Long before Eminem and other white artists found success using African-American-dominated musical styles, there was Teena Marie, one of the true creative originals of the 1980s. A series of hit albums recorded for the Motown label beginning in 1979 made her the most successful white artist ever to record for that longtime institution of black American music. After a long period during which she was absent from radio airwaves but never from the hearts of concertgoers and fans, she reappeared in the ranks of top urban contemporary musicians in 2004.
Teena Marie was born Mary Christine Brockert in Santa Monica, California, on March 5, 1956; Teena Marie was a childhood nickname formed by reversing and altering her two given names, and she used it professionally from the start. Her musical talent first showed itself at age two when she started singing "The Banana Boat Song" in the inappropriate surroundings of her parents' church. Her parents, a carpenter and a childcare worker, loved classical music and the virtuoso black vocal styles of Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, and Lena Horne, and they encouraged their daughter's vocal gift.
Teena and her five siblings grew up in Venice, California, a melting pot of musical influences in the 1960s that offered Latin sounds, the proto-funk of Sly and the Family Stone, rock, Motown pop, and more. "I absorbed it all and made it into my own little style," she told the Buffalo News. As an eight-year-old she made an appearance in a Los Angeles restaurant in front of a 36-piece orchestra, and soon she was singing on the soundtracks of television commercials. At age ten she sang "Ave Maria" at the wedding of the son of comedian Jerry Lewis, and she took a turn at comedy herself with an appearance on the television series The Beverly Hillbillies.
Bowled over when she heard the classic soul vocals of Al Green when she was in the tenth grade, Teena Marie became more and more interested in African-American music and culture. In multicultural Los Angeles this didn't raise as many eyebrows as it might have elsewhere, but some insults still came her way from white classmates. She enrolled at Santa Monica City College, studying English and writing poetry on the side, and a door into the musical world opened when she auditioned for a television show called Orphanage Children that was to be produced by Motown's television arm. The show was never greenlighted, but Teena Marie was signed to Motown's Gordy Records imprint.
At first, Motown didn't know quite what to do with its four-foot-eleven-inch new artist, who didn't seem to fit any of the patterns laid down by other successful artists on the label. Her career languished for some months, but one day singer and producer Rick James, one of the label's biggest stars, happened to hear her singing and playing the piano in a rehearsal studio. "I expected to see a writer-producer," James told People. "And instead I found this short, tiny white body sitting at the piano, singing like the gods had come into her spirit."
James took charge of Teena Marie's career, producing her debut album, Wild and Peaceful, in 1979. Like some albums by black performers marketed to white audiences in the 1960s, the LP's cover lacked a picture of the artist, showing a seascape instead. Wild and Peaceful mixed Rick James-style funk with vocally explosive ballads and the straight-ahead jazz of "Gonna Have My Cake and Eat It Too." The album did well, and Teena Marie's duet with James, "I'm a Sucker for Your Love," climbed into the R&B top ten. Radio programmers assumed that Teena Marie was black, an impression the singer neither encouraged nor dispelled. "It should make no difference; I don't see color," she told People.
Teena Marie's second album, 1980's Lady T, did include her picture on the cover. The album further developed her vocal virtuosity under the production leadership of Richard Rudolph, who had been the producer and husband of the late R&B diva Minnie Riperton. Irons in the Fire, released later that year, put Teena Marie back in the R&B top ten and cracked the pop top 40 with the single "I Need Your Lovin'."
The artist had her biggest success yet with the 1981 LP It Must Be Magic. The album was certified gold for sales of 500,000 copies, and a single, "Square Biz," rose into the R&B top five. Well before rap music was commonly heard on the radio, to say nothing of rap by white artists, Teena Marie included a lengthy rap sequence in "Square Biz," deftly alluding to her own previous recordings ("I'm wild and peaceful Lady T/I got to keep my irons in the fire, you see") and paying tribute to her creative forebears ("Shakespeare, Maya Angelou/Nikki Giovanni, just to name a few"). The rest of the album was no less creative, featuring the erotic, Brazilian-flavored "Portuguese Love" and the over-the top jazz ballad "Yes Indeed," the latter with accompaniment by pianist Patrice Rushen.
