Sunday, July 10, 2011

»Been To Church Lately?«

Remember Al Bundy's motto »Sunday Funday«? Well, I can't say that of today, unfortunately. Sky's grey, climate's goin' wild and my nose's runnin'. So what about today's post? I try to make the best of it.

United Artists LP # UA-LA203-G (1974)
I'd like to speak about an album that left me puzzled. Its title is »The Gospel According to Ike And Tina«. What Gospel could that possibly be? one might ask. Somebody on the net put it thus: »Tina Turner singing Gospel music?!!!« Very tricky question, this one. A tentative answer must come in two parts.
     First: We cannot judge the religious senti- ment of individuals. On the face of it, Ike (son of a Baptist minister) certainly didn't come across as a model believer, and looking at how he behaved towards others (and towards Tina in particular) must leave us sceptical of whether he had understood even the most basic precepts of Christian teaching. However, it might be objected that he was too weak a person to live a righteous life, and it has been correctly remarked that God doesn't love sin but he still loves the sinner. So be it, and let's leave it that for Ike is no longer among us. Judgment is pending.
     And Tina? She's a hard one, too. As a child she grew up in a Baptist and Pente- costal context. The services of the latter she found »more exciting«, but she didn't really connect to the worship. »I knew I could never be part of that religion« she said. »But for a little girl, those sanctified services were something to see« (quoted in her autobiography I, Tina, p. 17). She was impressed by the music and dancing that was going on, yet later in life she also said that she was really singing »Baptist and blues«. During her '60s career, there were little, if any, signs of outward affil- iation to any church. And as she was more and more criticized for her too blatantly sexy and provocative stage appearance towards the end of the decade acceptance of her person in church circles was nil. Her private life was always troubled, though, and Tina was later to state: »I had always held on to the Bible and the things I'd learned as a little girl ... And I prayed every night, you can believe that« (I, Tina, p. 171). Then, famously, she got introduced to Nichiren Buddhism, and although it is impossible to say exactly when it must have happened sometime around the time Ike & Tina recorded their gospel-album (in October-November 1973), possibly even before that. Officially (or semi-officially) she's been counted a Buddhist since 1975.
     And another point worth considering: Does it need religious convictions to sing gospel? Or even to like gospel as music? Is it something intrinsically Christian, closed to other religious approaches, or to non-religious-minded people for that matter? Another tricky question that will get many answers according to whom you ask. I leave it open but would, in any case, not favor any answer that starts with a categorical yes or no. However, leaving this question open leads us conveniently on to the second part.
* * *
Second: In 1974, the boom of everything that could be labeled »soul-gospel« or even »pop-gospel« was at its very height. Myriads of acts, from both the gospel and secular fields, ventured into this realm, and a large group of former »secular« soul singers, having lost both the public and most of the independent record companies in the early '70s, went gospel. In token that this development did not pass unnoticed by the music industry, the Grammy Academy was handing out awards in the category »Best Soul Gospel Performance« since 1969 (Ike & Tina's 1974 album was shortlisted for this Award but didn't win it), and Billboard adopted the category »Soul Gospel« in autumn 1973. Aretha Franklin's return to Gospel in 1972 was of momentous importance, and many others, not the least among them the Staple Singers and Andrae Crouch, had prepared this trend. Nina Simone, who was, I believe, sincere to the bone and never did something with the exclusive aim of pleasing either the public or her label, released »The Gospel According To Nina Simone« (Stroud LP # 1006) in 1973. Then, when the soul gospel train was rollin', Ike & Tina jumped on it, a little belatedly, in 1974.
     This, at least, is the less sympathetic interpretation of why they recorded a gospel album. Given that during these years they struggled hard but (with the exception of »Nutbush City Limits«) mostly in vain to put their name back on the charts it seemed a good idea to switch to soul gospel for a change. In a kinder mood, however, we could equally conclude that at this point in their checkered career the duo was ripe for gospel. Tina certainly was, in a sense. After all, I am still puzzled of what lies behind that album, really.

* * *
Let's talk about the LP and the music. The album was hyped by United Artists with a fullpage-ad in Billboard (May 25, 1974). The accompanying text does suggest that Ike & Tina were playing around with some gospel tunes in the studio, then realized how »uplifting and exciting« it was and finally went about producing this album. Well, I'm not convinced. And much of my credulity is shattered by what we find at the bottom of the ad: »Been to church lately?« What a stupid slogan: Congrats to the promotion & sales guy at UA for having come up with this! Certainly he hadn't, lately.
     Then let's have a look at what the Billboard critic had to say about this album:
»... this gospel LP is a strong and successful attempt to bring the commercial world of soul music to the church. Not the church to soul music as is usually the case. The weakest point in the LP is Ike's vocalizings. Otherwise the pro- duct makes lots of sense for all the energy and urgency of the Turner's music is aptly put to use on this their first LP of gospel tunes. There is enough church choir sounds behind the instruments ot take us all on a religious trip.« (April 27, 1974, page 53).
This critic must have been a close relative of the UA sales manager. Apart from that I don't get the point fully of what he meant by bringing soul to church and not vice versa, he felt enough uplifted by what he had heard to get the swoop of a religious trip. That it had little to do with traditional religion, however, was not lost on him as becomes clear from his final advice for record dealers: »This is commercial, not pure gospel, so it can be stocked with the Turner's other soul products.« What sort of reasoning is this? It seems that the reviewer was, after all, aware that this wasn't a LP a record dealer would like to put under the eyes of the gospel buying public. And what does it tell us about the reviewer's religious trip? Was it to be a »commercial« one, not »pure gospel«? Ike could have given him some useful advice for that!

