On Teena's rich, story-packed 2004 release, La Dona the biggest hit of her four decades in the music business she and Rick were reunited on 'I Got You,' which they also wrote together. "There are no words to describe how much I love you," she declared to her mentor in the liner notes, "but I will say it sho' was fun being back in the studio with you.
The tragedy lies in the premature passing of both: Rick James on August 6, 2004 at age 56, and Teena Marie on December 26, 2010 at age 54.
None of this was preordained when she was born Mary Christine Brockert on March 5, 1956. Hers was a meandering path into music, by way of an extrovert personality, a tap-dancing cameo in an episode of hit American TV series, The Beverly Hillbillies, and a prospective part in a Motown Productions movie, The Innkeeper, when she was a teenager. That film never made it to the big screen, but Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. thought enough of Teena to call her "a discovery of mine... a young, white, talented singer" in his autobiography, To Be Loved.
However that compliment came about, seasoned Motown producer Hal Davis appears to have been the first to glimpse diminutive Teena's talent. After a stint in a group called Entourage, she signed solo to the record company and was paired with Ronnie McNeir, an artist on Motown affiliate label, Prodigal. "God painted her black all up and down her throat," McNeir wrote in accompanying notes for 2011's First Class Love: Rare Tee, a revealing compilation of her earliest Motown sides.
Other producers - Winston Monseque, Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise - also worked with Teena then, but nothing was released. "I left the company," recalled McNeir, "and two years later, Rick James came in and saw the same thing." That is, extraordinary pipes in a tiny frame. In his autobiography, Memoirs Of A Super Freak, Rick declared, "Never in my life had I heard such a range with so much passion in a white voice."
He also heard that she was running out of road, since more than $400,000 had been expended in studio time, with nothing considered fit enough for release. "I was amazed at how Motown could spend so much without getting at least one tune out of it," said Rick. "In any case, I finished a bunch of tunes for Teena." Rick thought writing for her was easy: "The songs just seemed to come."
They included 'Deja Vu (I've Been Here Before),' a power-drama about reincarnation, and a jazzy flavoured number co-composed by Teena herself, called 'I'm Gonna Have My Cake (And Eat It Too).' Rick cut the latter with bandmate Oscar Alston on upright bass, and he "hired some old jazz cats for real jazz flavour and authenticity." Drummer Earl Palmer Sr., the Dean of New Orleans musicians, was among them.
Another highspot was 'I'm A Sucker For Your Love,' originally authored as a duet for Rick and Ross - Diana, that is. James never got to make it with the Supreme Queen of Motown, but the tune was a perfect fit for Teena. Indeed, all his material, musical chops and boundless self-confidence proved ideal for the youngster, and the result was finally her debut album, issued in March 1979 on Motown's Gordy label.
Wild and Peaceful crackled and jolted with the funk: Rick's quartet of songs, plus Teena's 'Cake' and a savvy remake of 'Don't Look Back,' first cut by the Temptations. "When she sang, I had to punch her in and out in other words, when she sang, I had to stop and start the tape to get her to sing the song correctly." The reason, James said, "was to teach her how not to use all her vocal licks at the top of a song, and how to wait 'till she got into the tune before she used all her hip tricks."
When used, the hip tricks sure happened. As the album's first single, 'I'm A Sucker For Your Love' exploded into the Top Ten of Billboard's R&B charts, setting up Lady T for a bright future. "We deliberately didn't put her picture on the album cover," said James, "because we wanted to confuse people, and make them wonder whether Teena was black or white." The six-song spent six months on the charts.
Left in the can from those sessions was 'Every Little Bit Hurts,' a 1964 hit for an earlier West Coast singer at Motown, Brenda Holloway, who was also discovered by producer Hal Davis. Teena torched the sensuous ballad twice, once with Rick's guest vocals (a version heard on the 2005 expanded edition of Wild and Peaceful) and once without (on 1994's I Need Your Lovin': The Very Best of Teena Marie).
The sales of Wild and Peaceful encouraged Motown and Teena to tap producer Richard Rudolph for its follow-up, Lady T. He was husband to another extraordinarily talented young singer, Minnie Riperton, who was seriously ill as he was making the album, and to whom he dedicated it after her death in 1979.
