Nichelle ‘Nikki’ Tillman is the voice behind some of the world’s biggest stars. She is among the lucky few working for big boss Roger Davies. For more than ten years, she has toured with the likes of such music icons as Joe Cocker, Cher and P!nk. Raised in Detroit, it was gospel music that got her through a difficult childhood. But maybe more than gospel music, it was the inspiration she took from her idol Tina Turner that helped her overcome life’s challenges. When Tina asked her in 2008 to be a backing vocalist on her 50th Anniversary Tour, it was a dream come true for Nikki. The Tina Turner Blog spoke to her backstage in Berlin during the current Joe Cocker tour.
Nichelle’s musical career started at a very young age in Detroit, singing gospel music in church.
Nichelle: “Me coming from Detroit, it’s a rough city, it’s a very rough city. There were times that I would just put on my headphones, even as a little girl, or just sit in my room and sing. Just to block out the noise. I started singing in church. That was my upbringing.”
Her first paid gigs were in a gospel theater group. However, she decided quickly that her future would lie elsewhere. She moved to New York to further pursue her career. Her first paid gig there was singing backup for Taylor Dane. Other acts she toured with at that time were Kool & The Gang, Kelis and Monica. In 2005 she got asked to join Joe Cocker’s tour, and it was working with Joe that eventually landed her the gig with Tina Turner. Tina, who had been her idol since she was three years old.
Nichelle: “I’ve been watching Tina since I was three. I went to see her in concert in 1999 at Caesar’s Palace for the millennium. Oh man, I sat in the audience , I was on stage left of her, and from that moment, I knew that was going to be on stage with her someday. Somehow, I didn’t know when. But I knew that I was going to be on stage with her.”
The dream that started that day was realized eight years later. While on tour with Joe Cocker, she got the phone call from management if she wanted to work with Tina Turner.
Nichelle: “That was 2007 going on 2008, I was on tour with Joe Cocker. I got a call from the management and I was totally surprised. They asked me if I could come in. And I said: ‘Huh!? Uh, YEAH! Let me know when, and I’m there!’. I didn’t audition, which was a little bit weird. I think because I worked for the management [Roger Davies], touring with P!nk and Joe Cocker, he already knew my potential. But I never imagined he would call me for that.”
The first time Nikki was eye to eye with her childhood heroine was during a photo shoot at Sony Studios in Los Angeles in 2008. However, she didn’t have much time to be star-struck, as the grueling rehearsal process started right away.
Nichelle: “I have to say, out of anybody that I’ve worked with, Tina Turner definitely is an on-spot artist. Which basically means that she has her hands on backing vocals, the band, lighting, production. She is there for every rehearsal. She has her hands in everything to make sure that her show is the best!”
Even though Nichelle was to be on the tour for only a handful of shows, filling in for colleague Stacy Campbell who was performing with Cher at that time, she went through the full two months of rehearsals. And Tina didn’t allow much space for messing around!
Nichelle: “I knew I had to prove myself to Tina, because she didn’t know who I was. And there were times when she’d ask me: ‘Where do you come from, Nikki!’. ‘Who did you sing with Nikki!’. For me, she was more like a mother figure, you know what I mean, like on my butt immediately. I was new and she wanted to make sure that I was the best that I could be. To actually have those moments with Tina, where it is one on one, you know. She was training my voice, and telling me what to sing and what not to sing, and what she’s gonna have and what she’s not gonna have. That was perfect for me at that time!”
During the rehearsals, Tina was always the professional, and clearly in charge. And she sees everything!
Nichelle: “Rehearsals is like the actual work. And rehearsals is not only vocals, there’s dance rehearsals as well as make-up rehearsals as well as fittings. It’s a whole day of rehearsals.
I can remember times coming down the hallway, and not having my hair combed and not having my red lipstick on. And Tina saying: ‘Nikki! Where’s your red lipstick!’ or ‘Nikki, where’s your clothes!’. And that to me was everything. Tina comes in ready to work. She is flat on. I always describe Tina Turner as the most beautiful storm. She’s like the most beautiful tornado you can ever be in.”