Teena Marie had one more hit on Motown, an ultra-romantic duet with Rick James called "Fire and Desire," which was included on James's album Street Songs. The song fueled strong speculation that the two were romantically involved, a rumor they never completely confirmed. She remained close to James and his family in later years, even after James was imprisoned on assault charges. After "Fire and Desire," however, Teena Marie became one of a whole series of Motown artists whose relationship with the label dissolved in legal wrangling. She moved to the Epic label in 1983 and released Robbery, a collection of songs that seemed to refer to her disillusionment with Motown. It failed commercially, but the 1984 Starchild album spawned "Lovergirl," her first song to crack the pop top ten and her only release that did better in pop chart rankings than in R&B lists.
The ambitious, rock-inflected Emerald City (1986) had only moderate success, but Naked to the World (1988) featured Teena Marie's only R&B number one hit, "Ooh La La La." After the 1990 album Ivory, she was dropped by Epic and took a hiatus from recording for several years. She released an album, Passion Play, on her own Sarai label in 1994, and continued to perform in concert from time to time. Mostly, however, her time in the late 1990s was occupied by her daughter, Alia. "We're best friends," Teena Marie told the Buffalo News. "Her needs and her wants are a lot simpler than those of the music business."
For the Record …
Born Mary Christine Brockert on March 5, 1956, in Santa Monica, CA; children: a daughter, Alia. Education: Attended Santa Monica City College.
Signed to Motown label, late 1970s; released debut album Wild and Peaceful, 1979; moved to Epic label after legal disputes with Motown, 1983; formed own label, Sarai, early 1990s; signed to Cash Money label, 2002; released La Dona album, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Cash Money Records, c/o Universal Music Group, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404. Website—Teena Marie Official Website—http://www.teenamarie.com.
A 1999 appearance on the VH-1 cable television channel's Where Are They Now? series testified to continuing audience interest in Teena Marie's music, and after several years of rumors that she was at work on a new album, she was signed to the New Orleans-based hip-hop label Cash Money in 2002. Although she had had little to do with hip-hop since its very early years, Teena Marie felt comfortable in her new creative environment. "I've always been edgy, and I've always listened to the sounds were that were coming up," she told the Detroit Free Press. Her new album La Dona was released in May of 2004. It reunited Teena Marie and Rick James on one track ("I Got You"), and featured contributions from fellow 1980s stalwart Gerald Levert and from hip-hop figures MC Lyte and Medusa. The album's leadoff single, "Still in Love," quickly rose on the R&B charts as if Teena Marie had never been away.
Wild and Peaceful, Gordy, 1979.
Lady T, Gordy, 1980.
Irons in the Fire, Gordy, 1980.
It Must Be Magic, Gordy, 1981.
Robbery, Epic, 1983.
Starchild, Epic, 1984.
Emerald City, Epic, 1986.
Naked to the World, Epic, 1988.
Ivory, Epic, 1990.
Passion Play, Sarai, 1994.
La Dona, Cash Money, 2004.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, editor emeritus, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Schirmer, 2001.
Baltimore Sun, December 4, 2003, p. T26.
Billboard, February 14, 2004; March 6, 2004; March 27, 2004, p. 41.
Buffalo News, July 20, 1994, p. Lifestyles-7.
Chicago Sun-Times, January 14, 2000, p. Weekend Plus-6.
Detroit Free Press, March 17, 2004, p. D1.
People, May 6, 1985, p. 98.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), February 21, 1995, p. B5.
PR Newswire, March 4, 2004.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 26, 1995, p. Get Out-7.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), January 17, 2003, p. Lagniappe-30.
"Teena Marie," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 19, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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