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.
Her next album, 1981’s It Must Be Magic, showcased her ever-evolving writing and singing skills as well as her willingness to try different genres. “Portuguese Love,” a gorgeous ballad, seamlessly blends soul with just a touch of Brazilian rhythm. An almost eight-minute opus, the song’s centerpiece is Marie’s pitch-perfect, emotional vocal performance as well as beautiful chord changes. Not neglecting her funk roots, she delivered with “Square Biz,” a hard-driving track that features Marie’s swaggering singing style. Interestingly, the song also helped introduce hip hop to a broader audience, as Marie’s middle rap showed how soul and rap could combine to form danceable music.
However, success came with difficulties. Her battles with Motown over unpaid royalties resulted in 1982’s Brockert Initiative, also known as the Teena Marie Law. Essentially the law forbids record companies from keeping an artist under contract while refusing to release that artist’s material. Therefore artists may sign with another label without being held hostage by their previous record company. Marie’s countersuit made it very difficult for record companies to hold artists under exclusive contracts, and it helped change the recording industry.
After leaving Motown, she joined Epic, later releasing her most successful album, 1984’s Starchild. The project served as Marie’s crossover project, finally earning her broader respect with the funk-pop single “Lovergirl.” Its bass-driven beat and Marie’s enthusiastic vocals propelled the single to number four on Billboard’s Top 100. Four years later she released another R&B classic, “Ooo La La La,” which The Fugees later sampled on their song “Fu-Gee-La.”
After her final album for Epic, 1990’s Ivory, she took a 14-year break from the music business, resurfacing in 2004 with La Doña. Proving that her core audience had not forgotten her, the album’s first single “I’m in Love” earned contemporary black radio airplay, culminating in a 2005 Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. Despite the hiatus, Marie’s voice remained virtually identical to her 1979 sound, yet she handled hip-hop beats with grace and style. Her final album, 2009’s Congo Square, was a love letter to her musical roots and most loyal listener base, with songs such as “Harlem Blues,” “Black Cool,” and “Miss Coretta,” an ode to Coretta Scott King. Fans such as Faith Evans, MC Lyte, Howard Hewitt, George Duke, and Shirley Murdock joined her on various tracks, with Marie’s distinctive, emotive voice standing out on each duet.
Sadly, the music world will never know where Marie would have traveled next. After experimenting with jazz and New Orleans-style music on her last album, what other genres would she have explored? As in her life and career, Marie transcended musical and cultural barriers, and most likely would have continued doing so. If she is remembered for one thing, it should be this: great music is not about color or gender, but is simply about touching audiences with sheer talent. Though her passionate voice and meaningful lyrics, Marie will always embody the definition of great music.
The following list is a guide to some of Marie’s greatest and most essential tracks; many of these songs can also be found on greatest hits collections such as the Ultimate Collection. For more information on Marie’s life, read the New York Times’ and NPR’s tributes, as well as AllMusic’s Teena Marie page.
- “I’m A Sucker for Your Love” (with Rick James) (Wild and Peaceful, 1979)
- “Déjà Vu (I’ve Been Here Before)” (Wild and Peaceful, 1979)
- “Behind the Groove” (Lady T, 1980)
- “Irons in the Fire” (Irons in the Fire, 1980)
- “I Need Your Lovin”‘ (Irons in the Fire, 1980)
- “Young Love” (Irons in the Fire, 1980)
- “Fire and Desire” (with Rick James) (Street Songs, Rick James, 1981)
- “Portuguese Love” (It Must be Magic, 1981)
- “It Must be Magic” (It Must be Magic, 1981)
- “Square Biz” (It Must be Magic, 1981)
- “Casanova Brown” (Robbery, 1983)
- “Lovergirl” (Starchild, 1984)
- “Out on A Limb” (Starchild, 1984)
- “Ooo La La La” (Naked to the World, 1988)
- “If I Were A Bell” (Ivory, 1990)
- “Just Us Two” (Ivory, 1990)
- “I’m Still in Love” (La Doña, 2004)
- “The Way You Love Me” (Sapphire, 2006)
- “You Baby” (Congo Square, 2009)
- :The Rose ‘N Thorn” (Congo Square, 2009)
- “Baby I Love You” (Congo Square, 2009)
- “The Pressure” (with MC Lyte) (Congo Square, 2009)