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Marie, Teena (originally, Brockert, Mary Christine)

Marie, Teena (originally, Brockert, Mary Christine)

Marie, Teena (originally, Brockert, Mary Christine), one of the few white artists to cross over from R&B to pop; b. Santa Monica, Calif., March 5, 1956. At two years old, Mary Christine Brockert embarrassed her mother by standing up in church and belting out “The Banana Boat Song.” Soon, however, her mother was encouraging her child’s gift, teaching her songs and how to sing them. By the time Mary was nine, she knew over 200 tunes; she made her first public performance around that time, fronting a 36-piece orchestra at a Hollywood restaurant. She started to appear in commercials and even acted in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. By the age of 13, she fronted her own band. She continued singing and acting through high school.

While enrolled in Santa Monica City Coll., Brockert tried out for a television show called Orphanage Children.The show was never produced, but she impressed its producers, Motown Productions, who signed her to their record label. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find a producer willing or able to handle a white woman singing heavy urban music. She languished on the Motown roster for three years before Rick James overheard her working out her voice in Stevie Wonder’s office. In James’s words, she was singing “her ass off. I walked in and here’s this short munchkin white girl [singing soul music].” James signed on to produce her album that no one else wanted or could handle.

While working on her debut, James taught her the basics of the studio, as well as guitar and bass. He helped her explore her range. For a short time, they were romantically involved. The cover to her 1979 debut, Wild and Peaceful, didn’t have a picture of the newly named Teena Marie, and consequently the first people to respond to this new woman singer were R&B stations. Her first single, “I’m a Sucker for Your Love,” climbed to #8 on the R&B charts. Most of her listeners were unaware that she was white. Marie’s next album, Lady T, was produced by Richard Rudolph. Rudolph had previously worked solely with his wife, Minnie Riperton; Marie was the first artist he produced after Riperton’s death. This time, Marie’s picture appeared on the cover, but she still primarily appealed to a black audience. The bass-and-horn workout “Behind the Groove” from the album topped out at #21 on the R&B charts.

Taking everything she had learned on her previous two projects, Marie produced her third album, 1980’s Irons in the Fire. A commercial breakthrough, it yielded her first pop hit, the funky “I Need Your Lovin’,” which peaked pop at #38, #9 on the R&B charts. The album rose to #38 on the pop charts. Similarly her next album, It Must Be Magic, sported the massive #3 R&B hit “Square Biz.” The tune featured one of the first raps by a female artist. The album went to #23 and sold gold. Later in 1981, Rick James pulled her from a hospital bed to cut the track “Fire and Desire” for James’s Street Songs, another major hit. On that high note, she left the Motown fold amid acrimony and lawsuits. The label refused to issue Marie’s recordings but also refused to release her from her contract; she sued, saying that Motown couldn’t keep her from signing with another label if the company wouldn’t issue her records. Marie won the case, resulting in the so-called “Teena Marie Law,” which stated that a label can not keep an artist under contract unless it is willing to release that artist’s recordings.

Marie signed with Epic records in 1983. However, her first effort for the company, Robbery, met with a lukewarm response. She bounced back a year later with Starchild. The album, infused with touches of Prince-like rock and funk, produced her biggest pop hit, “Lover-girl,” her first record to go further on the pop charts (reaching #4) than it did on the R&B charts (where it stalled at #9). Emerald City (1986) explored more of that funk-and-roll sound, and featured guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan on one track. Her next effort, Naked to the World, produced her only #1 R&B hit, the quasi-ballad “Ooo La La La.” Additionally, it featured the #10 “Work It,” a tune that mixed programmed drums with some amazing solo trombone. Ivory(1990), with tracks produced by Soul II Soul’s Jazzie B., featured the soaring vocal workout “If I Were a Bell” (not the Frank Loesser standard), another R&B Top Ten tune.

However, Marie’s sales never again approached the heights of Starchild.By 1994, Marie lacked a major label deal, and had to release her Passion Play album on her own. It saw little action, and she has not recorded since. As a true sign of her fading star, she was featured on VH-l’s Where Are They Now? series in 1999.

Discography

Wild & Peaceful (1979); Lady T (1980); Irons in the Fire (1980); It Must Be Magic (1981); Robbery (1983); Starchild (1984); Emerald City (1986); Naked to the World (1987); Ivory (1990); Passion Play (1994).

—Brock Helander

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