* * *
As to the music, yes, Ike's singing is pitiful. He just hadn't a voice for it and should probably never have attempted it. Of his three songs, »Father Alone« (the opening song) stands out as the most miserable performance, as he clumsily talks his deep voice through to the final bar. Two songs, »Amazing Grace« and »When The Saints Go Marching In«, are duets of Ike & Tina. The remaining five songs featuring Tina (& the Ikettes) alone are much better, as Tina never did something really bad. However, to me she sounds very professional and it's not easy to tell how much she was into it. On the stylistic side, the entire LP repeats the by then well-known formula of heavily synthesized uptempo funkrock as we know it from Ike & Tina's preceding LPs »Let Me Touch Your Mind« and »Nutbush City Limits«. To be truthful, I have become somewhat bored of that sound which, with too sparse variation, tends to become easily tedious (what might be called the James-Brown-effect ... no offense!). It bores me, up to a point, throughout the entire album. And historical hindsight helps us to see that Ike & Tina were near the end of their common way. They did not, as is known, part on musical grounds. It finished in 1976 when Tina, with blood on her clothes and sunglasses to cover her swollen eyes, presented herself at the reception of the Dallas Ramada Inn and pleaded for a room, although she hadn't any money to pay for it. But it did also finish because, musically, they were stuck. Blame for this most often went to Ike who wasn't a 100% gifted composer anyway and towards '74 finally run out of his creative wits.
     Solid cuts on this gospel album, featuring Tina, are »Walk With Me Lord«, »Nearer The Cross« and »Our Lord Will Make A Way«. You can hear them in the following. My personal favorite is »Our Lord Will Make A Way«, the very epitome of a synthesized-funk-soul-gospel tune, Turner style. Happy Funday!

Ike & Tina Turner and feat. The Ikettes: »Nearer The Cross« / »Our Lord Will Make A Way«
from the United Artists LP »The Gospel According To Ike And Tina« (1974):


  1. Just listening to this album right now - you are right,nothing different from other albums they released around this time ("Sweet Rhode" and "Let Me Touch Your Mind", both sadly out of print and forgotten) and not much on spiritual side, but heavy on funk. I for one welcome Ike's vocals as a breather from Tina's intensity though I wonder why even bother with Gospel material when it's not where they came from. True,not essential album but curiosity that was probably calculated to appeal to ... who? By the way, years later Tina got her chance (and declined) to sing real gospel in "Color Purple" movie, just imagine her in the last scene where Shugg Avery returns to her father's church!

  2. Your essay inspired me to review this album on rateyourmusic web site. It occurred to me this morning that perhaps is it is really true that couple tinkered with covers on their marathon sessions in "Bolic" studio and concluded that gospel works, for strictly commercial reasons as you have pointed - I am still not convinced that Ike or Tina had any other reasons behind this project but as a musical experiment, just as they did blues,country,white rock covers or anything they recorded. However dubious reasoning behind this strange album, I am happy to find your blog and somebody who likes to analyze music. Greetings to you!

  3. Thank you so much for your nice comments! It's very good to hear that somebody is inspired by the incoordinate bits & pieces I'm posting over here. You bring up the thought that the Turners did this album as kind of a musical experiment, this being a more generous interpretation than saying that they were after the fast buck. Well, maybe they really liked to see whether their "Nutbush" style kind of funkrock could be adapted to Gospel songs. But then, the experiment would consist in merely changing register (from secular to sacred) because musicallywise they didn't move an inch from what they had been doing since two or three years. So it's hard to tell. I am still inclined to think they did it for commercial reasons. Whatever. Thanks again for you comments! And greetings to you as well.

  4. I am still new to your blog so have to find posts where you mention the gap between religious and popular music, I am sure you are aware of gospel albums by Ruth Brown,LaVern Baker and Dionne Warwick (from the top of my head) - not to mention intriguing note from Dinah Washington's biography by Nadine Cohodas where is explained that Washington started in church but would never,out of respect,record or sing gospel in public and mix it with her r&b image.
    As for ITT both of us are aware of huge musical Odyssey they went trough, with both Ike's blues roots (I even have his recordings with first wife Bonnie) and Tina's later solo work that even included african chanting ("Brother Bear" soundtrack and the song in Elton John's "Aida") so I would be very interested to read your opinion about different places they stopped along the way.
    p.s. Ever heard "It Hurts Me So Much" by Barbara & the Browns? Check it out on youtube, you would swear it's young Tina from her early "Sue" period.

  5. I'll be writing something about Tina Turner once in a while on this blog. It's hard to cover their long and checkered career ... and that even discourages me at times. And personally, I find Ike repulsive in every respect apart from his music, and that keeps me from going too much into HIS career. However, please keep sharing your views on Ike & Tina as we go along!
    The song by Barbara & The Browns I have on CDKEND 278. Have to listen to it again, now that you mentioned it.