The excitement of HBO’s teaser for the documentary Tina, which premieres in March 2021, has a reason. The nearly 82-year-old singer’s story is absolutely inspiring, but it’s the chords of her most famous song – Proud Mary – that bring tears to our eyes. As Tina Turner goes on to say that she refuses to budge, we hear the Big Wheel keep on turning / Proud Mary keep on burning rolling down the river from the classic chorus. It challenges the most skeptical to refrain from tears.
The 1969 song was born in a rock band, passed through the hands of producer Phil Spector, was in Elvis Presley‘s repertoire, was sung by Beyoncé, but is primarily associated with Tina. A trajectory is worthy of the proud Mary of the title.
To begin with, it is important to emphasize two things: Proud Mary was not written by or for Ike and Tina Turner nor is it a song about a woman who existed. With that in mind, we have to go back in time to the 1960s in the United States. A culturally turbulent period and the Vietnam War divided opinion and sent young Americans into a conflict zone that traumatized generations. It was in this scenario that John Fogerty, still serving in the Army, wrote a song that would become one of his greatest classics.
John Fogerty, in American music, is on the same legendary footing as Tina Turner. In addition to Proud Mary, his are songs like Have You Ever Seen The Rain, which he recorded with his band Creedence Clearwater Revival. The country rock genre, typically American, made the band a relative success.
In 1968, John was still worried that he might be drafted to fight in Vietnam at any moment. In his notebook, he wrote down the ideas that came loose or that he heard. Proud Mary came like that, like a loose sentence that he thought sounded good. Then came the possibility that Mary was a poor working woman, who was a domestic in a wealthy household, but who every day had to return to the reality of her simple life. The boat that goes down the Mississippi (the river on which the story takes place) was just her imagination of what the south of the country would be like (he is from California) and the Mark Twain books she read when she was little. Watching the movie Maverick came up with the idea of incorporating this southern barge concept into the song. Moreover, the singer, a fan of Beethoven, disagreed with the composer’s opening for his 5th symphony and changed the tempo to what he considered more sonorous. Although it was born as rock, the song had a gospel vein. Thus was born the concept of one of the greatest classics of American music.
When he received papers excusing him from the Army – freeing him from the draft – John Fogerty rushed to his guitar to celebrate and play. In two hours he composed Proud Mary, which was recorded by his band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and went on to be played on the radio. The opening sentence Left a good job in the city, Working for The Man every night and day, And I never lost one minute of sleeping, Worrying ‘bout the way things might have been night and day government
And I never lost a minute of sleep Worrying about how things could have been) reflect the moment John learned he had been dumped.
However, it was only when Solomon Burke, the “gospel bishop”, heard it and liked it, that things changed. He decided to do his own version, emphasizing his original intention, which was not so clear with the band’s version. That’s when the story completely changed. Solomon changed the cadence to make Proud Mary into a gospel song. It was this version, produced by Phil Spector, that found its way to Ike Turner. Tina had listened to the original rock version, unenthusiastic. When the gospel came to the fore, things changed. Phil Spector worked with Solomon and the Turners, but while the link is obvious, no one confirms that he ever pitched the concept of the move to the couple before Solomon made it big with his version. What is known is that Ike and Tina Turner used Solomon’s idea for their version, which is the most famous of all.
The intensity of Tina’s performance, however, is what highlighted the message of empowerment that Proud Mary extols. The single was released in 1971 and exploded on the radio and quickly became one of the group’s biggest hits. When Tina broke away from Ike, she continued singing the song. Today, 50 years later, it is more associated with her and without a doubt, it is a women’s anthem.