Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address
Please accept the terms
The Best: The Story Behind Tina Turner’s Career-Defining Anthem
Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

The Best: The Story Behind Tina Turner’s Career-Defining Anthem

Tina Turner’s signature hit, The Best has taken on a life of its own. ‘It’s like the song of a generation’, says co-writer Holly Knight.

Back

It’s not like Tina Turner hadn’t already made her mark. As the indefatigable frontwoman for the high-octane Ike And Tina Turner Revue in the 60s, singing hits such as Proud Mary and River Deep – Mountain High, she blazed a trail for Black female performers which like the likes of Beyoncé followed into the early 21st century. When she finally defied her abusive ex-husband and struck out on her own, she became an inspiration the world over for women seeking their own escape routes. When she bounced back, in 1983, with a cover of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, she staged a reinvention which went on to reap countless rewards. And yet one song tops them all: The Best.

“We had no clue what was going to happen to it,” Holly Knight, who co-wrote The Best with Mike Chapman, tells Dig! “It was just a writing session… But at this point, it’s like the song of a generation.”

And it wasn’t even written for the woman who made it so.

“She doesn’t accidentally pick tunes”

By the time Tina Turner recorded The Best, its original muse, an unnamed male singer, had passed on it (“I won’t say too much,” Knight laughs, “but he hates when I bring it up”) and Bonnie Tyler had recorded a version which stalled at the bottom of the UK Top 100. Turner, however, knew it was exactly the sort of song she could lift to new heights.

“She knows her voice,” says Knight, who also co-wrote songs such as Better Be Good To Me, for Turner’s Private Dancer album, and a further three tunes that would make it on to the Foreign Affair record, where they jostled for attention alongside The Best. “She doesn’t accidentally pick tunes.” Turner also knew just what the song needed in order to reach its full potential.

“She called me up and said, ‘I want to cut this song. I love it. It’s a very special song. But it’s not right,’” Knight says.

Turner had three requests that would take The Best to the next level: “I want a bridge, and I want the key to go up. And I want the ending to be big and celebratory, so I can do my thing. Let’s just cut loose.”

“She knew exactly what she was saying”

Looking back, Knight reflects, “Her comments about the bridge and the ending – she was absolutely right. Before, it was a great song. But when Mike and I rewrote it to have a bridge and a key change – she knew exactly what she was saying.”

Such was Turner’s confidence, the fact that Bonnie Tyler’s version was less than a year old never fazed her. “It’s an old-school approach,” Knight says. “It never bothered her because she knew that, when she got her hands on it, she was going to make it her own. A good song can be played in any number of ways and produced any number of ways and still really shine, so I don’t think she ever worried about that.

“I’ll tell you something fantastic about Tina,” Knight continues. “She always copied the demos to a T. Anything that we would throw in, she used it all… I loved that about her because I can’t tell you how many times I would hand a hit song to a producer, and they would change it – I don’t know if it was an ego thing or if they felt like they were putting their stamp on it – only to fuck it up… So if we did a demo, yeah, it was rough, it was simple. It didn’t have all the bells and whistles. But it had the essence of what the tune was about. And Tina was always able to extract that. So that was part of her input.”

“The Best just hit the motherlode”

Released on 2 September 1989, two weeks ahead of the Foreign Affair album, The Best left no uncertainty over Turner’s status as the “Queen Of Rock’n’Roll”. Beyond its earworm melodies and Turner’s soaring performance, however, the song’s life-affirming message – simple, direct and heartfelt – immediately connected with fans and casual listeners alike.

“I didn’t write a lot of ballads because I was a rocker,” Knight says. “A lot of times, when you’re writing something that’s positive, it can sound a bit vanilla – oh, this is so goody-goody. How do you say something that sounds beautiful? That is so well-written it just hits you in the heart? One of the things is: you have to be real. You have to come from a very honest place and be willing to – whether it’s show your warts or your flaws – be relatable. And I think, in a positive way, The Best just hit the motherlode.”

“It’s done so many things for so many people”

Over 30 years on from its release, The Best not only stands as one of the best Tina Turner songs, it has taken on a life of its own. Robust enough to be performed in any style, country star Wynonna Judd recorded it for a live special (“She paid tribute to all the badass women in the world, like Tina, and then she sung it,” Knight says), and it became a recurring motif throughout Schitt’s Creek (“Because of that show, it became the wedding anthem for the LGBTQ+ community”). President Joe Biden even played it after delivering his acceptance speech in November 2020 (“I asked my publishers to call the Biden campaign and say, ‘I will give this song to him for free, for the rest of his lifetime, if he uses it.’ And they did, which was fantastic”).

“It’s done so many things for so many people, it just keeps going,” Knight notes today. “It does have a life of its own, outside of Tina, but it all circles back to her. I really feel like Tina was the muse… It wasn’t written for her, but it was meant for her. She shared her story with the world, and to be able to be victorious in the end, instead of a victim – this song captured that for her… There’s nothing better than ‘the best’, is there? By definition. And that’s her.”

Check out our best Tina Turner songs to find out where The Best ranks.

More Like This

‘Court And Spark’: Joni Mitchell’s Commercial And Creative Breakthrough
In Depth

‘Court And Spark’: Joni Mitchell’s Commercial And Creative Breakthrough

Putting the idea of Joni Mitchell as a sensitive folk singer to bed, ‘Court And Spark’ was a jazz-infused triumph that changed her career.

When Tina Turner Broke A World Record In Rio De Janeiro, 1988
In Depth

When Tina Turner Broke A World Record In Rio De Janeiro, 1988

Performing to a sold-out crowd of 180,000, Tina Turner’s 1988 concert in Rio De Janeiro put her name in the ‘Guinness Book Of Records’.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up