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Remembering Teena Marie

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In a 1985 profile in People Magazine, the late Rick James called Teena Marie "the most important White female singer since Barbara Streisand; and her own race forgot her." James' comments came on the heels of Marie's only taste of crossover success, with the top-ten pop hit "Lover Boy." Twenty-five years later, with her death at the age of 54, Marie is remembered as an important contributor to R&B and Soul music, who against all logic sustained a 30-year-plus singing career with an overwhelmingly Black audience base. Though there have been many who might be described as "sounding Black" -- many fans on Twitter and Facebook sheepishly recalled finding out for the first time that Marie was not Black -- what was always clear in Marie's music is that she was not only influenced by Black culture, but had a legitimate passion and respect for it. That she never actively sought to find a broader audience for her music, despite the fact that she had the talent to sing anything she wanted, speaks volumes about the integrity of the woman simply known as "Lady Tee." Born Mary Christine Brockert in Venice Beach, Calif. in 1956, Marie joined Motown Records in 1976. The label had previously signed White acts such as the band Rare Earth (Hip-Hop pioneer Kool Herc cites the group's cover of "Get Ready" as one of his favorites), Chris Clark (Berry Gordy's one-time lover) and even comedian Soupy Sales, but most were thought of as little more than novelty acts. Marie represented something all together different; a White woman whose vocal gifts were reminiscent of soulful belters like Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Linda Jones, whose "Hypnotized" she covered in 1994. Marie recalled growing up in a household where she heard classical music alongside Black artists like Sarah Vaughn and Aretha Franklin -- she specifically cites Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone" as the song that turned her on to Soul Music. Nevertheless Marie presented a challenge for Motown who couldn't find the right material for her, and wasn't ready to allow her more creative control, in an era when few women artists had such control. Motown also wasn't quite sure how to market Marie to Black audiences. In stepped Rick James, who in the late 1970s was one of Motown's most important artists. James got actively involved in the writing and production of Marie's first album "Wild and Peaceful" (1979), while also providing the cultural cover to introduce Marie to Black audiences. Though James and Marie would become consistent collaborators in the early 1980s, Motown concocted a story that she was discovered by James in order to make her more marketable to Black radio and audiences. Not surprisingly, Marie's photo was nowhere to be found on her debut, inverting historical practice where the photos of Black artists were often removed from album covers in order to market them to White audiences. "Wild and Peaceful" featured the hit "I'm a Sucker for Your Love," with James on vocals. Marie followed up with "Lady T" (1980), produced by Minnie Riperton's husband and Rotary Connection founder Richard Rudolph. She then broke through in a major way with "Irons in the Fire," also released in 1980. "Irons in the Fire" was the first album written and produced by Marie herself and included the dance hit "I Need Your Loving." The album also highlighted Marie's unwillingness to be limited by genre.Though she was ostensibly a R&B singer, she also had an interest in Tin Pan Alley and Jazz, as evidenced by the track "Tune in Tomorrow," one of the many jazz inflected tracks she world record in her career. As Reuters journalist Frank Paul, Jr. describes Marie's career, "she is a legendary artist purely because of her excellence in artistic diversity, and ability to write songs that hold up over decades." In 1981 Marie released what is arguably her finest recording, "It Must Be Magic." The lead single was the now legendary track "Square Biz," which included three verses of Marie rapping, including the memorable line "You know I love spirituals and rock, Sarah Vaughn, Johann Sebastian Bach, Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni just to name a few." The single was released on the heels of Blondie's "Rapture" which also featured a rap by lead singer Deborah Harry. While Harry's performance caught the eyes of mainstream critics, quick to dub it the first "White" rap song, Marie's track was largely ignored by those same critics. "Square Biz" was the perfect metaphor for the arc of Marie's career, as the track has legendary status among fans of R&B from the period. 1981 proved a big year for Marie as she also performed with Rick James on his critically acclaimed "Street Songs" on the track "Fire and Desire." Though the song is notable now as a Quiet Storm staple, at the time it was also one of the first track in which a Black man and White woman sang openly about their romantic desires for each other. "It Must Be Magic" would be Marie's last for Motown as she became embroiled in a contract dispute with the label that eventually lead to the creation of the Brockert Initiative, which curtailed record labels from holding artist to contracts while refusing to release music by those artists. Marie signed with Epic records, then home to both Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross. Though Marie never received the kind of promotional support that her aforementioned male peers did at the label, she recorded several solid recordings throughout the 1980s including "Starchild" (1984) which included her crossover hit, "Loverboy" which peaked at #4 on the pop charts. Marie recorded six albums for Epic, leaving the label in 1990 to gain more artistic freedom in her career.  Though few remember her self-released 1994 recording "Passion Play" -- she once joked that she had thousands of copies of the project in her garage -- the recording, both in the quality of the music and the spirit independent spirit behind its recording was one of the highlights of her career. As Teena Marie retreated to the quiet life of raising her daughter Alia Rose, young Hip-Hop artists discovered her work, notably The Fugees who used Marie's "Ooo La, La, La" -- her only #1 hit -- for their groundbreaking hit "Fu-Gee-La." Thinking about Marie's broader musical impact Frank Paul, Jr. wonders, "Where the Fugees, Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill would be had they not used Teena's 'Ooh La La La' as the backbone to 'Fu-Gee-La', the first -- and highest-selling -- single from their blockbuster album 'The Score'?" Indeed it was New Orleans based Hip-hop label Cash Money that helped resurrect Marie's recording career releasing "La Dona" (2004), her first gold album since "Starchild and Sapphire" in 2006.  When Marie later signed with a revamped Stax Records and released "Congo Square," which many felt was her finest recording, including Soul-Patrol.com founder Bob Davis, she seemed poised to continue her career as strong as ever. Teena Marie's death was no doubt a shock to her many fans -- the volume of responses to her death on Twitter from the so-called #BlackTwitter perfectly captured her importance to her Black fans and highlighted the duel universes that many Black and White Americans live in with regards to Black arts and culture. As Frank Paul, Jr. reflects, "Her's is a story that is still in many ways unsung, since quite frankly, too much of her public legacy will focus on the color of her skin." Thankfully her Black fans know better. Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic and the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities. Neal teaches in the Department of African & African American Studies at Duke University and blogs at www.newblackman.blogspot.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan
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