It’s hard to understand now just how far ahead of her time the R&B artist Teena Marie was back in the day. It’s not just that she was laying down radio-friendly raps years before any other woman, or that this white girl who sang soul — sang it — was a post-racial icon decades before we began taking that term seriously.
Marie was the rare woman in charge of her material. For much of her career, which took off in 1979, she wrote, produced and performed her own records, a feat few female musicians, and only those of some renown like Joni Mitchell, were able to pull off at the time. Record labels and radio stations and the men who ran them controlled nearly everything then.
Teena Marie — funkster, crooner, Christian, pioneer and, lately, obsessive Tweeter — had mostly faded from the spotlight by the time she died Dec. 26 at the age of 54. But no doubt, she laid down the grooves (her word) that a certain breed of female pop star has channeled since. It was because Marie was talking “Square Biz,” platinum-style, in the early ’80s, that gals like Gaga or Ke$ha can speak a verse and not get laughed out of the music business today.
For sure, Marie proved versatile over the decades. Belting Philly-style on “Fire & Desire” with Rick James; cooing through “Oh La, La, La;” pumping up the disco for “Behind the Groove;” rocking out with her guitar on “Lovergirl.”
But there was a visceral sameness there, and it was soul. Black soul. Sweaty, unembarrassed, plaintive, melismatic, obvious and romantic. So black that she released her first album on Motown’s Gordy label. So black that her last album included the song “Black Cool,” written for President Barack Obama. “I’m a black artist with white skin,” she once said.
And the era welcomed it. In the same decade Madonna was writhing around in lingerie, Teena Marie was reinventing blue-eyed soul. Sexual and self-determined, she could be raw like Teddy Pendergrass, unafraid like Patti LaBelle, outrageous like Prince. She was butch and bold in her swagger, as much brothah as sistah, really.
Marie was aware of the identity conflicts, and used them to make art. From 1981’s “Square Biz,” a No. 3 song on Billboard’s Black Single’s chart:
“I’ve been called Casper, Shorty, Lil’ Bit,
And some they call me Vanilla Child,
But you know that don’t mean my world to me,
‘Cause baby, names can’t cramp my style.”
How does a girl who was born Mary Christine Brockert, raised in Santa Monica, Calif., and once reportedly starred in a high school production of “The Music Man,” transcend race without offending everyone?
In Marie’s case, it may just have been about honoring the source material and representing it in bits and pieces.
In the same song, she points out:
“You know I love spirituals and rock,
Sarah Vaughan, Johann Sebastian Bach,
Shakespeare, Maya Angelou,
And Nikki Giovanni just to name a few.”
Later, she added to that list of influences. Bob Marley, John Lennon, Jesus Christ, Lauryn Hill, Chaka Kahn, Stevie Wonder, Aaliyah and Mitchell herself all got credit in 2004’s “Makavelli Never Lied.” You could hear each of them in either the words or the beats.
There are major biographical notes that define Teena Marie’s career. That first mysterious album, which spawned the hit “I’m a Sucker for Your Love” but failed to present a photo of its singer; a trick meant to hide her race from African-American record buyers. There was her successful suit against Motown three years later, a move that got her out of a restrictive contract and established the “Brockert Initiative,” a precedent that still keeps controlling labels in check.
There was the notorious affair with James. There was that big-time move to Epic records, which resulted in her grandest hit, “Lovergirl.” There was that late career comeback on popular hip hop label Cash Money Records, which restored her earthy cred. There was a daughter, Alia Rose, now 19 and performing under the name Rose Le Beau.
But Marie’s star had limits, and there are reasons for that. Career-wise, she always seemed to be winging it, and she indulged herself in a style of vocal histrionics that turned off some listeners. She was a whiner, and enough of her syllabic assaults could be enough.
White audiences came and went. She was never a media darling or a Grammy winner. And while black radio and audiences embraced her, she was not quite the “Ivory Queen of Soul” the week’s obits trumpeted her as.
That fickle following was reflected in the way her music charted. Her breakthrough LP, “Wild and Peaceful” went to No. 18 on the Black Albums chart, but barely broke the top 100 on the broader (and whiter) Albums chart. Conversely, “Lovergirl” made it to No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. But the album that spawned it, “Starchild,” reached only No. 9 on the Black Albums chart. Whose Teena Marie was she?
The answer: She was her own. She ran the show, the music, the image, all of it. Late in her career, like a lot of musicians, social networking allowed her to free herself of media gatekeepers and reach fans directly. She did that frantically, freely handing out her likes and loves. She posted 30 times alone on Dec. 23.
Of course, a smattering of late-career Tweets don’t say it all. They don’t note that she was laying the groundwork for hip hop years before Roxanne Shante, Queen Latifah or Salt-N-Pepa made their splash, more than a decade before Missy Elliot got any respect.
But they do add a personal touch to the story. In the posts leading up to her last one on Christmas Day, Marie offers props to the Temptations, the Dells, Sarah Vaughan.
Her 140-character messages offered a pass into another world, an old-school world. Teena Marie’s world.
Ray Mark Rinaldi is the Entertainment editor at The Denver Post and a regular contributor to Reverb.