Ike, Tina and the vibrant East St. Louis music world that shaped them
In 2020, cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon published “Black Diamond Queens,” a book delving into the pivotal yet often underappreciated influence of African American women on rock ‘n’ roll. Mahon details the work of singers including Big Mama Thornton and LaVern Baker as well as groups like Labelle and the Shirelles — and, of course, Tina Turner.
But after finishing that book, Mahon found herself eager to keep digging into Turner’s early life and influences — particularly the buzzing East St. Louis club scene where a young Anna Mae Bullock first crossed paths with Ike Turner and got her start as a teenager.
“So many African American artists were a part of [the St. Louis scene],” Mahon explained Thursday on St. Louis on the Air. “It was a really vibrant scene in the 1940s and 1950s.”
Mahon, who is an associate professor in New York University’s Department of Music, explores that history in a recently published Oxford American deep dive, titled “Manhattan in East St. Louis: Ike & Tina Turner and the scene that formed their art.”
The story takes the two sides of cover art for the duo’s 1973 album “Nutbush City Limits” as a jumping-off point. The album cover depicts Tina Turner in a country setting, propping her bare foot on the grill of a 1950s-style Chevy truck. The back features the singer with an automobile again — but this time it’s a Rolls-Royce, and Turner sports heels and a fur coat.
“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,” Mahon writes in the Oxford American feature. “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.”
On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Mahon noted that St. Louis was a hub during the Great Migration, as many African Americans left the South between the 1920s and 1950s. Bullock’s own arrival in the Gateway City was a part of that.
Bullock’s mother had already relocated to St. Louis before Bullock, who was raised by grandparents and other relatives in Tennessee, eventually rejoined her mother and sister in St. Louis after her grandmother’s death. In some ways, what the 16-year-old girl found in her new home wasn’t so different from her experience of Jim Crow segregation as a child.
“‘Up South’ was a term that those Black migrants from the South used to describe what they found in those northern Midwestern and western cities,” Mahon said. “They found that there was still segregation, there was still racism, there were still very harsh limits on African Americans. Housing was segregated. … Trying to use humor to describe the situation, instead of saying they were up north, which would have been the common thing to say, they said they were ‘Up South.’”
In the St. Louis music scene, though, Bullock found a new world — one the young music lover started exploring even before she was old enough to do so legally.
“What I’ve come to understand is that there were music clubs on both sides of the river. But the clubs in St. Louis closed down maybe at around midnight, maybe around one in the morning,” Mahon said. “Things kept going in East St. Louis. East St. Louis was a different kind of town. It was what people described as a wide-open town. And it was a place where the rules were just not as strict.”
A curious teenager who loved to sing and listen to the radio, Bullock would get dressed up with her older sister Alline, who told her about “this amazing musician named Ike Turner.”
One night, the sisters managed to get into Club Manhattan on the east side, where Turner’s band was the house band. Before long, a teenage Bullock would be on the stage with twentysomething Turner — and soon become Tina Turner.
The club also later inspired a track on “Nutbush City Limits,” with Turner’s lyrics for “Club Manhattan” recalling a “swinging little club” with “women dressed in satin,” along with “the man on the stand, children … Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm.”
“She talks about what a Black club was like in the 1950s,” Mahon said of the song. “And so she just evokes that scene really well in a very concise way in the song.”
Mahon credited St. Louis-area historical societies and librarians for helping her research for the Oxford American piece. She said she still hopes to visit in person once pandemic conditions allow, “just to find out more about what other clubs were there [and] what kinds of things people were saying about the clubs.”
She added: “Because there was so much going on in the clubs. … It was a really vibrant town. And Tina Turner at a very young age was a part of that.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.