Martyn Ware Remembers ‘Funny and Charming’ Pal Tina Turner: ‘Always Had a Twinkle in Her Eye’
It was the song that resurrected Tina Turner as a pop queen and brought her back.
Turner’s 1983 cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” marked the beginning of a new kind of career for her. She became a superstar pop star all over the world, transcending her previous niche as a bluesy, harder rock singer.
Martyn Ware, a member of the British synth-pop group Heaven 17, worked on the song as a co-producer.”I said to her, ‘We need to fix your legacy as one of the great soul singers of all time, but in a contemporary context.’ We used our electronic pop production skills to put her in a different frame. And it worked,” Ware, 67, tells PEOPLE as he looks back on his time with Turner, who died Wednesday at age 83. “It is the almost perfect combination of modernity and traditional soul values. That’s what we were aiming for.”
He adds, “It was the biggest-selling 12-inch single in American history at that point.”
But it was bigger in the U.K. and Europe — and came a year before Turner’s massive worldwide sensation, the album Private Dancer. “It laid a foundation and made everybody sit up and say, ‘Hold on a second. This might not be the last candle burning brightly before it goes out, this may have legs’ — if you excuse the pun,” Ware recalls.
Their working relationship began when he and fellow producer Greg Walsh were making a side project — a compilation album featuring various singers — in 1982. Turner sang “Ball of Confusion.”
She didn’t have a record contract at the time but was making a good living touring Britain and Europe doing “Proud Mary” and the older material. And her manager Roger Davies wanted to steer in a new direction, so the partnership was fortuitous.
Turner “was the opposite of hot when we started working with her,” Ware admits. “It was regarded as a novelty project when we started with her — she’s had her heyday and coming back and doing something that was quite modern.”
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“She came into our dressing room and said, ‘Martyn,” Ware says, imitating Turner’s voice. “In the middle eight of the song, my dancers are going to do something cool — they’re going to go down on their knees and run their hands up and down your body.’ I said, ‘Tina I don’t think that’s a good idea. We don’t want any accidents!’ Can you imagine how embarrassing that would have been?”
He continues, “She was serious — she’s from that showbusiness tradition and the person who organizes all her choreography. She was always funny and charming and always had a twinkle in her eye. For that, I am eternally grateful.”
So in her early 40s, Turner began a second phenomenally successful career, boosted — like Madonna and Michael Jackson — by crossover-creating MTV.
In the premiere, he recalls, when the moment came to tell the story of ex-husband Ike’s domestic abuse, and he hit the Tina character, “the audience took an intake of breath. I have a lot of admiration for her showing that you can triumph over such adversity. It was very important for her and other people who are in an abusive relationship.”
Ware concludes, “Anybody can do energy and sexuality, but it doesn’t make you one of the all-time great performers. You need to have a wide range of performative skills from delicacy to sensitivity — emotions that people can empathize with.”