Teena Marie proved that quality music transcends all racial barriers the second she belted the ’70’s scorcher duet “Fire and Desire” with soul man Rick James. Her robust vocals belied her age and race, making her one of R&B’s beloved chanteuses. In the spirit of Miss Teena’s legendary chart-toppers “Cassanova Brown,” and “Square Biz,” her 13th effort, “Congo Square,” delivers more of the same soulful timbre her fans crave. Lady T opened up to ESSENCE.com about N’awlins roots, turning to drugs after Rick James’s death, and why Black folks have always embraced her.
ESSENCE.COM: Welcome back, Miss Teena! “Congo Square” is your 13th album. What’s the significance of its title?
TEENA MARIE: Congo Square is the section of French quarters where the slaves who were mostly from the West Indies were allowed to go dance and sing on Sunday, and I thought, what a miraculous sound that must have been to share in such amazing joy, pain and grace. I found out just as I was wrapping this album that my father’s people are from New Orleans and it gave me goose bumps. I tried to make the album reflective of the richness and diversity of New Orleans culture.
ESSENCE.COM: Your single “Pressure” is an ode to that mighty good man who deserves to have his woman cater to him. Is this a creed you live by?
TEENA MARIE: I have a different mentality when it comes to catering to a man, I just won’t allow it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll do for you but I’m not taking care of no man and catering to him for life; he better be bringing something to the table. I learned that from my mother and my grandmother. Ultimately we all need somebody, and although I don’t have anyone now; I have a great memory and my songs reflect that. Just because I’m not having good sex in my life now, believe me I’ve had enough. (Laughs.)
ESSENCE.COM: We hear that. You have so many timeless classics yet you’ve never won a Grammy.
TEENA MARIE: Well, Marvin Gaye didn’t win a Grammy until his very last album for “Sexual Healing,” just before his death. But when you consider all his work before like, “What’s Going On”, “I Want You,” that song was great but not anywhere near what he had done prior to that. I really don’t judge my terms of success by awards but where I sit with God, my friends and my family. That’s way more important.
ESSENCE.COM: You’ve enjoyed many blessings, especially with cult classics like “Fire and Desire,” your duet with the late great Rick James. How has his death affected you?
TEENA MARIE: After his death I became addicted to Vicodin, which I had been taking for my physical pain because I’d had a lot of accidents. Once I realized that those pills not only took away my physical agony by masking my emotional pain I really became addicted. When I was on the medication I never cried about him, but then I went cold turkey and I cried so much and have been for the last three years. He was my musical soul mate. We were like an extension of each other. I miss all our talks. We were like family; only family can talk about family, not anyone else.
ESSENCE.COM: Many people were shocked to discover that you were a White woman after that song topped the charts. Were you ever criticized?
TEENA MARIE: Black people would always say, “I didn’t know you were White.” But people like good music. Back in the forties and fifties they made the race records where a group like The Temptations wouldn’t appear on the cover of the album. Mr. Gordy used the same concept with me for my first album. He said that is was so soulful that he wanted to give the music an opportunity to stand on its own merit. Instead of my face, they put a seascape, so by the time my second album came out people were like, Lady T is White? Omigod? Overall my race hasn’t been a problem. I’m a Black artist with White skin. At the end of the day you have to sing what’s in your own soul.
Teena Marie’s “Congo Square” is available in stores Tuesday, June 9.