And then came opening night. On October 1, 2008, Tina’s 50th Anniversary Tour opened at the Sprint Center in Kansas City – Tina’s first full concert in 8 years, and Nikki’s first show with Tina.
Nichelle: “I was there for opening night! Which was big. I can’t even describe that moment. It was ABSOLUTELY MARVELOUS. It was THE, even to this day right now, THE greatest moment of my life! It was nerve-wrecking, but it was the best nerve-wreck that you could ever have. I wanted to be there. I put my time in. I put my work in. I got my ankles hurting. My knees were hurting. I always think in my head: this woman did not have to have me on that stage. She has the best of the best on her stage, and for her to even consider for me to be on stage. That was the biggest moment. And I know, or I hope, I hope she was proud of me.”
Tina not only desires the best of her musicians and dancers, but also of herself. In the recent interview with the German Vogue, she revealed that during the last tour, she pushed herself to her physical limits. However for Nichelle, this was not apparent during the working process.
Nichelle: “I can probably imagine as she hadn’t worked for a minute there, that getting back into it could be something. But the minute she hits the stage, you notice nothing but Tina Turner putting in work. As she always does in those stilettos.”
And why is she, like other performers as Cher and Joe Cocker, still doing it at that age?
Nichelle: “It is definitely the music. I truly believe music saved me. Even to this day, when I get those two hours on stage, it’s a release for me. It’s definitely a release, and it’s healing for me. And it’s healing for the audience as well; it’s us working together. It’s me getting healing from them, and them getting healing from me.”
The mastermind behind many of the artists Nichelle worked with, is Tina’s manager Roger Davies, who also works for P!nk, Cher and Joe Cocker. R.D., as Nikki calls him, is also responsible for some of the longest concert tours in rock history.
Nichelle: “He is a beautiful man! Kind-hearted, sweet, hard-working, focused. That’s the only way I know how to describe R.D. He is focused. Focused. He has the major artists of the music industry. And he’s like Clive Davis: he keeps going. He just keeps going. And there hasn’t been one of his artists to fail. All of them are legendary. So that says a lot for him! And his tours go on for several years: there are not many artists who can travel like that.”
While Nichelle sees these long tours as a positive thing, it also makes it difficult to focus on a solo career. For the past years, she has been working on a solo project under the stage name of Lil Rocka.
Nichelle: “I’m definitely going to step out. It’s very difficult sometimes. I take my days off to write; I’m back writing another project now. When I do release, I want to have good management, good production, and so getting that together is a big process. My project is little bit more rock-oriented.”
Tina struggled to be taken seriously as a black woman singing rock music. Nichelle experiences some of the same problems.
Nichelle: “I experience the same thing. People kind of wondering what is she going to come with, thinking what can she know about that. But I have a connection with rock. Even more than with hip-hop or any of the other genres. It’s strong, it’s hard, and I like to rock out! I definitely want to do the Tina thing, I would love to follow in her footsteps. She’s the best example, she’s the queen of rock, no doubt!”
Asked if Nikki had one memory of her time working with Tina that really stood out, she recounts a very special rehearsal at Tina’s villa.
Nichelle: “It was me, Stacy and Lisa Fischer, we were learning a song. Tina wanted to call the girls in for a personal rehearsal at her villa in Beverly Hills. And I kept messing up! I messed up like three times. And I never forget her saying: ‘NIKKI! You want me to take my shoe off and…!’. And I just said: ‘No miss Tina, please…!’. And she just cracked a smile. But that let me know, at that moment, that we connected. And I just let her know that I was going to do the best that I could to make sure that her show was the best that it could be.”
Nichelle Tillman is currently touring with Joe Cocker. His ‘Fire It Up!’ tour runs until September 2013, for tour dates check out Joe Cocker’s website.
Special thanks go out to Deb Collette for the live shots of Tina and Nikki performing together.