Tina Turner — “Proud Mary”

“Proud Mary” is being used in a UK TV commercial for breakdown assistance (of all things) at the moment.

The message of the song is, as far as I can tell, completely unrelated to the subject of mechanical failure in cars. But it’s a great song and the advert is very amusingly delivered (I won’t explain it here…you’ve got to see it yourself for the full effect).

“Proud Mary” has made a promotion for an otherwise mundane service into one of those rare commercials everyone looks forward to. Well done to creative agency adam&eveDDB for the concept and the brilliant execution.

But we’re writing primarily about music here, not TV commercials…so let’s get back on topic…

When I was younger, I thought “Proud Mary” was written by Ike Turner. That’s because the first version of the song I heard was the Ike and Tina Turner version back in the early 1970s.

I’ve always liked blues, funk and soulful songs with punchy brass sections. Ike and Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary” had all of the things I liked about music fused together in the same song. It was one of the musical highlights of my teenage years (full disclosure: music was about the only place where my teenage years had any highlights).

So it came as something of a surprise to me, a few years later, to discover that Ike Turner hadn’t written “Proud Mary” after all. And that the original had none of the blues, funk and punchy brass that had drawn me into the song in the first place.

It was, in fact, written by John Fogerty from the folk-inspired rock group Creedence Clearwater Revival.

In the UK, at least, Creedence Clearwater Revival are probably more well-known for their song “Bad Moon Rising” which hit the top of the charts in the early autumn of 1969.

I think that’s because the Ike and Tina Turner recording of “Proud Mary”, which came along only a couple of years after the original, quickly became the iconic version of the song and so rather overwhelmed what had gone before.

In some ways, it’s a shame that the original Creedence Clearwater Revival version isn’t the one we instantly think of nowadays, although I’m sure John Fogerty has managed to console himself with the no-doubt handsome royalty cheques that Ike and Tina Turner have sent his way over the years.

That also illustrates one of my rules for an exceptional song — namely that it should be capable of being performed in several different styles and still sound brilliant.

From the folk rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival, to the funk rock of Ike and Tina Turner and 100-odd cover versions by other artists ranging from Elvis, Springsteen and Billy Paul through, somewhat more improbably, to the Osmonds, Leonard Nimoy and Alvin and the Chipmunks, “Proud Mary” is one of the most covered songs of all time.

With a track record like that, I don’t think any of us could object to Rolling Stone magazine placing “Proud Mary” at Number 155 in their list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It has become a modern classic.

But that’s not the entire story of “Proud Mary”. Between Creedence Clearwater Revival’s recording and Ike and Tina Turner picking up the baton, there was another, albeit minor, hit version of the song by Solomon Burke.

This wasn’t just a curio. In my view Solomon Burke’s version was an essential part of building a bridge from the folkie Creedence Clearwater Revival original and helping make the song an all-time classic by laying the groundwork for what “Proud Mary” would become in the hands of Ike and Tina Turner.

Recorded at my very favourite Southern recording studio — Muscle Shoals — Burke’s more soulful take on the song, and the spoken intro about the life of his forefathers travelling through the South on a boat called “Proud Mary”, made the song feel like more of a personal story. Which is quite an accomplishment considering the original was written by a middle-class white boy in California with no family tradition of living on Mississippi riverboats to draw upon.

As its fans know, back in the 60s and 70s Muscle Shoals was the place to go for a great funky sound. You can hear the trademark horns coming in as the story of the song unfolds…albeit with one slightly inexplicable horn section that sounds more like Herb Alpert than the Muscle Shoals Horns in full flow.

But let’s not get picky. Without Solomon Burke showing us what the song could become with a more soulful treatment I’m not sure Ike and Tina Turner would have taken Burke’s concept and amped it up several thousand percent to make it the barnstormer we know it as today.

Whilst you can still hear one or other of Tina Turner’s versions of “Proud Mary” quite frequently (not just in TV commercials) and the Creendence Clearwater Revival original makes the radio airwaves from time to time, I’ve never heard Solomon Burke’s version on mainstream radio, which is a great shame.

Without him, one of the greatest musical crowd-pleasers of the 20th century might only be a footnote in the cultural history of the late 1960s, when people like John Fogerty started to fuse folk traditions with the possibilities of rock music and modern recording techniques.

But as we like to celebrate songwriters around here, let’s not forget that nobody would have had a hit record with “Proud Mary” if John Fogerty hadn’t written it in the first place.

Although not a native of the South, Fogerty managed to convey the feeling of a gentle trip down the Mississippi on a riverboat really well. You could be forgiven for thinking that’s where he’d spent his entire life.

Solomon Burke, admittedly with the aid of a backing band and a production team who were more used to this style of gritty Southern soul-infused rock, picked up on this feeling particularly well. His version probably reflects the heritage and the spirit of the song better than any of the others.

Whoever sings the song, we can’t forget its story…

Left a good job in the city
Working for the man ev’ry night and day
And I never lost one minute of sleeping
Worrying ‘bout the way things might have been

The singer tells of the many privations they encounter as they travel through the South, drifting from place to place. But everything changes when they climb on-board a riverboat called “Proud Mary”. The daily rhythm of life aboard the boat as it makes slow but majestic progress down the Mississippi brings peace where there was none before.

Big wheel keep on turning
Proud Mary keep on burning
Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river

In a hurried world, there’s something special about only being able to go as fast as the river can take you. On the river you have to take it easy…literally “go with the flow”…

When the tide is against you, there’s nothing you can do. You park up to wait it out or accept that progress will be much slower than usual. When the river runs fast with melting snow in spring you can hitch a ride aboard its frantic journey to the sea.

But in the final analysis, the river controls you. You don’t control it.

And that’s a useful message for us all to ponder…

If you’re interested in how a song develops, you can find John Fogerty’s original version with Creedence Clearwater Revival here. The excellent, if sadly under-appreciated, Solomon Burke version is here.

But for many of us, the definitive version of “Proud Mary” will have vocals on it from Tina Turner (with or without Ike). So that’s the version I’ve linked to below.

It’s from a live performance, but with great professional audio. There’s a long spoken intro which goes on until about 2:38 that you can safely skip without missing the song itself, but it ramps up steadily from there to run at full pelt from about 4:20 right through to the end.

By the time of this performance, Tina Turner was in her 60s and showing dancers a third of her age what energy on stage is supposed to look like. And she has to keep her vocal going at the same time, rather than just making the moves. All in all, it’s a bravura performance by someone who has taken the march of time by the scruff of the neck and shown it who’s boss.

Please enjoy Tina Turner with her customary lively performance of John Fogerty’s composition, “Proud Mary”…

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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