Tina Turner, a native of Tennessee who lived much of her life in Europe, only rarely waded into American politics. The “Queen of Rock and Roll,” who died Wednesday at age 83, quietly supported Barack Obama for the presidency in 2008, with the encouragement of Oprah Winfrey and some inspiration from Caroline Kennedy. But Turner’s one high-profile political performance came decades earlier, as part of a remarkable show of women’s solidarity with the anti–Vietnam War campaign of 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.
On October 27, 1972, the singer was a volunteer headliner for the “Star-Spangled Women for McGovern–Shriver” concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which closed with Turner singing “America the Beautiful” with a feminist icon, the mother of a president and one of the nation’s best-known folk singers: Gloria Steinem, Rose Kennedy, and Mary Travers, respectively. Earlier in the evening, Turner had delivered an electrifying performance of hits she’d had with Ike Turner during the 1960s and early ’70s. But this time, she wasn’t performing with the domineering and abusive husband she would eventually divorce. The New York Times critic reviewing the show noted that “Tina Turner was there, with the Ikettes, but without the brooding presence of her husband Ike; she sounded just as down‐home funky without him as she ever had with him.”
Turner’s historic performance served as a reminder of the many ways in which the 1972 campaign by McGovern, the South Dakota senator whose insurgent left-wing candidacy reframed the Democratic nomination process but failed to displace President Richard Nixon, was a cultural phenomenon. Many of the nation’s most prominent performers—especially singers and musicians—appeared at benefit concerts that played a pivotal role in funding a campaign that was challenging both the political and the economic status quo.
Three of the top-charting singing stars of the moment—Barbra Streisand, Carole King, and James Taylor—played an April 1972, gig for the McGovern campaign at The Forum in Los Angeles with Quincy Jones and his Orchestra. They raised over $300,000 and produced a live recording of the show that made it into the top 20 on the Billboard album chart and steered additional funds toward the cause of McGovern and his running mate, Sargent Shriver. Another $400,000 was raised in June of that year at a “Together for McGovern” event in Madison Square Garden that featured a reunited Simon and Garfunkel; Peter Paul and Mary; and Dionne Warwick. After the crowd of more than 18,000 joined in singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” McGovern appeared on stage to thank everyone for making “our contribution to the Richard Nixon retirement fund.”
But as the November election drew near, McGovern’s campaign was strapped for cash. One of his most ardent supporters, actress and long-time activist Shirley MacLaine, had an idea. She rented Madison Square Garden with her own money and started calling every woman she knew to ask them to appear at a campaign-closing concert for McGovern. The response was overwhelming. While only women would perform on stage, men were allowed to show concertgoers to their seats—with MacLaine’s brother Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, James Earl Jones, and Jimmy Breslin among those serving as ushers.
The concert, which was organized in 10 days, drew close to 20,000 people, and raised an estimated $1.3 million in today’s dollars. But its real success was as a statement about the vital role of women in supporting McGovern and the anti-war movement he had brought to the pinnacle of American politics. (Speaking to a reporter ahead of the rally, MacLaine said that, while “men like to play war games,” women were “psychologically oriented toward peace.”)
The night opened with Helen Reddy performing “I Am Woman,” the feminist anthem that would reach No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100 chart that fall. Travers sang Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Judy Collins performed songs and poetry by Bertolt Brecht. Dionne Warwick sang her hits before jetting off to a scheduled concert in Wichita, Kan.
Turner interrupted a tour with Ike Turner to play the benefit. And it was a big deal that she did. The first Black artist and the first woman to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, Turner had joined the Rolling Stones on their epic “Gimme Shelter” tour and was now at the peak of her initial prominence, having just earned a 1972 Grammy for her chart-topping reinterpretation of John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary.”
On a night that pioneering rock critic Lillian Roxon said featured “one thunderbolt after another,” Roxon hailed Turner’s unprecedented performance at a political benefit as “incredible.” It was also hectic. After finishing her own set and the finale with Rose Kennedy and the rest, Turner and the Ikettes and the Ikettes (Esther Jones, Gail Stevens, and Edna LeJeune Richardson) rushed to a waiting limousine and then grabbed a plane for Boston to finish the night at a previously scheduled show.
Within a few years, Tina Turner would break with Ike and launch a new career that would eventually make her one of the most iconic performers in the world—a superstar whom President Biden would celebrate on Wednesday as “a once-in-a-generation talent that changed American music forever.” She would relocate to Europe and, ultimately, become a Swiss citizen. But for a few hours in 1972, Turner was at the heart of American politics, headlining what the Times hailed, in the moment, as “the largest political fundraising rally ever planned, presented and performed by women.”