The album Frank Zappa recorded with Tina Turner as a back-up singer
Tina Turner is a singer who is rightly been regarded as one of the powerhouse performers of her generation. In fact, there’s a good case to be made that without the determination to stay with Ike Turner and The Ikettes, she could have been a star for far longer than her decades in the spotlight. That stint under the harsh rule of Ike Turner is undoubtedly one of her darkest moments but it did provide her with one of her most curious collaborations, working with Frank Zappa on Over-Nite Sensation.
The 1973 album arrived at a time when Frank Zappa was arguably one of the main men leading the charge for avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll. The mercurial musical madman had found a home in the wilderness of rock and, accompanied by his band the Mothers of Invention, had become one of the names up in lights in the early seventies. One such name who hadn’t yet made it was Tina Turner, an aspirational musician who was still working as a back-up singer for Ike Turner at the time and, when Zappa was in need of some female vocalists for his project, he was offered the chance to work with The Ikettes.
The recording isn’t as highly regarded as the rest of the band’s work but there is undoubtedly a glossy finish to their songs ‘Montana’, ‘I’m the Slime’, ‘Dirty Love’, ‘Zomby Woof’ and ‘Dinah-Moe Humm’. All of which can be traced back to the decision to include the Ikettes in the production. It was a decision which came as a shock to Zappa, as he commented: “I wanted to put some back-up singers on the thing, and the road manager who was with us at the time checked into it and said, ‘well, why don’t you just use the Ikettes?’ I said, ‘I can get the Ikettes?’ and he said ‘Sure’.”
The decision to include the singers was an artistic masterstroke but it did arrive with a surprisingly cruel caveat: “But you know what the gimmick was? We had to agree, Ike Turner insisted, that we pay these girls no more than $25 per song, because that’s what he paid them. And no matter how many hours it took, I could not pay them any more than $25 per song per girl, including Tina.” It’s a shocking assessment which has been later retracted, with most now confirming that, in fact, the singers were paid $25 an hour.
The Ikettes certainly earned their money too. Zappa is not exactly known for his laidback attitude when it comes to making music. A perfectionist to the end, the rocker was open about the difficult task working on the record presented the group. “It was so difficult,” Zappa recalled, “That one part in the middle of the song ‘Montana’, that the three girls rehearsed it for a couple of days. Just that one section. You know the part that goes ‘I’m pluckin’ the ol’ dennil floss’? Right in the middle there. And – I can’t remember her name, but one of the harmony singers – she got it first. She came out and sang her part and the other girls had to follow her track.” Having toiled for hours to get the song right, naturally, they were pleased with themselves.
“Tina was so pleased that she was able to sing this thing that she went into the next studio where Ike was working and dragged him into the studio to hear the result of her labour,” continued Zappa. “He listened to the tape and he goes, ‘What is this shit?’ and walked out.” It’s a serious indication of just how imposing and oppressive Ike Turner truly was and a reminder of how far Tina may have gone without him dragging her down.
“I don’t know how she managed to stick with that guy for so long,” confirmed Zappa, “He treated her terribly and she’s a really nice lady”. He also shared a tender moment that perhaps summarises the singer: “We were recording down there on a Sunday. She wasn’t involved with the session, but she came in on Sunday with a whole pot of stew that she brought for everyone working in the studio. Like out of nowhere, here’s Tina Turner coming in with a rag on her head bringing a pot of stew. It was really nice.”
Below, you can listen to Over-Nite Sensation and get the sense of the incredible vocals on the record.