Tina Turner and My Father

Back when Tina Turner was Anna Mae Bullock and attending Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri, she would regularly cross the Mississippi River to hear live music at nightclubs in East St. Louis, Illinois. Crossing the river meant crossing state lines and states of mind; it meant crossing toward the beginnings of her life as Tina Turner. It was at the Manhattan Club in East St. Louis where she first heard Ike Turner play with his band, Kings of Rhythm. During an intermission one night in 1957, so the story goes, Anna Mae grabbed the mic and sang B. B. King’s ballad “You Know I Love You,” impressing Ike enough to eventually secure her place as a vocalist for the band. She spent the next year finishing high school and crossing the river every weekend to sing with the band at their regular gigs. By 1960, she had moved across the river to live with Ike in East St. Louis and to begin in earnest her training as a singer. That year, the band’s demo of “A Fool in Love” featuring Anna Mae singing lead caught the attention of Juggy Murray, president of Sue Records, who bought the rights for the song and insisted that the band make Anna Mae its star. In response, Ike renamed Anna Mae as Tina Turner and trademarked the name, ensuring that should she ever leave him or the band, he could replace her with another Tina Turner. When Tina expressed reservations about the terms of their relationship, Ike responded by striking her in the head with a wooden shoe stretcher. She had made a crossing from which it would be nearly impossible to cross back.

The first time my father crossed the river was in the same year that Anna Mae grabbed the mic and sang the blues. It was January 1957, and he was just seven years old. He joined his mother and four of his siblings, traveling north from Mexico across the Rio Grande to settle in San Antonio, where his dad had come the year before to find work. My father grew up west of another river—the San Antonio—which he would regularly cross in 1970 as he headed east each day across town toward the army base to report for duty or dental-assistant training classes. By the time he’d crossed the Pacific and the South China Sea in 1971, the banks of the Perfume River just north of Phu Bai, Vietnam, were soaked with the blood of the many lost in the infamous Battle of Huế. His first night in Phu Bai, just thirty miles south of the DMZ, he slept through the rocket shelling and the shouting of his bunkmates hustling their asses to the nearby bunker. He never lost a minute of sleep worrying about the way things might have been. He never was the type to dwell on the losses that accompanied all the crossings he was forced to make.

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