Tina Turner: 7 Essential Songs

From 'Proud Mary' to 'Private Dancer,' a look back at some of her best-loved tracks.

Pete Still/Redferns

Tina Turner's hitmaking career spanned decades and eras, from the hard-driving R&B of her '60s and '70s work with then-husband Ike to the more sophisticated but still incendiary sound of her iconic '80s hits. Here, following news of the singer's death at age 83, we pay tribute to one of my popular music's quintessential voices with a look back at her most memorable tracks.

"River Deep — Mountain High" (1966)

Phil Spector wanted to produce for Turner following her and Ike's pop success through the early '60s. She agreed, but Ike wanted the recordings to be credited as Ike and Tina Turner. Thus, 1966's "River Deep – Mountain High" — co-written by Spector, Jeff Barry and Elle Greenwich — was slated as the title track for the pair's sixth studio album. Spector used his signature wall-of-sound technique, complete with an orchestra and choir. In her memoir, Turner wrote that Spector "knew what my voice could do, and he decided I would be the one to bring his song to life. Before that, I was singing Ike's way, because that's how I started and that's how I was produced. But I always knew I had another talent. … This song opened my eyes to possibilities. I felt liberated, excited, ready to challenge myself vocals with other kinds of songs." The song peaked at number 88 on the Billboard Hot 100, and time has proven it to be one of the most potent early examples of Turner's fierce vocal prowess.

"Proud Mary" (1971)

"Proud Mary" was already a beloved smash when Ike and Tina Turner released their rendition in 1971. Creedence Clearwater Revival leader John Fogerty had penned the song, and the original version became the band's first Top 10 hit in 1969. Tina loved the tune upon its release, and she and Ike began spontaneously jamming on it while attempting to fill out their 1971 LP Workin Together. She later recalled that the two "just sort of broke into the black version" of the song. "We're gonna take the beginning of this song and do it easy," Tina says on the spoken intro that opens the duo's version, "but then we're gonna do the finish rough." True to her promise, the Ike and Tina take starts out as easy-rolling R&B and then breaks into a high-energy rock & roll rave-up that's become arguably become more iconic than the CCR original.

"We Don't Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)" (1985)

One of Turner's biggest late-career hits arose from her co-starring role in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, in which she played Aunty Entity, the leader of the post-apocalyptic trading post Bartertown. The year after Private Dancer, the singer re-teamed with "What's Love Got to Do With It" songwriters Graham Lyle and Terry Britten for the song — another emotive, slow-burning anthem that showcased the signature grit in her voice and made it to Number Two on the Billboard singles chart.

"What's Love Got to Do With It"

This single from Turner's fifth solo album, Private Dancer, became the singer's biggest-selling song, peaking at Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. But the tune changed hands several times before landing on Turner's desk. Songwriters Terry Britten and Graham Lyle originally offered the track to Cliff Richard, but the English singer rejected it. The song was passed along to Phyllis Hyman, and then swiftly denied by Arista Records head Clive Davis. Donna Summer was next in line, but she didn't end up releasing it. Turner accepted the song, under the condition that she could perform, as she later put it in her memoir, "forcefully, with gravity and raw emotion." Turner's version made her, at the time, the oldest woman to land a U.S. Number One, at the age of 44.

"Private Dancer" (1984)

"Private Dancer" was another song that changed hands before it was graced by Turner. Originally recorded by Dire Straits, it became the title track of the singer's best-selling album, featuring Jeff Beck on guitar. Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler wrote the song from the point-of-view of a sex worker, and decided it was better suited for a female vocalist. "The song is about prostitution. I never had to stoop to that in my life," Turner wrote in her memoir. "But I think most of us have been in situations where we had to sell ourselves, one way or another. When I gave into Ike, when I kept quiet to avoid an argument, when I stayed with him despite longing to leave, that's what I was thinking about when I sang the song — the sadness of doing something you don't want to do, day in, day out. It's very emotional."

"The Best" (1989)

With its distinctive, driving '80s beat and sultry lyrics, it’s no wonder that this song was recorded by not one, but two, powerful female vocalists. As delivered by "Total Eclipse of the Heart" singer Bonnie Tyler in 1988, the tune's initial version was only a minor hit. But when Turner covered it a year later, she elevated it to an international smash. Often mistakenly called “Simply the Best” due to its catchy chorus line, it’s appeared in numerous commercials, including one for Pepsi that featured Turner herself. "I have to admit, she did it much better than I did,” Tyler said in 2017.

"I Don't Wanna Fight" (1993)

Smooth crooner Sade passed the initial offering of this 1993 composition over to Turner, who proved to be a perfect fit for its synth-backed vibes and thought-provoking lyrics begging for a breakup via the burying of hatchets. Appearing on the soundtrack for Turner’s autobiographical film, What's Love Got to Do With It, the upbeat but bittersweet ballad hit Number Nine on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and was nominated for two Grammys in 1994. 

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