Remembering Teena Marie

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 01.03.11 in Spotlights

Irons In The Fire

Teena Marie

According to reports, Teena Marie died peacefully in her sleep the day after Christmas. To Top 40 followers, Marie was primarily the voice of 1984′s Prince-like hit “Lovergirl.” Although she was recovering from a recent grand mal seizure, this 54-year-old Californian was scheduled to perform in Atlanta on New Year’s Day.

To those who knew the scope of Mary Christine Brockert’s catalog, such a casual, apparently peaceful passing seemed altogether wrong. The Teena Marie publicly projected by this petite singer with the big voice embraced earthshaking, soul-stirring, utterly cataclysmic drama, and nothing less than a self-induced sacrifice to the Gods of Funk – preferably atop a volcano or another similarly exotic locale – would suit her.

Marie’s recorded output spanned from 1979 to 2009, but her artistic and commercial heyday was the ’80s, a time when rock, R&B, disco and funk freely mixed. Her particular fusion was even more eclectic – she also mixed in jazz, Broadway, and world music. Her 1981 single “Square Biz” was among the first urban radio hits to feature an extensive rap section, while her 1986 LP Emerald City ranked ninth in Straight to Hell, critic Chuck Eddy’s idiosyncratic catalog of heavy metal albums. Casual listeners might consider it no more metallic than Michael Jackson‘s “Beat It,” yet its emotional heaviness is fathoms deep.

Marie was a soul singer. And although she’s Caucasian, Marie is rarely classified as blue-eyed soul because her particular talent meant that no further qualification was necessary. Despite her fleeting “Lovergirl” crossover, Lady T’s core audience has always been African-Americans. R&B stations of the ’80s also played Hall & Oates, Culture Club, even Kraftwerk, but Marie was – and perhaps still is – the only white singer blacks have claimed as their own, giving her nicknames like the Vanilla Child, White Chocolate and the Ivory Queen. The fact that she attained this status while absorbing so many styles is a tribute to her eclectic nature.

Although her early mentor Rick James called the shots on her 1979 debut Wild and Peaceful, by 1980′s Lady T she was writing most of her material, and by 1980′s Irons in the Fire onward, she was producing, arranging and contributing instrumentation as well. What she created was by no means easy, as evidenced by Robbery‘s knockout ballad “Casanova Brown.” Here she captures the straying heart of a playa by making the music change every few bars via multiple time signatures and key modulations: Higher and higher goes the melody like a drug until Marie realizes that she must shake loose her insanity-inducing lover. “Did you hear me crying? It sounded a little bit like this,” she explains before a remarkable round of scatting and a note that seems – like her pain – to last an eternity. But then the music changes again. “It’s over, over before the love turns to hate/ Let it end and let’s still be friends,” she pleads to her paramour, and there’s another round of modulations, as if she’s coming back down to earth, and the piece ends on an uneasy but altogether lifelike resolution that suggests both grief and hope. And, yes, that Casanova Brown was the Super Freak himself, Rick James.

With Marie’s technical chops came a conviction that bordered on the surreal. Hers were songs of enchantment so heartfelt that she seems cast under a spell of her own creation. Marie willed herself into a kind of blackness that bypassed minstrelsy because she was not about surfaces. Her soulfulness came from a profound interior place that pop musicians rarely access, and although it changed with the times, her songbook is defined by a sincerity that’s utterly timeless. To quote another of her remarkable ballads, Marie possessed the courage to put herself “Out on a Limb.” She believed in love and the groove, and with them, she could do or be anything.