The world lost a legend on May 24. Tina Turner, born Anna Mae Bullock, died after a long illness at the age of 83. Her inimitable spirit broke barriers for Black women and everyone else as she ascended to the heights of music’s iconography to become the queen of rock ‘n’ roll.
But “Turner” wasn’t her birth name, nor the one she wanted during a tumultuous marriage to R&B singer Ike Turner. Anna Mae met Ike Turner in St. Louis in 1956, became one of his backup singers, and almost immediately vaulted to lead singer for his band, the Kings of Rhythm, later the Ike & Tina Turner Revue.
The story of their marriage and the abuse Tina suffered at her husband’s hands have been well documented: in cinema with the 1993 movie “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” and in print with her own autobiography published in 1986, “I, Tina.” The world knows of her painful struggles and her legendary status, her purported ostentatious forays into music genres not previously tread by Black artists, much less Black female artists. She went there, won the race, and earned her crown.
However, what she gave up in the legal proceedings dissolving her marriage to Ike Turner was a lesser-known facet of Anna Mae’s life. She took a gamble to retain the Turner name that was then an imprimatur of a life of turmoil, abuse, and pain.
Both Ike and Tina mentioned over the years that Ike talked about an ownership interest in the name “Tina Turner.” Anna Mae/Tina wanted to leave no doubt about the use of the name when they divorced.
She wanted the name and nothing else—no money, no house, no half-interest to the fruits of the labor of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. As it goes, she did receive a few other effects in the divorce agreement, but the name is what mattered most.
The Turner name would be transformed—owned—by Anna Mae/Tina. It serves as a symbol of how a woman took something belonging to a man that on its face had no value, and made millions off it without giving any back to him.
The taking of one spouse’s surname by the other spouse has been around for centuries. It also has always been gender-defined, where female spouses often capitulate their birth name to male marital partners. The custom also ensures that the male partner’s surname likely is carried on to children born of the marriage, a subconscious shrink-wrapping of a progeniture contract’s terms of service.
Whether the wife moves her birth name to the middle name space or drops it completely, the law cloaks the spouse in a new eponymous identity—taking the name of her partner. If the partnership ends, however, property acquired during the marital regime must be divvied up. Does that include names?
Anna Mae/Tina made sure the judge knew that it did. She saw the commercial value in the Turner name. Perhaps the presiding judge, back in the 1970s, thought she was making a foolish decision. She could have been set for life with likely millions of dollars from whatever revenue would have come from royalties from her time with the Ike & Tina Turner Revue.
She saw that if the Turner name was a property right she could win and use into the future—indeed, she trademarked the name in 1978—that was all she needed. Her determination, talent, and resilience would take care of the rest.
As an academic whose primary research field is the interrelationship and solution frameworking of separate legal fields—for example, how business proposals can be used in private law disputes—I carefully consider the asset valuation and protected property rights of social identification markers, specifically names.
This interest began with the Gates divorce a few years ago. When I was interviewed for Bloomberg Law radio in conjunction with a piece I wrote about it, I anecdotally referred to Tina Turner’s decision to take only the Turner name in her divorce. The parties can agree in the divorce proceeding how to deal with the use of surnames. And in that divorce, they did.
However, I now realize Tina Turner’s sheer strategic genius. Every day until she died, she worked with a surname that could have reminded her of male dominance, of a beyond-bleak past. She used that name to first move into a new musical genre, then take a stance for female independence, and ultimately just went ahead and dominated all of music.
Maybe she knew what continuing to use the Turner name would involve—both in terms of commercial recognition but also in terms of remembering her painful past. Maybe that’s what drew her to keep breaking glass ceilings. For whatever reason, the Turner name will be remembered as hers, not the name of the man she married.
The world thanks her immensely for that.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Greg Bordelon is currently the director of academic success at the University of Maine School of Law. He will begin a tenure-track appointment as assistant professor of legal studies in the Department of Political Science and Legal Studies at Suffolk University in the fall.
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