&b she heard on the radio; and the songs featured in the Hollywood movies that she watched at the local theater. Above all, she loved to sing and began to do so formally at the Spring Hill Baptist Church when she was nine or ten years old and joined the youth choir. Following the death of her maternal grandmother, the person who had been her primary caregiver, Anna Mae moved to St. Louis to join her mother and Alline. 

Anna Mae lived in St. Louis for about six years (and it’s where she became Tina Turner, about which more later), but in her memoir she says little about the city or the impact of moving from the Southern countryside and acclimating to the new environment of a big city halfway through high school. What she dwells on is the world of nightlife and entertainment in St. Louis and East St. Louis that became the site of her professional education. “I started going to the clubs,” she explains, “because Alline was already doing that sort of thing.” Alline was about nineteen years old at this time and she showed her younger sister how to be a grown woman out on the town, one who enjoyed the respectable night spots in St. Louis, but also ventured into the rough and raucous clubs of East St. Louis. In her memoir, Tina Turner recalls, 

…on weeknights after work Alline had the dates. But on weekends, she and her girlfriends would get together and they would go to see Ike Turner, first at the Club D’Lisa, and then, after hours, from about two a.m. on, at the Club Manhattan, across the river in East St. Louis. None of the doctors and things that Alline was dating would go to places like that—they’d go to the high-class restaurants and cocktail bars, you know? So Alline would go with the girlfriends. Because Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm were what was happening—in St. Louis they were as big as the Beatles would be later on. But they had a pretty rough reputation, too, and the idea of a teenager like me going to one of those clubs to see them was definitely a don’t. 

But teenage Anna Mae did. She and her sister convinced their mom to give her permission to go out with Alline and, “dressed up in some of [Alline’s] clothes, with lipstick and all of that,” underage Anna Mae set out to pass as an adult so she could go to the Club Manhattan, a place where Black people gathered to drink, dance, gamble, and let off steam. 

Anna Mae formed an immediate and unfavorable opinion of this section of town: “I didn’t like East St. Louis,” Turner notes in her memoir. “It seemed like the South to me.”  Her points of reference were the Black public entertainment spaces she had experienced as a child when her family would visit Ripley, the big town near Nutbush. On Saturday nights, Anna Mae, Alline, and their cousins would go to the movies while the adults got down to partying in a section of Ripley called the Hole, “the gaudy strip of black rib joints and boozy jukes down a cobbled back alley off Washington Street.” Turner’s description of the scene in the Hole in the late 1940s echoes depictions of Black leisure-time spaces that dotted the South: 

There was all kinds of stuff going on down there—on the streets, in the bars, everywhere. Everybody had their best clothes on.…And the jukebox would be playing—boogie-woogie and blues—and the women would all be flirting and gyrating and dancing and smoking and drinking beer….There were fights down in the Hole, too, and they were scary… But it was all kind of wonderful, all that action down there in the Hole.  

In East St. Louis, Anna Mae witnessed some of the same boisterous goings-on she had seen in the Hole, recounting “all that action”—eating, drinking, gambling, dancing—in the song “Club Manhattan.” The Club Manhattan could hold about 250 people; the stage was in the middle of the room, surrounded by tables. One wall featured a large painting of the Kings of Rhythm. On Anna Mae’s first night at the club, she took note of the fact that women made up the majority of the audience and, in a departure from the segregation that governed life in Nutbush and St. Louis, both Black and white women were in attendance. Her initial response to the Club Manhattan was a lack of interest, even a bit of boredom, but all of that changed when Ike Turner joined his band on the stage, emanating a charisma that she appreciated even though she did not find him physically attractive. “But there was something about him,” she explains. “Then he got up onstage and picked up his guitar. He hit one note, and I thought: ‘Jesus, listen to this guy play.’ And that joint started rocking. The floor was packed with people dancing and sweating to this great music, and I was just sitting there amazed, staring at Ike Turner. I thought, ‘God, I wonder why so many women like him? He sure is ugly.’ But I kept listening and looking. I almost went into a trance just watching him.”  Drawn in by her first encounter with Ike and the Kings, Anna Mae, who had always loved to sing, set her sights on performing with the band. 