Teena's growth as an artist became evident: she co-produced Lady Tand wrote most of it, including 'Behind The Groove' with Rudolph, and another song with Jill Jones, later to become part of Prince's entourage. This was the offspring of Winnie Jones, partner of Fuller Gordy, brother of the Motown chairman. "Teena had been kicked out of her mother's house in Venice for hanging with black people," recalled Rick James, "and Winnie and Fuller took her in. She was like their daughter." The Gordy family connection had also allowed Teena to place her song 'Happiness' on the 1979 Motown album by Apollo, produced by Berry's second wife, Raynoma Singleton.
ady Toutcharted Teena's debut, allowing her the luxury of writing, recording and producing all of her third project, Irons In The Fire. As writer Brian Chin noted in the album's later reissue as an expanded edition, its locomotive lead track, 'I Need Your Lovin',' became an instant signature song for Teena - and also a highlight when she, Rick James and his Stone City Band triumphed together in concert at the Long Beach Arena in the summer of 1981. Four songs from that July 30-31 shindig can be found on the expanded version of Irons In The Fire, including a take on Donny Hathaway's 'Someday We'll All Be Free.'
Teena Marie's menagerie at Motown with Hal, Winnie, Jill and Rick among others - helped the girl make good, even though her time there ended in litigation and a switch to Epic Records. There, she essayed her first crossover pop smash, 'Lovergirl,' as well as another duet with Rick James, a tribute to one of her heroes ('My Dear Mr. Gaye') and 'Ooo La La La,' a song famously sampled by the Fugees. Not to mention '14K' on the soundtrack of a Hollywood extravaganza, The Goonies, executive-produced by none other than Steven Spielberg. Lady T certainly had arrived.
Teena took time off during the 1990s, not least to give birth to daughter Alia Rose, but made a right-on return in the 21st century via Ca$h Money Classics, a subsidiary of New Orleans hiphop entity Ca$h Money Records. This was La Dona, an R&B-cum-hiphop petri dish with a raft of the singer's freshest riffs and raps, and quite a cast of characters, including Common, Gerald Levert, MC Lyte, Alia Rose and, of course, Rick James. "They call me La Dona, and I sing like a thunder," she declared, in case anyone was in doubt.
Teena's 2009 release, Congo Square, was equally guest-populated: Shirley Murdock, George Duke, Howard Hewett, Faith Evans and, again, Alia Rose (under her stage name, Rose Le Beau) and MC Lyte. Duke, Gerald Albright and Smokey Robinson materialised on her next album, Sapphire, which also saw Lady T working again with Allen McGrier, co-producer of 1988's 'Ooo La La La' and co-writer of 1981's hiphop-suffused 'Square Biz.'
Two years before she died, as if philosophical about her fate, Teena Marie was gracious about the man whose record company discovered and launched her the Ivory Queen of Soul. "No one ever understood me quite the way Mr. Gordy did," she said. "People are, 'Why aren't you bitter?' Bitter? I have a great life. Yeah, I lost a little money at first, but he has a lot of respect for me."
Given who "he" is, that's quite an epitaph.
"We deliberately didn't put her picture on the album cover, because we wanted to confuse people and make them wonder whether Teena was black or white." Rick James
For the recording of her follow-up to Wild and Peaceful, Teena Marie linked with songwriter and producer Richard Rudolph, who had just lost his wife and musical collaborator, the great Minnie Riperton, to breast cancer. Lady T smoothly picks up where Teena’s Rick James-produced debut left off. It’s also something like an organic extension of Riperton’s final proper album, Minnie, also released in 1979; Rudolph co-write one-third of the songs and brought in some of Riperton’s studio associates, including Jerry Hey's Seawind Horns. Though Teena’s creative identity was established on the debut, Riperton’s spirit flows throughout the album. Ironically, it’s the wholly-Teena-penned “Aladdin’s Lamp” that most resembles Riperton, from the wistful, romantic lyrics to the vocal arrangement, weaving background “ba-ba-ba”s and “la-la-la”s that recall the supernatural singer's early work with Rotary Connection.
It’s among a few songs here that one could easily imagine being sung by Riperton. There were only two charting singles: the minor hit “Can It Be Love,” a gentle ballad, and the Top Five club single “Behind the Groove,” a smacking disco-funk jam. Even so, some of the deeper album cuts, especially “Now That I Have You” -- all dreamy, blissed-out acoustic soul -- rival the best of Wild and Peaceful. The album’s presentation, including a glamorous shot on the front and a tomboy shot on the back, strikingly contrasts with that of the mysterious debut. For those who had not caught Teena’s 1979 Soul Train performance, it must have come as a shock to see this sleeve and realize that the music was flowing out of a white body. In more ways than one, Teena had fully arrived, and she struck again in a matter of six months.
