Sometimes They Won’t Let You: Tina Turner and Other Genre-Benders

In 1982 Tina Turner laid the groundwork for her Private Dancer comeback when she collaborated with the British Electric Foundation, a side project of Human League and Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh. Their collaboration—a synth-heavy rework of The Temptations’ 1970 broadside “Ball of Confusion”—was enough of a smash for the then-unsigned Turner to ink a deal with Capitol, and the B.E.F. offered to produce. But they had a difficult time agreeing on a track.

“Nearly everything [Ware] brought me was some kind of R&B,” Turner told Musician in 1984. “I said, ‘I don’t want R&B, I want rock ‘n’ roll.'”

Turner bristled when people pigeonholed her as a soul singer; “I am a rock and roll singer,” she told Rolling Stone while promoting Private Dancer in 1984, neither the first nor the last time she would correct another’s assumptions. “River Deep, Mountain High,” which she recorded with Phil Spector in 1966, was one of her early efforts at defying convention, her bravura vocal paired with Spector’s famed (and pricey) Wall of Sound; the song, now a standard, stiffed at radio in the States.

Spector, as guitarist and longtime friend Marshall Lieb recounted in Mark Ribowsky’s biography of the producer He’s A Rebel, believed it was because he’d refused to engage in payola. But Tina’s ex-husband, who was credited on the track yet didn’t appear on it, had other ideas: “Ike Turner, who places ‘River Deep’ up next to ‘Good Vibrations’ as his two favorite records, says the Spector production didn’t get airplay because the soul stations said ‘too pop’ and the white stations said ‘too R&B,'” Ben Fong-Torres wrote in a 1971 issue of Rolling Stone. “’See, what’s wrong with America,’ [Turner] told Pete Senoff, ‘is that rather than accept something for its value…America mixes race in it.'”

While Ike Turner’s overall effect on his ex-partner’s life was pretty terrible (and he and Tina did have a fair amount of R&B in their repertoire), this broken-clock sentiment touches on a couple of things that have been true for decades. First, listening with one’s eyes can result in genres being placed on music despite its sonics; and second, the stringent formatting of radio leaves a lot of worthy records by even big names stuck between the cracks.

Black artists who, like Turner, rooted their music in rock ideals had to forge their own path. Betty Davis mixed rock and funk with Davis’ intense yowling in ways that still blow minds. “She introduced me to the music of Jimi Hendrix—and to Jimi Hendrix himself—and other black rock music and musicians,” Miles Davis (her ex-husband) wrote in his 1989 autobiography. “She knew Sly Stone and all those guys, and she was great herself. If Betty were singing today she’d be something like Madonna: something like Prince, only as a woman. She was the beginning of all that when she was singing as Betty Davis. She was just ahead of her time.”

The R&B trio Labelle, meanwhile, followed up the  breakout success of “Lady Marmalade” with Phoenix, a showcase for singer/producer Nona Hendryx’s rock knowledge that stiffed on the charts. And Prince’s 1981 slot opening for the Rolling Stones—who had brought Ike and Tina on tour with them a decade-plus earlier—for two shows in Los Angeles was received so poorly by audiences conditioned to a particularly white-man-dominated “rock” ideal that promoter Bill Graham had to calm the crowd down. “I got hit in the shoulder with a bag of fried chicken,” then-bassist Brown Mark recalled in 2016, “then my guitar got knocked out of tune by a large grapefruit that hit the tuning keys.”

Private Dancer, the first album to result from Turner’s Capitol deal, operated squarely in the rock realm even as it contained covers of Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” (the latter wound up being the song she collaborated on with Ware and Marsh). Her cover of David Bowie’s pre-apocalyptic “1984” pairs her roar with glittering synths; the simmering “Private Dancer” has a weeping guitar solo by Jeff Beck; “Better Be Good To Me” pairs Turner with a gang-vocal choir that wouldn’t sound out of place on an AC/DC album. Yet with the exception of “Better,” none of Private Dancer‘s singles charted on rock radio—not even the monumental “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” which topped the Hot 100 for three weeks in 1984.

As the tabulations of the Hot 100 have shifted, that cross-genre chart has become more susceptible to trends among radio programmers and consumers. In recent years, this has particularly affected those artists whose music checks multiple boxes, or even the wrong one. While Beyoncé is rightly considered one of pop’s premier artists, she didn’t have a chart-topping single between November 2008, when “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” was in the pole position, and December 2017—and that was through a featured credit on an Ed Sheeran song (the goopy “Perfect”). The Hot 100’s ever-mutating formula shut out the pop-art explosion video for “Countdown” and the “If It Isn’t Love”-saluting clip for “Love On Top”; both came out in 2011, two years before YouTube stats were incorporated into the big chart’s formulas. And her keeping Lemonade off Spotify was a big part of why no song from that watershed album cracked the top 10.   

Beyond Beyoncé, though, R&B seemingly fell out of favor among pop programmers in the late 2000s, a trend that was accelerated by radio consolidation, programmers doubling down on tight-ship formatting, the rise of the less-grooving style of music shorthanded as “EDM,” and the increased presence of sports talk, a longtime staple of the AM band, on the FM dial. While that didn’t alter Beyoncé’s musical trajectory very much, it did leave R&B artists—even ones with proven track records, like the silvery-voiced Amerie and the human-condition observer Ne-Yo—in what seemed like eternal turnaround. Amerie’s joyously resilient “Gotta Work” found its biggest audience when it boomed out of NBA All-Star Game promos; Ne-Yo, meanwhile, had his greatest chart successes when he played Pitbull’s foil, giving a winsomeness to hope-tinged EDM bangers like “Time of My Life.”

More than five decades after “River Deep, Mountain High” was rejected by American programmers and listeners, artists who want to identify as pop while also bridging genres are still finding if not outright resistance, at least confusion from the more conservative-minded people out there (and in boardrooms). But they’re soldiering on, and as Miguel’s Kacey Musgrave-assisted country rework of his psych-funk track “Waves” shows, they’re continuing Tina Turner’s legacy of resisting classification, and—like her—they’re doing so loudly and proudly.