As she considered making Tina Turner the subject of her next tribute show, local singer Anais St. John was “afraid and intimidated and enthralled. But I felt like I wanted to challenge myself.”
On Friday night at the downtown Joy Theater, Anais will star in “Simply the Best: The Tina Turner Story,” a live tribute to Turner. In addition to performing more than a dozen of Turner’s songs with a seven-piece band and backing vocalists, St. John will narrate a timeline of Turner’s life and career, augmented by video content. Show time is 8 p.m.; tickets range from $25 to $40.
“I’m telling her story and bringing her music to life in my way,” she said. “I’m not trying to copy her. You can’t.”
She’ll present the songs more or less in chronological order. The show’s first half is devoted to early rhythm & blues material from the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, including “Nutbush City Limits,” “Sexy Ida,” “Bold Soul Sister,” “A Fool In Love” and “Rock Me Baby.” In the second half, St. John moves on to Turner’s latter-day solo hits, including “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Private Dancer” and a finale of “Proud Mary.”
Concluding with “Proud Mary” isn’t chronologically accurate, “but it is the quintessential Tina Turner song.”
A New Orleans native and music educator, St. John is best known for her years on the local cabaret circuit. At the now-shuttered Le Chat Noir and the Mid-City Theater, she starred in shows devoted to Eartha Kitt and Lola Falana, as well as a double-entendre-laden salute to dining and local restaurants titled “No Reservations.”
Off and on for eight years, she and her trio held a steady weekend gig at the Windsor Court’s downstairs Cocktail Bar. They showcased mostly traditional jazz standards interspersed with cabaret songs and R&B. Currently, she performs once or twice a month at the Old Point Bar.
She previously staged an elaborate tribute to disco queen Donna Summer at the Joy and the Marigny Theater. Her jazz trio often concluded performances with Summer’s “Last Dance,” so she was familiar with at least some of Summer’s catalog.
Taking on Turner’s was something else entirely.
“It really isn’t like anything I’ve ever done. It’s extremely intimidating. Touching base with such raw emotion in a performance is something I’m not used to doing. But I love her power and feminine sexuality and her empowerment for women. I hope I do justice to her story.”
Much to her regret, she never attended a Turner concert but has collected anecdotes from friends who did, and watched many videos. She researched Turner’s life before writing the spoken-word segments that connect the songs in the tribute show. Reading Turner’s autobiography, “I, Tina,” was a revelation, as it filled in details from the star’s difficult childhood and abusive marriage to Ike.
“I didn’t realize she picked cotton as a child,” St. John said. “I didn’t know that when she left Ike on the way to a concert in Dallas, she left with 36 cents in her pocket. That’s all she had to start a new life without him.”
St. John was also surprised to discover that, as Turner sought to reintroduce herself as a solo act, she spent time singing disco at cabaret lounges in Las Vegas. The massive hits, the duets with Mick Jagger, the sold-out stadium tours — all that would come years later.
The seven-piece band that will back St. John on Friday at the Joy includes veteran New Orleans drummer Doug Belote, trumpeter Jamal Sharif and saxophonist Roderick Paulin. Baton Rouge-based keyboardist Mike Esneault, a longtime St. John collaborator, arranged the Turner material for the show, adjusting the key of each song to better suit St. John’s voice.
“It has to be something that works for me,” she said. “I would hope any artist, when approaching another artist’s material, would make it their own.”
Throughout her career, Turner sported short dresses that showed off her famous legs. To create her own Turner-esque stage outfit, St. John turned to her friend Carolina Gallop, a local fashion designer. The resulting dress is short and will be accented by high heels and, as St. John puts it, “a lot of leg.”
But she won’t be wearing a big, spiky wig, as Turner did. “I’m not trying to impersonate Tina,” she said. “I’m going to be me.”
And, she notes, “there won’t be an Ike.”