by William Sertl

My best friend in high school stashed his car and ran for the door of the small club where Tina Turner was already flying off the floor. On the way, he passed a black man looking in the window and shouted, “What’s going on?” According to Allen, the guy just muttered, “Umm, Nothing. Tina’s got her arm around some white kid, making him sing with her.”

This was 1964. The white kid was me. All the other teenagers inside were me, too—white, well-off, suburban. I can’t even remember if Ike was there, or if the band was white or black, for all eyes were on Tina.

"The white kid was me."

We were the kids in the early-to-mid sixties who worshiped blacks and their music. I grew up with Eddie Fisher’s “Oh My Papa” and Gale Storm singing “Dark Moon.”….

But then Mary Wells came along with “The One Who Really Loves You”….

and knocked “Mambo Italiano” out of first place as the sexiest 45 in my collection. I got a driver’s license and I learned to smoke. Allen and I would pull the old library gag and then go cruising around, lighting up again and again while listening to a blasting radio. We shrieked every time we heard Mary, the Marvelettes, Dee Dee Sharp, the Ronettes. Tina was the Queen, but she had no kingdom. She was never on the radio. Never. We had to make do with a 78 album called “Dynamite!,” the word emblazoned diagonally across a screaming orange cover with not a single picture of Ike, Tina, or any of the band members.

I never questioned why there were no photos on the cover of Dynamite! But I didn’t really question much of anything back then. It was years before I heard the name Carole King, and I was almost upset to learn that she wrote “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” I thought songs like just gushed up from deep inside the Shirelles’ collective soul, like an underground spring that couldn’t be capped. But I was instinctively right about Ike and Tina, who I knew didn’t sing other people’s songs. That didn’t get them on the radio, though.

It also took a while for me to realize why we kept all these colored girls in the girl groups on such lofty pedestals. They had color all right, in an otherwise gray suburban world on the outskirts of St. Louis. An acid-dropping friend I knew in college once said she could see music while tripping. I thought back to my high school days and believed that I, too, used to see music. It was hot, all purples and pink neon. Nothing pretty or pastel, like bathroom wallpaper. It poured out of the clubs we used to visit across the river in Illinois, around East St. Louis, where we knew we could beaten alive. By our parents, if they ever found out.

Despite the riots in Watts and Newark, we’d venture into these derelict roadhouses, but nobody paid any attention to us. A guy once asked, “What are you white kids doing over here?” with a tone of genuine curiosity bordering on concern.

We were looking for Tina. Ike was from East St. Louis, or maybe St. Louis proper, I can never remember. And he and Tina use to turn up at the most unlikely places. They had been a rumor they might be at the Nose Bag, a down-and-out club with a picture of a horse’s snout in a feeding bag. (Was that a reference to cocaine? That didn’t occur to me either back then, but I did always think “nose bag” sounded a bit hillbilly for a black club). False alarm that time, but we did see them at Sunset, a raucous teen town, as they were called, in the far west St. Louis burbs. Sunset was especially seedy but also a rare tuxedo junction with a black and white audience. It amused me that it sat across the road from the wealthy Sunset Country Club, to which two of my uncles belonged.

Sunset Country Club

By the time we caught up with Tina at the place where she pulled me up on stage, she was starting to become famous. And maybe we were actually in college then, not high school, and had simply come in from Mizzou to hear her. I’ll never remember the name of the club, but it was as respectable as can be and in the thriving commercial suburb of Clayton, a kind of Stamford where most St. Louis professionals moved after white flight turned downtown to dust. The stage, though, was just the edge of a small dance floor. I think the place might have actually been a small catering hall, available for special events. Peeing in my pants but comforted by Tina’s arm around me, I had to repeat the lyrics Tina fed me, like a good Ikette. The song might have been “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” but I really have no idea anymore.

After the concert, my friend and I went “backstage,” and knocked on what might have been the room where they keep the banquet chairs and tables. Ball-of-dynamite Tina popped out and made us melt. She was tiny, and it was a real shock to see her without heels. She autographed a napkin for me, and it lived for years in the glove compartment of my parent’s Ford wagon (always at the ready to show to friends), but somewhere between high school and the move to New York, I lost the napkin. Even sadder, the Dynamite! album went missing.

The girl groups went away, but not before Diana Ross stole all their crowns. I went away, too. To New York to become a magazine editor. The Beatles came and stayed, but, maybe in memory of Tina, I insisted I only liked the Stones. And Tina, the hardest working trouper of them all, became famous but never really left at all.

© William Serti. Used with Permission.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Judy Orr Thompson June 19, 2016 at 1:54 pm

Thanks Bill for the walk down Tina Turner’s memory lane. You forgot about her appearance at Lewis & Clark Dormitory at Mizzou. I know you and Allen were there and would not have missed it for any reason. We all saw her at “Teen Town ” such great memories unlike you napkin can not be lost .


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