Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Tina Turner with a look back at her lone No. 1: her career-rebooting smash and eventual signature song, “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”
Pop historians remember 1984 as one of the greatest years in U.S. top 40 history — a time when, powered by the new commercial and artistic possibilities afforded by MTV, a new class of solo superstars ascended to a previously near-unimaginable plane of success. Multi-platinum-certified albums. Sold-out stadium tours. Unavoidable music videos. Madonna. Prince. Michael. Bruce. And another mononymously recognized icon who no absolutely no one could have predicted being back in that pop inner circle just a few years earlier: Tina.
Tina Turner‘s name was a strange fit on the marquee for a year of pop music that was so much about the future. For one, she was already middle-aged by that point — at 44, practically a full generation older than the 25-year-old Madonna and MJ — and for another, she’d been out of the limelight for the better part of a decade, having broken free of abusive on-stage and romantic partner Ike Turner, but failing to that point to achieve much in the way of solo chart success. In 1984, she staged one of the era’s greatest comebacks, armed with a new contract with Capitol Records, a new set of rock and pop collaborators, and most importantly, one of the most perfect pop songs of the late 20th century: “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”
“Love” wasn’t the first single from Turner’s 1984 album Private Dancer; that was actually her cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” Her rendition of the 1972 Billboard Hot 100-topper served as a sort of soft launch for New Tina, putting the focus back on her inimitable pipes (and in the video, her singular style) while also showing off an updated synth-soul sound, courtesy of producers Greg Marsh and Martyn Ware — the latter one of the co-founders of then-cutting-edge synth-pop outfit Heaven 17. It was a modest success, peaking at No. 26 on the Hot 100 and becoming her first top 40 hit since 1973 — but it was just the table-setter for what would come next.
“What’s Love Got to Do With It,” produced by U.K. hitmaker Terry Britten and co-written by Britten and Scottish folk-rock alum Graham Lyle, is simply the kind of song any veteran pop performer would kill for. It’s mature without being staid, it’s catchy without being cheesy, and it’s got an obvious soulfulness and wisdom to it without sounding explicitly retro or old-fashioned. It was a quintessentially grown-up single, one befitting of Turner’s age and stature, but even while arriving amidst the biggest pop explosion since peak disco (or maybe peak Fab Four), it still sounded very much of its time — a song that could be playlisted in between Footloose soundtrack singles and new wave hits by Duran Duran and Frankie Goes to Hollywood on top 40 radio and not feel out of place.
It helped that the groove of “Love” was amorphous enough to allow the song to fit just about anywhere. The song’s subject matter and melody — and Turner’s pedigree — probably made it most easily slotted into R&B, and the song did hit No. 2 on Billboard‘s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs (then Black Singles) chart. But Turner herself was more interested in rock music, and the production’s soupy, cinematic mix of choppy guitars, throbbing bass and bubbling synths on the intro and verses is more reminiscent of Foreigner’s big ballads of the time than anything else. And while the big pop hooks are the most attention-grabbing parts of the chorus, the most inspired bit of it might be how the rhythm shifts from the tense melodrama of the verse to a much looser, almost reggae-like shuffle for the refrain. It’s an incredibly versatile song, and much more of a shape-shifter than it seems at first.
But none of it works without Turner behind the microphone. Unlike the chops on display with her “Together” cover, she’s noticeably restrained on “Love,” showing more of her power in what she holds back than what she lets go. She croons like someone who’s a little embarrassed to be singing what she’s singing — like she’s not sure she should be admitting any of this to us — which makes sense, given that the song is all about attempting to disavow love as a “second-hand emotion,” and putting a strictly-physical framework around a relationship that’s clearly revealing itself to be much more.
It’s not that Turner doesn’t bring the goods with her vocal, as you can still hear her unleash with her peerless might on the first “OHHHH, WHAT’S LOVE…” following the mid-song key change. But even then, she quickly pulls back for the rest of the “got to do with it” phrase, as if she’d let her emotions get the better of her for just a quick second before remembering herself. It’s a performance of spellbinding control, texture and feeling, the kind that a less-skilled, less-seasoned belter simply couldn’t be trusted to pull off.
Helped by a popular music video that featured a high-heeled, leather pencil-skirted Turner encountering various strangers on the streets of New York, “Love” took the Hot 100 by storm in May of 1984, bounding up the chart and hitting the top 10 that July. It finally hit No. 1 on the chart dated Sept. 1, replacing Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” and lasting for three weeks before being deposed by John Waite’s “Missing You.” A couple weeks later, she would perform the song at the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards — though the video itself would not be eligible until the next year, when it beat out Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Sade and Sheila E. for best female video. The song also dominated at the 1985 Grammys, taking home statues for record of the year, song of the year, and best pop vocal performance – female.
Turner would never reach the Hot 100 apex again, but she would remain a fixture in its top tier for years to come. Private Dancer spawned two more top 10 hits in the rocking “Better Be Good to Me” (No. 5, Nov. 1984) and the theatrical title track (No. 7, March 1985), and before the next year was out, she added a third in the No. 2-peaking “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome),” from the soundtrack to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Her 1986 follow-up Break Every Rule wasn’t quite the blockbuster Private Dancer was, but it spawned another No. 2 hit with lead single “Typical Male.” And though 1989’s “The Best” would reach only No. 15 on the Hot 100, it was one of her biggest global successes, and would endure as one of Turner’s signature numbers.
“I Don’t Wanna Fight,” released in 1993 from the soundtrack to her Angela Bassett-starring film biopic — unsurprisingly titled What’s Love Got to Do With It — would mark her final visit to the top 10, hitting No. 9. From there, she mostly shifted to the legacy phase of her career, racking up career accolades (including a pair of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions, with Ike in 1991 and as a solo artist in 2021) and remaining a major touring draw until she got off the road for good in 2009. “What’s Love Got to Do With It” has continued to endure in popular culture, inspiring the chorus to Fat Joe and Ashanti’s No. 2-peaking 2002 smash “What’s Luv,” and becoming a hit once more with Turner’s original timeless vocal via a globally successful Kygo remix in 2020 — proving that even 60 years after her debut (and a decade into her retirement), Tina Turner was still never far away from her next comeback.
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