Words - Andy Kellman
“Behind the Groove” was still on the charts when Teena Marie struck again with “I Need Your Lovin’,” a seemingly weightless but potent dancefloor number that eventually eclipsed the success of its predecessor. Like everything else on Irons in the Fire, released six months following Lady T, the song -- the most joyous R&B single of 1980, tied with Patrice Rushen's “Haven’t You Heard” -- was written, arranged, and produced by Teena. She proved that she could not only handle everything but excel creatively and sell some records. This was T’s first Top Ten R&B album, and it crossed into the Top 40 of the Billboard 200. “I Need Your Lovin’” was a major reason for the success, playing the same role as Wild and Peaceful's “I’m a Sucker for Your Love” and Lady T's “Behind the Groove” by leading off the album with tremendous positive energy. The song was so big that it overshadowed the set’s other upbeat songs.
“First Class Love” was dusted off from the mid-‘70s demo pile and given a forceful rock edge, and it acted like a warning flare for one of her biggest crossover hits, 1984’s “Lover Girl.” “Chains,” spotlighting fellow Motown act Ozone (a band Teena produced the following year) with call-and-response vocals and instrumental flash to spare, as well as the gorgeously Latin-flavored “You Make Love Like Springtime,” should not be discounted, either. Once again, transportive ballads -- highlighted by “Young Love” -- are a key attraction, boasting a few more subtle sonic twists than Teena’s previous slow material. Her athletic voice is so alluring that one can see past perfumed-meadow-of-the-mind meanderings like “Here I am, your Piscean holocaust/Born in Venice Harlem, it’s so sweet, the sour sauce.”
Words - Andy Kellman
First Class Love: Rare Tee, a double-disc compilation of previously unreleased recordings, could be seen as a way to cash in on the tragic, early passing of Teena Marie. It could also be viewed a way for Motown and Hip-O Select to capitalize on Teena’s unremitting popularity; from 2004-2009, Teena released three Top Five R&B albums for different labels. However, Lady T, as documented in Brian Chin's liner notes, “proclaimed the music a gift to her long-standing fans.” Just as critical, no shortcuts were taken with the packaging. There are extensive quotes from those who were part of Teena’s personal and professional lives during her protracted incubation process with Motown, along with several archival photos (including a couple where she looks like a folk artist, nothing like a budding funk queen).
A handful of these 26 tracks were scattered on compilations and reissues. The majority of them will be brand new to the hardcore fans. An album’s worth of material recorded in 1976 with Ronnie McNeir leads off disc one. These sessions featured Funkadelic’s Billy Nelson (bass) and top-tier session musicians Ray Parker, Jr. (guitar) and Ollie Brown (drums), with McNeir playing his typically lively keyboards while providing background and duet vocals. Certainly not developed as the material Wild and Peaceful, these songs nonetheless could have made for a decent release on Motown subsidiary Prodigal, where McNeir released a 1975 LP.
What’s remarkable is how Teena had that voice, even at the age of 20. There are two songs from a later 1976 session with Winston Monseque, who produced Tata Vega's Full Speed Ahead (1976), an album featuring a song co-written by Teena. These are decent, self-written funk grooves that point toward “Behind the Groove” and “Square Biz”; “White Soul” even pays respects to her inspirations a la the rap in the latter. A four-song 1977 session with Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise (Gladys Knight & the Pips, Kiss) yields “Why Can’t I Get Next to You,” an elegant, laid-back number that could have been a minor hit. Four McNeir remixes, put together in 1983 for a shelved project, incorporates drum-machine overdubs and sound chintzy compared to the muscularity of Robbery, Teena’s 1983 album for Epic. Disc two consists of an eight-song acoustic demo session produced by Berry Gordy. If anything, these raw versions -- just Teena and her guitar -- make it apparent that she could have laid down a spectacular career-spanning Unplugged-type release.