In a 1981 interview with Brant Mewborn, the late Rolling Stone editor whose tapes are now in the collection of the New York Public Library, Tina described her experience joining the Kings of Rhythm as sounding “like a fairy tale,” but it is clear that the girl who would eventually become the Queen of Rock & Roll made her own luck. She recalled, 

Well, I had been following Ike around the city for about…maybe a few weeks trying to get his attention to let me sing and I guess he thought that I couldn’t. It was one of the after-hours clubs and we were sitting, my sister and I and our little party, and it was intermission and it was one of those nights when Ike was on the stage creating and I knew the song he was playing. Someone set a microphone down, the drummer, who was dating my sister at the time. He was teasing with her. And I took the mic and I started singing. And Ike was a little surprised because he didn’t know that I could sing. I mean he thought that I was probably—you know how some people just think they can sing or something? So he called me up [on stage] and I did like three or four numbers with him. Everyone came in to see who was singing. 

Over the next few years, bit by bit, Anna Mae became a part of the band, first sneaking out to sing with the band on weekends without her mother’s knowledge, eventually getting her mom’s permission to travel with the band for an out-of-town gig, and ultimately becoming a featured vocalist on two or three songs with the band nightly. She would sing the B. B. King song “You Know I Love You,” and “Since I Fell for You,” a popular ballad first recorded by Ella and Buddy Johnson in 1945. 

In Tina’s estimation, the Kings of Rhythm’s predominantly female audience liked her because she did not seem like competition for them. “I didn’t have a big ass,” she explains in her memoir, “so they didn’t think the guys would be interested in me, right? So, soon they’re going, ‘Girl, you can siing!’” Anna Mae, known in the band as Little Ann, became an indispensable part of the group in the spring of 1960 when she filled in for vocalist Art Lassiter at a recording session. Unwilling to forfeit the money he had paid for the studio rental, Ike decided to have Little Ann lay down the vocal track on “A Fool in Love.” He intended to strip out her vocal and replace it with Lassiter’s at a later date. That plan was scuttled when Juggy Murray at Sue Records heard Little Ann’s track and insisted that it was worth releasing. This seems to be the point at which Ike christened Little Ann “Tina Turner,” solidifying her connection to him. And, he reasoned, if she left him, as many of his previous vocalists had, he could replace her with another woman he would call “Tina” so his band could keep on performing. It did not work out that way. When Tina left Ike in 1976, she held on to the right to use the name Tina Turner and went on to craft one of the more remarkable ascensions to pop music superstardom, doing so, miraculously, in her forties. 

During Anna Mae’s early years with the Kings of Rhythm, the band was expanding its audience beyond the Black community. Ike recalled the racial demographics of the clubs that were part of his band’s circuit in his memoir: “It was totally black at the Manhattan Club in East St. Louis, the Harlem Club in [Brooklyn] and the Kingsbury up in Madison, all in Illinois. The white clubs were the Club Imperial in St. Louis and Johnny’s Lounge out in South St. Louis. After I gained a heavy following among both blacks and whites, I started demanding that blacks should be able to go to white clubs and whites to black clubs.” This breakdown of racial boundaries is a core element of the history of rock & roll, with white teens reveling in a musical sound and culture that segregation had kept from them. Once they had found it, they made an effort to immerse themselves in it, even against the wishes of their white elders. In his memoir Ike describes police raids on the white clubs where white teenagers were flouting the prohibition against socializing with African Americans and recalls nights when car after car of those same teens followed the Kings of Rhythm across the Eads Bridge to join in the after-hours scene at the Club Manhattan. Some racial barriers were eroding in this Up South metropolis and, over the years of their recording career, Ike and Tina Turner released records that traversed the genres, ranging from rhythm and blues to soul to rock to blues to country, and were geared to attracting the kind of broad audience they had built in St. Louis.

