This week I was saddened to learn, as the world was, that Teena Marie, a.k.a “Lady T,” had passed away of natural causes in California. Although she came out of that last great class of great female vocalists such as Angela Bofill, Chaka Khan, Patti Austin, and Phyllis Hyman; The four-time Grammy nominee was a different breed and caliber of a performer. The music world as well as her fans respected her not because she could sing, but as a well accomplished producer/songwriter and her stance of illegal and unfair recording and contractual issues that eventually helped all recording artists.
Born Mary Christine Brockert on March 5th, 1956 in Santa Monica, California in the all black section of Oakwood, California. She was one of five brothers and sisters that grew up in a middle class area where she was addicted and love the soulful rhythms of the Motown Sound. As a child, Marie appeared on the hit television show “The Beverly Hillbillies” under what later become her stage name, Tina Marie Brockert.
The late Philadelphia WDAS radio personality Georgie Woods coined the term “blue-eyed” soul when white artists and groups during the mid-sixties like Len Berry, The Righteous Brothers, Dusty Springfield, and the Classic IV were huge crossover successes on both the R & B and pop charts. Throughout the 1970’s and even today those same kinds of performers ranging from the Average White Band to Michael McDonald to Steve Winwood were influenced by great soul music during their musical upbringing and is prevalent in their music.
Teena Marie was considered a triple threat to the record industry because during the beginning of her career at Motown, Barry Gordy didn’t know how to both market nor record her. Marie had the whole “blue-eyed” soul thing down pact, but she wasn’t just pretty face and singer. She was a dynamic pianist, vocalist, and producer. When she was signed to Motown in 1976 it was the legendary producer Hal Davis (The Jackson 5 and The Supremes) tried to pair her with many producers to no avail. Funkster Rick James was given a demo of her vocal and then requested more tapes. James had written songs written for Diana Ross for her upcoming project. She declined to record the tunes and Teena stepped up to the plate. “I’m Just a Sucker for Your Love” debuted on the R & B charts at number # 8. Ironically, when Motown released her debut album “Wild and Peaceful” in the spring of 1979 urban radio and the dance clubs supported her music in droves. Motown Records were so afraid that she wasn’t going to be accepted by the black audiences that the album cover was a painting, not of Teena. It wasn’t until her debut on highly popular Soul Train where she was exposed on television to millions of young African-American record buyers.
The irony is that white radio programmers wouldn’t touch her music but urban formats embraced her with open arms. Teena didn’t play the race card musically, but it would be many years later that pop stations would eventually play her music. She commented on how the industry took her as a musician in a 1980 interview for the Los Angeles Times: “I tell them I’m white, but they think I’m black and I’m trying to pass for white……This is white skin. I’m not trying to fool anybody.” “Blue-eyed” Soul has and continues to be prevalent with current artists like Robin Thicke, Amy Whinehouse, and Canadian crooner Remy Shand. What Teena did was take the soulful stylings of songwriter/producer Rick James and ride the Motown hit express.
By her second album “Lady T” released in early 1980, she enlisted the producing efforts of Richard Rudolph, the then producer and husband of the late Minnie Riperton. Due to Rick James’ heavy touring schedule, he couldn’t work on “Lady T” but began to start producing and playing on all of recordings afterwards. James’s classic album “Street Songs” was an anthem on black radio and in the clubs. But both James and Marie would record what would be a staple on their live shows as well as on the “quiet storm” formats all over the world. “Fire and Desire” was a romantic and passionate love song about two individuals that canned their love for each other over time and developed into a budding romance. The two were both romantically linked but their music and working relationship were always professional. Both Rick and Teena reunited at the 2004 BET Awards and sang the duet to a standing ovation. James died two months after their performance.
One of Teena’s major musical contributions was the legal case entitled “The Brockert Initiative,” named after her birth name. The California law now limits and entitles a artist from the record company to keep them under contract. It made if virtually impossible for the labels to allow the artists signed without paying royalties to them. Teena wanted to be released from her contract with Motown. At the time, the royalties paid were a contractually arranged standard agreement for most artists made decades earlier. By then, she felt the rate she was receiving wasn’t adequate during the 1980’s. She won the case, was released from her contract from Motown, and then signed with Epic Records.
In 1984 Teena recorded her first crossover record “Lover Girl” which hit number # 6 on the Pop charts. She continued to record but during the 1990’s she scaled back on recording due to the fact she didn’t like where the industry was going musically. Also, she wanted to become a hands on parent and be there for daughter Alia Rose, who’s now an up-and-coming R & B singer.
The last decade proved to the biggest resurgence of Teena’s career. Her last two recordings “La Dona” and “Congo Square” were well received and fans earning her three Grammy-Award nominations.
What I really admire about Lady T is that she didn’t try to be black nor emulate our music. Teena was so far apart from her contemporaries. Where vocalist Anita Baker would and continues to have great songwriters and producers to help enhance her talent, Teena was an excellent vocalist, producer, songwriter, and performer. She learned and played with the best in the game early on in her career, so it destined to continue those same perfectionistic production values like Rick James, Richard Rudolph, and Hal Davis. What’s interesting is that now that she’s no longer with us, she was different and went against the grain.
She’s been hailed as the “Ivory Queen of Soul,” but me being a Soul Train baby I’ll always remember her as “Lady T”
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