Lady T. Vanilla Child. The Ivory Queen of Soul. She may have possessed many nicknames, but there was only one R&B diva: Teena Marie. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Marie scored numerous soul hits and one massive crossover success, and even helped pave the way for modern hip hop. She passed away from apparently natural causes on December 26, but her musical legacy will endure.
Since the news of her untimely death broke in the media, obituaries have focused mainly on one unique characteristic: she was one of the few white artists to achieve great success in R&B. In fact, Marie achieved more fame in soul music than in pop, a then-rarity for white performers. Indeed, Marie became one of the first white artists to sign with Motown, and her debut album, Wild and Peaceful (1979) featured a landscape painting rather than Marie's picture. Apparently Berry Gordy feared African-American audiences would not buy an R&B album produced by a white artist. Exactly the opposite occurred, however, with African-American fans embracing her gospel-inflected voice and ability to ride a groove. While these are impressive achievements, it is her voice and superior songwriting ability that exemplify her true talent.
Raised in west Los Angeles, Marie formed an early love for R&B through her godmother. While she developed her vocal abilities, she also performed as a child actor, most notably on the Beverly Hillbillies TV show. Abandoning her acting career, she focused on music full-time, eventually signing with Motown in 1976. While she recorded material with various producers, none of these sessions were released. Her life changed when she met her future mentor and boyfriend, funk singer Rick James. Enchanted with her voice, James wrote and produced her debut album, 1979's Wild and Peaceful, which spawned her hit duet with James, "I'm A Sucker for Your Love." Her pitch-perfect voice perfectly complemented James' hard-funk vocals, proving she was every inch his equal. Reaching number eight on Billboard's R&B Singles chart, the song served as a launching point for Marie's skyrocketing career.
By 1980's Lady T, Motown felt secure enough to feature Marie's picture on the album cover. While audiences may have been initially surprised by her appearance, her ability to confidently sing over hard grooves — most notably on "Behind the Groove," an R&B classic — won over listeners. Her third disc, Irons in the Fire, showed Marie taking complete control over her music, writing and producing most of her own material. This proved to be a smart move, as "I Need Your Lovin'" reached number nine on Billboard's R&B Singles chart and cracked the Billboard Hot 100 at number 37. Marie's hot streak continued with another James duet, "Fire and Desire," which demonstrated her ability to convincingly sing heart-rending ballads as well as funk tracks.