Tina’s disclosures about Ike’s abusive behavior toward her and his control of the pair’s professional fortunes—recounted in her 1986 memoir I, Tina, the 1993 Hollywood biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It, Broadway’s Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, and most recently the HBO documentary Tina—contribute to an image of someone whom Ike, Svengali-like, made into a star. It is worth noting, however, that Tina has long recognized what she brought to the partnership. In the 1981 interview, she explained, “Ike taught me. He didn’t give me my talent. I’ve always been a singer and dancer for as long as I can remember, from when I was very young. But I didn’t know anything about singing professionally or recording or traveling and he did. And I became professional by working with him. I learned an awful lot from him.”  It is also worth noting that Tina, the electrifying singer and dancer, is credited with writing half of the songs on Nutbush City Limits, including “Club Manhattan” and the title track. 

St. Louis was a crucial location, but in the end, it was just a stop on the way to the big time. In the early Sixties, the couple moved to Los Angeles to be closer to the center of the recording industry. On the West Coast they enjoyed more freedom and access than in St. Louis, but still contended with racial politics—specifically, the entrenched segregation of the recording industry. The irony of it all, built into the term Up South, is that the racial dynamics of the South are the racial dynamics of the United States, dynamics that African Americans are likely to encounter whether they are Down South, Up North, or Out West. In 1964, not long after the Turners had made Los Angeles their home, Malcolm X pointed this out with characteristic insight in his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, observing “long as you’re south of the Canadian border, you’re south.” 

To escape the Up South limitations that were endemic throughout the United States, the Turners followed a path traveled by many African American musicians and took advantage of an opportunity outside of their home country, one that presented itself when their 1966 single “River Deep, Mountain High,” produced by Phil Spector and featuring his famous Wall of Sound, failed to connect with American audiences. Spector’s hope was that the song would both succeed with r&b fans and cross the duo over to pop audiences, but the track’s orchestral production was considered too white for Black radio and Tina’s fierce vocals were deemed too Black for pop radio. Without airplay, the song reached only number eighty-eight on the pop charts when it was released in the spring, but it was a success in England, where the young music fans who were supporting blues- and r&b-influenced bands such as the Yardbirds, the Animals, and the Who had an appetite for the single’s bold sound. The Rolling Stones invited the Ike & Tina Turner Revue onto their autumn tour of England, Scotland, and Wales, giving them exposure to audiences hungry for the raw power of Tina’s vocals. This overseas foray expanded the duo’s fan base and had positive repercussions back home. By the end of the 1960s, the Turners were one of the only African American acts with a foothold in rock, an increasingly lucrative corner of the popular-music industry. They received attention in the fledgling rock press—Tina was featured on the cover of the second issue of Rolling Stone magazine in 1967—and, in an effort to reach out to rock fans, they began to cover hard rock hits originated by white artists such as the Beatles, the Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Their 1971 version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” became the duo’s most successful single, placing them in the top five on both the American pop and r&b charts, earning them invitations to appear on television in the U.S. and abroad, and winning them a Grammy. 

The departure from the United States was both professionally and personally important to Tina. “England,” she writes in her memoir, “was the beginning of everything for me—the beginning of my escape from Ike Turner I guess you could say, and the beginning of me seeing a new way of life.”  The recognition she received overseas and the friendships she established with British musicians were crucial to her ability to develop her extraordinarily successful solo career and become one of rock & roll’s biggest stars. 

With her fiery on-stage energy and vocal style, Tina Turner has entertained audiences around the world and has been an inspiration and template for numerous artists—among them Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Steve Marriott of Humble Pie, Rod Stewart, Melissa Etheridge, Beyoncé, and Brittany Howard. Her dance moves, phrasing, and vocals influenced the look and sound of rock & roll in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, and beyond and continue to be a part of the global popular music vocabulary in the new millennium. Working with Ike Turner, one of the founding figures of rock & roll, Tina Turner learned her craft in the small clubs of East St. Louis, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri, sharpening her skills before exuberant audiences of both Black and white fans. They did not know it at the time, but they were the earliest witnesses to the rise of the Queen of Rock & Roll. Her reign began upsouth in East St. Louis at the Club Manhattan. 

Maureen Mahon

Maureen Mahon is an associate professor in the Department of Music at New York University. She is the author of Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll and Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race.