Article By Diedre Johnson
When Tina Turner wrote the lyrics to this Top 40 hit single, she was many years away from small, rural, and unincorporated Nutbush, Tennessee, the place where she spent a significant portion of her childhood.
Yet the sting of those early years resonated and definitely contributed to the superstar she became.
Today, Nutbush is still small but famously on the map because of the little girl who turned into a Grammy-winning international icon. Tennessee State Route 19 became Tina Turner Highway in 2002, and the small schoolhouse she
attended is now The Tina Turner Museum, filled with famous costumes and other memorabilia from her illustrious career.
In 2019, neighboring Brownsville hosted Tina Turner Heritage Days. One can’t help but wonder what that little girl living in Nutbush would say to her older self if she could see her now.
Anna Mae Bullock was born on November 26, 1939, in Brownsville, Tennessee, to Floyd Bullock, a cotton sharecropper, and Zelma. Anna was the youngest of three sisters, including Ruby Alline and half sister Evelyn, although Evelyn died in a car crash while Turner was still a teenager.
Life might have turned out differently for little Anna had her parents stayed happily married and kept their family together, although it’s doubtful she would have continued to pick cotton—in an interview with Rolling Stone, the legendary singer recalled just how much she hated it. However, when Turner was 10) her parents sent her to live with her grandparents in Nutbush, while they moved to Knoxville to work in a defense facility.
Her parents had long been on the brink of separation—her mother looking to escape years of domestic abuse. To the child, however, it felt like rejection, and the fallout fueled years of cycling between physical and emotional abuse with future husband Ike Turner and harboring general feelings of abandonment. “When [my mother] was pregnant with me, she was leaving my father,” Turner told Us magazine in 2000. “She was a very young woman who didn’t want another kid.”
Turner’s paternal grandparents, Alex and Roxanna Bullock, were stern, churchgoing people, and the future star got her first taste for singing while in the church choir. Briefly, her parents returned and the family was reunited, living in the Flagg Grove area of Nutbush, but Turner’s birth had simply delayed her mother’s ultimate plans, which she eventually fulfilled by ditching Turner’s dad for good and moving to St. Louis.
Again, Turner was left with her grandparents, continuing to go to the Flagg Grove School and sing in the church choir. A grown-up Turner recalled that her mother would often leave her father for a spell, but she could always expect her to come back.
This time, she didn’t, further convincing Turner that she wasn’t wanted. “It mattered that she’d left—but also didn’t matter. What I simply missed was that she didn’t love me,” she told Rolling Stone in 1986. “And I knew the difference because I used to watch her with my sister, Alline—how she was with her and then how she was with me.”
After Turner’s mom left, her father married and moved to Detroit. Pretty soon, he’d sent them to their maternal grandmother, Georgeana Currie. Turner said she was not as hurt by this development as she was by her mother abandoning her because she was “a little bit afraid of [her dad].” She added, “He wasn’t friendly. He was friendly with everybody else but not with me.”
Alline soon left as well, moving to St. Louis to be near their mother. Meanwhile, Turner struggled with schoolwork but was always promoted to the next grade because she “had manners and personality and I tried,” she conceded. Turner attributed it to “some psychological factor about my home life.”
Still, she had her dreams of better days and a classier life (she later revealed that she admired the style of presidents’ wives, especially Jacqueline Kennedy’s). Even then, Turner said that her tastes were “high,” but admitted that had she had that sort of life, she would not have been able to perform with the depth of feeling that she did during her career: “Do you think I could sing with those emotions I do? You sing with those emotions because you’ve had pain in your heart.”
Her grandmother died when Turner was 17, and at the funeral, her mother and sister urged her to come live with them in St. Louis. She relented, and in 1956, she would start over in a new city, set a new ambition for a career in music, and meet Ike Turner. Turner saw him perform at a nightclub her sister had taken her to and got onstage to sing with him and the Kings of Rhythm.
By the following year, she had joined the band and in 1958 recorded her first single, written by Ike, called “Box Top.” Turner recorded it under the name “Little Ann.” This was only two years before Ike would change her name—and her life.