Words- Andy Kellman
The last of Teena Marie's four albums for Motown, It Must Be Magic found the songstress continuing to do all of her own writing, producing, and arranging, with magnificent results. Irons in the Fire proved that she didn't need the input of a big-name producer in order to deliver first-class albums, and Marie provided additional evidence of that fact on an album that offered such gems as the playful "Square Biz" (one of her biggest hits, and an early example of an R&B artist incorporating rap), the thought-provoking "Revolution" (inspired by the assassination of John Lennon and filled with references to the Beatles), and the gritty title song. Marie has periodically shown a strong love of jazz, which is exactly what happens on the ballad "Yes Indeed" and the sexy "Portuguese Love." It Must Be Magic was Marie's highest-charting album in the pop market, and thanks to a largely black following, the gold-seller just missed topping the R&B charts.
Words - Alex Henderson & William Ruhlmann
Congo Square is the thirteenth studio album by American singer–songwriter Teena Marie. Released in the United States on June 9, 2009, it would be the final album released before her death in late December 2010. The album features collaborations with Teena Marie's daughter Alia Rose—who records under the name of Rose LeBeau—and rapper MC Lyte, as well as Faith Evans, George Duke and Shirley Murdock.
Teena Marie's Sapphire -- named after a nickname given to her by onetime partner and late funk legend Rick James -- doesn't sound like the work of a 50-year-old artist. While 2004's La Dona, Marie's first commercially released album since 1990, hardly sounded like the work of a 48-year-old artist, it's clear that she was only getting started (again). As with La Dona, there's the odd verse where Marie sounds like she's trying too hard to be hip. Longtime fans might also be a little surprised to hear Marie more sexed-up than ever, but any faults or jarring traits are canceled out by the supreme excellence of Marie's voice and the quality of the songs she has written and produced. (She gets some assistance, along with some guest spots from Smokey Robinson, George Duke, Gerald Albright, Kurupt, and daughter Alia Rose, but she calls the shots here as much as she did on any of her albums since Wild and Peaceful.)
This is another very long album that never runs out of ideas, with plenty of room for some of her classiest throwback ballads and her most up-to-date, colorful jams. Though some of the songs might be skippable -- it all depends on the mood of the listener -- there's no more meandering here than on any of Marie's half-as-long albums. There's a handful of particularly commanding songs to get stuck on. "Cruise Control," with Smokey Robinson, gets the album going and is pitched brilliantly between Marvin Gaye's "After the Dance" and Robinson's own "Cruisin'." "Make It Hot" bounces and struts with as much irresistible playfulness as "It Must Be Magic" or "Square Biz." "You Blow Me Away," a heartbreaking ballad, references "You and I," "Fire and Desire," and makes its subject completely clear at the very end: "I love you, Rick -- there, I've gone and said it." The greatest knockout of all is "Love Is a Gangsta," a fresh, dynamite acknowledgment of prime Dr. Dre-generated G-funk, with whining synths, sinewy wah-wah guitar, and layered vocal hooks that might make Nate Dogg keel over. Marie is her bad-ass best on this song, and her shout to Pam Grier is extremely apt. Why? Because Sapphire is her Jackie Brown.
Words - Andy Kellman
Several overdue reissues and the archival First Class Love were released within a couple years of Teena Marie's passing. A bigger surprise came in January 2013, when UMe issued this, the artist's 14th and final studio album. Its recording had been completed prior to Lady T's death; proud daughter Alia Rose, a singer and MC who appeared on La Dona, Sapphire, and Congo Square, saw it through the mixing and mastering process. As Teena did on those fine 2000s albums, she weaves her exceptional songwriting skills with instrumentation that is both organic and synthetic, complementing her own playing and programming with input from several longtime instrumentalists. Likewise, she celebrates her inspirations in explicit and subtle fashions.
The first song and lead single, "Luv Letter," pays tribute to her Motown roots and cleverly references her daughter's father with nods to "Please Mr. Postman" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." A Curtis Mayfield cover, "Give Me Your Love," one of two songs featuring Alia, glistens and most resembles the Barbara Mason version. Elsewhere, Teena quotes Barry White and the Stylistics, as well as herself, and even references A Tribe Called Quest. She does this while remaining utterly contemporary, as if modern R&B production moved her, as if revisiting her classic past sounds was never considered. There's a wide range of material, but the plush and yearning ballads -- "Love Starved," "The Long Play," "Carte Blanche," and the "Shadow Boxing"-alluding "Definition of Down" -- resonate the most. No other artist combined such strong streetwise attitude with disarming warmth. She did it from start to finish.
Words - Andy Kellman