When Tina Turner was first offered “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” she rejected it as too “wimpy.” Her reaction may have been influenced by the song’s history. It was first offered to Cliff Richard, the 1950s rock and roller turned soft-pop crooner, and then Bucks Fizz, a glam pop group modeled after ABBA.
According to co-songwriter Terry Britten’s account, Turner only agreed to record it after he roughed up the guitar work. Yet when recorded, the track (like too many 80s songs) relied less on guitar than synthesizer for its instrumentation. Alongside other tracks on Private Dancer—most notably “Steel Claw”—, the song clearly leaned musically toward pop. The reggae beat that kicked in during the chorus also shifted the song away from the rock sound that Turner seemed intent on developing on most of the album.
It ended up being Tina Turner’s vocals that elevated the song beyond a simple pop tune. It’s easy (and painful) to imagine what Bucks Fizz would have done with the reggae accented phrasing of the chorus, but Turner got away with it because she transformed it into something new. Rolling Stone described Turner’s performance on the album as “impossibly sensual.” The magazine used words like “physical” and “strong” to describe her voice—strong enough, in fact, to transform a pop song and arrangement into rock and roll.
Many would argue that “Proud Mary” is Tina Turner’s calling card. It was her biggest hit during her days with The Ike & Tina Turner Revue (#1 R&B, #4 pop), it earned Ike and Tina a Grammy, and it remains a concert highlight. Moreover, the husky sensuality of the slowed-down beginning and the manic, prancing energy of the second part of the song capture something of Tina’s talent and range.
A strong case could be made for “What’s Love Got to Do with It” as the calling card for Tina Turner’s comeback, though. After struggling professionally and personally for several years, the single took the 45-year-old singer back to the top of the music industry. It earned Turner three Grammys, and it remains her only number one pop hit. Also, the biopic that further strengthened her hold on the public’s imagination drew its name from the song.
Finally, the song may be her calling card because it was so dependent on her performance of it. There is nothing all that imaginative in the instrumentation; the song’s melodic hook is not particularly strong. Yet Turner managed to infuse the simple song with her own vocal power, turning into something other artists could not.