January 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
Teena Marie ( March 5 1956 – December 26 2010)
Teena Marie, who died of as yet unexplained (though apparently natural) causes over the Christmas holidays, is probably the only example of a white soul singer who never crossed over to a white audience. Her whole thirty year career took place entirely within the black music industry: a protégé of Rick James, she recorded her first album for Motown in 1979, and her latest for a revived Stax in 2009, following a stint with Master P’s Cash Money records.
She came from Los Angeles, and her music resembled the kind of thing Joni Mitchell might have made if she’d grown up on soul and funk rather than folk. Her first album was produced by Rick James, briefly also her lover, her second by Minnie Riperton’s widower, Richard Rudolph. After that, though, she produced, wrote and arranged her own records: pretty much unprecedented stuff for a woman working in any genre, let alone commercial soul. She had a handful of dance hits – Behind The Groove, I’m a Sucker For Your Love and Square Biz (with a proto-rap) – but the songs that really cemented her reputation, and made her one of the absolute darlings of the eighties UK soul scene, were the ballads, the Rick James duet Fire And Desire, Out On A Limb and, above all, the anthemic Portuguese Love, a one song resume of everything that was great and cheesy and over-the-top and heartfelt about eighties soul.
Back in the eighties I used to listen to a lot of soul music, Maze, Luther, Anita Baker, that kind of thing, and I used to go to the live shows, mostly at the Hammersmith Odeon, saw Maze, Luther and Anita there, saw Bobby Womack and Patti Labelle, saw Mtume, the Whispers, Atlantic Starr, etc, etc. The crowds at the shows were invariably great: mixed black and white folks who worked in shops and offices mostly, enjoying the beginnings of the eighties boom, young Londoners all.
Then, around the turn of the decade, I lost interest, being a fickle kind of music lover, and soul having been swamped by melisma-crazed Whitney wannabes. A couple of years later, though, sometime in 1992, I went back to the Apollo for one last soul show: Teena Marie.
The audience, like me, was a little older now, family people burdened with bills and childcare, their clothes not as brand new as they would have been a half decade earlier, but determined to have a good time. It was a predominantly black crowd, though still very mixed, and the love for the woman onstage was unmistakeable.
It wasn’t about her looks, she was a small, unremarkable looking woman in her mid-thirties, sporting a lot of frizzy hair and an inadvisable jumpsuit. It was most certainly about the music. She played the hits – both the chart ones and the cult ones – and the band was on it, while her voice was on top form (like a nasal, more in tune, more deliberately funky, Laura Nyro). But more than that it was about her absolute dedication to a vision of soul music as both a vehicle for self-expression and a communal rite. And this was the perfect audience for her. In the USA, beloved as she was by the black music audience, she was always an exception to the rule, the token white girl. In the newly confident mixed-race London of the early nineties, she provided both an inspiration (a heroine, no doubt, to all the bleached-blonde London girls with black partners who’d turned out to cheer her to the rafters) and, more than that, a celebration of the new world we were making.
And now she’s gone: cut off long before her time and in the midst of a renewed burst of creativity. Teena Marie was a product of her times – a contemporary of Obama, for whom she wrote a song, Black Cool, on her final album, Congo Square – and if neither the world nor its music is as segregated it used to be, then she deserves to be remembered for her part in changing them both.
Here are a few classic clips
Portuguese Love –
Fire And Desire
Touching tribute from Lenny Kravitz, filmed on his iphone