Fans who were lucky enough to see Tina Turner perform live took comfort in their memories upon hearing of her recent death. And some of those memories were made at the University of Southern Maine.
On March 24, 1974, about 3,000 people crowded into Hill Gymnasium in Gorham to watch the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. An article in the next issue of the Free Press raved about Tina’s electric stage presence.
“She had the crowd in the palm of her hand and wouldn’t let go,” wrote the uncredited reviewer for the student newspaper.
Turner tore through the set, highlighted by her rendition of “Proud Mary.” Her performance seemed all the more impressive to Rick Scala, considering what she had told him only a few minutes earlier.
Drawing on 50-year-old memories, Scala said, “I just remember her saying, ‘I don’t know if I can go on. I’ve got a scratchy throat and I don’t know how long I’m gonna last.’ . . . Once she started, no one knew that she had a sore throat.”
Crisis management was part of Scala’s job as head of the student concert committee. But this concert tested his patience even beyond Turner’s health issues. A couple of band members never made it to Gorham after partying too hard at their last gig. Scala remembers the gratitude he felt toward the roadies who knew the music well enough to fill in for the no shows.
The passage of time makes it easier for Scala to laugh at those old frustrations. He transferred to USM as a junior from Fairfield University in Connecticut. Scala hoped to meet new people who shared his love of music by helping rig the sound equipment for concerts on campus. His abilities got noticed, resulting in an offer to lead the entire concert committee.
Classmates, who up to then had been strangers, were suddenly counting on Scala to deliver the entertainment event of the year. Negotiations opened with a phone call to a talent agent in New York or Boston. They’d whittle down a list of musical acts based on availability and cost until they reached an agreement.
The touring landscape was different in the 1970s. Arenas weren’t as widespread. In many communities, college campuses had the best facilities and a ready-made audience. A who’s who of classic rock legends visited USM from 1970 to 1975, including Aerosmith (twice), Chicago, The Eagles, Alice Cooper, Steppenwolf, The J. Geils Band, Crazy Horse, and more.
“We were here right at the golden time of college concerts,” said Scala.
Among all of those renowned acts, Tina Turner still stood out in Scala’s memory for her boundless energy, amplified by her backup dancers, a blaring horn section, and Ike’s virtuoso musicianship on guitar. A show that big gave fans far more than their money’s worth with advance tickets priced at $4 for students and $5 for the general public.
Scala still has his ticket, although he can’t find the contract. The acts that played at USM commanded a talent fee ranging from $5,000 to $12,500. Turner probably fell on the higher end, based on her Sunday performance date. Top stars typically played bigger venues on the previous weekend nights.
Turner remains influential all these years later, both for her music and personal story. After enduring years of physical violence from Ike, she divorced him in 1978. A string of solo hits launched her to new heights of success in the 1980s.
Turner’s iconic status was assured by the time of her death on May 24. Her name appears twice in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She shared the honor with Ike at her first induction in 1991. Her solo career earned a second induction in 2021. Tina Turner didn’t hide the pain in her past, proving to her fans that it was possible to start over and emerge stronger than ever.
“As great a performer as she was, and she was one of the greatest, I think her biggest legacy is going to be the domestic violence thing, bringing that out into the open,” Scala said.
Since crossing paths with Tina Turner, Scala has also stayed busy. He graduated in 1974 with an education degree. That led to a long career as a middle school math teacher in Brunswick. He also left his mark on Bowdoin College as head coach of the men’s rugby team for 30 years.
Just as it was in his undergraduate days, the USM music scene is still an important part of Scala’s life. He co-hosts the “Night Train” show with Bill Audette on the campus radio station, WMPG. It airs on alternating Wednesdays from 2:30 to 4 p.m. The format is blues and classic rock, just like his favorite concert bookings. And Tina Turner is near the top of the list.
“I think we’re very lucky to say that Ike and Tina Turner played at the University of Southern Maine,” Scala said. “Not too many schools that can say that.”