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Monday, December 27, 2010

Teena Marie: A Tribute Behind the Groove

“She’s just light-skinned.”
“Nah, she’s Puerto Rican. See all that curly hair? And it’s long!”
“She’s Portuguese!”
“Yeah, you know her song, ‘Portuguese Love.’ She’s Portuguese.”
“Maybe she’s white.”

Gasps were audible, the silliness of such a thought.
“No white girl sings like that!”
Heads would nod in clear affirmation.
“I mean, she can sang!”
So went the childhood debates that echoed adult ones circa 1980-81 about the petite powerhouse known as Teena Marie. To her fans, she was simply Lady T, the woman that delivered note after soulful note on the radio, at Philadelphia’s Robin Hood Dell East, at the famed Budweiser Superfests. She kept the irons in the fire. She was a sucker for your love. She told you like it is, square biz.

For those of us of a certain age, it’s hard to remember radio pre-Teena Marie.

Sure, there had been “soulful” white artists before, and in the years since. But it wasn’t so much the novelty of her ethnicity that fascinated fans but the sheer magnitude and depth of her voice. That talent to dig deep and emote in an authentic way endeared her to countless men and women. Coupled with brilliant arrangements and instrumentation – who can forget the call for a saxophone on “Aladdin’s Lamp”? – Teena Marie clarified what musicianship could and should be in the pop world. She was on par with the likes of Patti LaBelle and Chaka Khan, as a funky force of nature devoted to both rhythm and the rhyme. Mary Christine Brockert she was born, but Teena Marie was how the California native lived.

Sassy like Sarah, earthy like Etta, lyrical like Linda, she was a talent that offered a reflection and a refraction of rainbow influences.

An icon of the ‘80s, she stayed consistent in her delivery and relevant in her music far beyond, seen in recent tracks with Faith Evans and signing with a most unlikely house, hip-hop label Cash Money Records. For her it was less of about taking chances and more about going where the music led her.

Sometimes those places were a bit darker. Her torrid romance with one-time-mentor-all-the-time-proclaimed-freak Rick James was a side show worthy of wagging tongues in a pre-TMZ era. And her ultimate battle with, and triumph, over a record label, especially one as storied as Motown, ushered in a new type of artistic freedom, a tale overshadowed only in later years by the epic saga of Prince vs. Warner Bros.

Yes, the airwaves may be dominated more today by the likes of Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys, but even those superstars knew how to trace the roots of their inspiration, evident in the tributes they paid to her.  It’s almost apropos that their words, much like those of rock star Lenny Kravitz and the incomparable DJ jazzy Jeff, have dominated social media in the past 48 hours. Be it Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, first the whispers, then the confirmations, then the tributes cropped up, like wildflowers after a spring rain. These were the same outlets she jokingly said she was mastering. In fact, her missing Tweets were a signal to some that something was amiss. The news spread in minutes. The heartache among fans lingers longer.

The close of a year often brings losses and times of transition. In a year that has seen the departure of legends such as Lena Horne and Abbey Lincoln, it is sad to see music lose yet another cherished voice. With a baker’s dozen of albums, Teena Marie established herself as a contemporary classic, a standard for quiet storm as well as up-tempo old-school formats of R&B programming.

Her voice, pitch clear and emotionally perfect, may remain frozen in time there and on iTunes, but summer concert series in R&B-loving outposts like Philly and elsewhere will never be the same.


  1. ...summer concert series in R&B-loving outposts like Philly and elsewhere will never be the same...

    She was a force and will be dearly missed.

  2. She loved Philly, Philly loved her back. Beautifully written by one of us. Thank you Nia.

  3. Even though it's 2011, I miss Teen Marie so much. Any of you who were born in the 70s and earlier know who Lady T is. I'm from Philly, and I can tell you that Philly loves Teena Marie. I remember being a preschooler in 1980, and all I heard in my mother's house was either Teena Marie, Patti Labelle, Teddy Pendergrass, or The Isley Brothers. She was the soundtrack of my childhood from 3 years old to 33 years old in 2010. I remember seeing her at the Dell East for the first time in the summer of 2003. She was dynamic in that show. In 2004, my boyfriend and I went to see her at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby. In 2005, I went to see her at Unity Day. Sadly, it was the last time I saw her in person alive. I'm still mourning right now.

    RIP Teena Marie.

  4. Nicole,

    That was such a lovely tribute, and sums up so many of our feelings about Lady T.

  5. Tempestuous!!! Brown Girl. I am really feeling this..We will miss Lady T. her Genius and Creative Gifts.Here in Philadelphia we "feel" our Music & Treasure it...Nia! You said it all!
    ,Thank You,Aanya