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Appreciating Teena Marie: 'The Ivory Queen of Soul' made R&B colorless

It’s impossible to lend an ear to today’s crop of R&B divas without hearing just a little bit of Teena Marie. 

Though she never had the blockbuster commercial success or universal household appeal of some of her peers (Patti Labelle, Anita Baker and Whitney Houston quickly come to mind), Marie -- who died Sunday at age 54 -- left a perhaps more important, and lasting, contribution to R&B than record sales: She made the genre colorless.

Venturing through the self-proclaimed Ivory Queen of Soul’s back catalog, it’s easy to see how everyone from Mary J. Blige to  Faith Evans to Alicia Keys got some of their groove. However, Marie’s career was forever highlighted by the fact that she was a white woman singing historically black music -- something that doesn’t even remotely warrant a second guess in today’s landscape of artists of every race tackling any genre and gaining success.

But Marie was always different. Though she never catapulted into the more bankable pop world, she broke ground. 

After the Santa Monica-born songstress got her big break at Motown Records in the late '70s, she rode a wave of hits -- "Lovergirl," "I'm a Sucker for Your Love" "Ooh La La La" and "Square Biz" are all required listening -- and Marie was a girl whose debut album, “Wild and Peaceful,” famously opted not to include a photo of her on the cover, out of fear that R&B listeners might not buy or accept her because of her race.

Marie did what at the time was thought to be the impossible: crossing over to black radio and retail stores -- and staying there. She could have easily  become a novelty act because of her color, but she didn’t. 

And how could she?

Whether you were slow dancing to “Fire and Desire” (a simmering duet with her mentor and frequent collaborator, the late Rick James) in the '80s or a kid digging through their parent's album collection and discovering the upbeat frenzy of “Square Biz,” Lady T found her way into the hearts of every R&B fan.

Unlike some rap purists who downplayed Eminem as he was rising, Marie made it impossible to question her authenticity. She sang with such passion, conviction and blues that she was often labeled “a black girl trapped in a white woman’s body.” Her extensive catalog is pure R&B, though the girl had funk --  watching her behind the rhythm guitar, keyboards or percussion, she had the swagger of the big boys, including James. But she was all her own.

Her showmanship -- the way she worked the stage with that big brazen hair, seductive dance moves and that voice -- erased any naysayers who might have said that whites couldn’t sing soul.

The Times obituary of Marie mentions a 1981 performance at the Long Beach Arena that seemed to define her standing: "A tiny young woman with a powerful voice, Marie is a terrific singer and, quite frankly, better than nearly all her black competitors."

Current soulful acts such as Amy Winehouse, Adele, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke might cite James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson as inspirations into the world of rhythm and blues, but had Marie not crossed over, R&B might not be the embracing, ever-evolving genre that it is today. 

In a 1980 interview with The Times, Marie talked at length about how some listeners refused to believe she was white. 

"I tell them I'm white, but they think I'm black and I'm trying to pass for white.... This is white skin. I'm not trying to fool anybody.

"I'm a different kind of person. Blacks and whites don't really react in any special way to me. I don't get anything negative from blacks and not really anything negative from whites now. But I will say it was different before I started getting some popularity. I don't think it was prejudice from whites as much as ignorance of something they didn't know much about. You know, I wish I was colorless sometimes."

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy


Photo: Teena Marie performs  at L.A.'s Beverly Theater on March 8, 1985. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (34)

''tiny woman w/a powerful voice'' is pretty accurate description of her. I amazed at her small frame myself when I once saw her standing next to a few people at least 5'2''. Anyway, a great, great that marks a certain time in pop music history and will be sorely missed.

Teena, you really molded my musical feelings durng my first year at college; SIU in Carbondale. "Young Love" helped me to leave my first mental attraction with a man. I will never forget the words of that powerful song or Irons in the Fire. Forever the "Ivory Queen of Soul."

Talking about eternity...Teena Marie your lyrics will live on forever & ever...etc...etc...You never lied!All of the women in my family lived through you!May you rest in peace with your Creator. I give thanks that He shared you with all of us Lady T!!!! Simply beautiful, West Coast's Finest!!!

"Current soulful acts such as Amy Winehouse, Adele,Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake" Are you sure? this is for the pop-audience/teeny-boppers, not urban crowd. It's funny how the La Times don't do enough research. You don't have to be experts at something to get some basic facts.

Legitimate soulful acts by white artists are like Average White Band, Teena Marie (obviously), and Lisa Stansfield.

I hope the Times is delivered to the doorstep of the hereafter so TM can read these kind words.

I will always luv her and her music.. Teena Marie is the one and only "Ivory Queen of RnB Soul". There will never be another like her. And lest not forget the first lady of RAP..R.I.P Lady Tee.

She was awesome, RIP


Not 'colorless', but filled with bright, creative, vivid color.

"Colorless" is really a rather unfortunate choice of wording here. You make it sound like her music was colorless, when it was in fact anything but. Learn to use a thesaurus and find a better word -- "color-blind," "color-free," anything but "colorless."

While attending Venice High, she hung out in Dodge, or Ghost Town (as the predominantly black area of Venice was known in the vernacular of the time). There was nothing disingenuous about her. No pretense at all. She was as authentic as they come. Man, she will be missed.

Some need to understand what they read and not try to read between the line for a meaning that is not there.

""She made the 'genre' colorless.""

I was around 13 years old when I remember first hearing Teena's "DeJaVu", and I became an instant fan. I'm 43 now and have had Teena in my life for the past 30 years! She is like family to me. Her music has helped gotten me through some of the toughest and happiest times of my life. My musical collection may never grow any larger with her passing (as well as Luther Vanrdoss and Phyllis Hyman). My prayers go out to her 19 year old daughter Alia Rose, may your mother's vibrant spirit shine through you everyday of your life! Rest In Peace Teena, you will definitely be missed!

Tricia: You may be right now, but there was a time when a white person singing soul was considered a thief.

And "The Source", don't forget Rare Earth, who where not only white they were on Motown, which a lot of news sources seem to miss.

We'll miss Lady Tee!

One of the best vocalists of our time. I hope you get the credit and accolades you deserve now since you didn't get them while you were here. Thanks you for blessing us with your heavenly voice.

"Lovergirl" became a huge hit in 1985, not the late 70's. Jeez get your facts right. It seems like this whole article was culled from Wikipedia. I played the damn thing a million times on the radio. That's back when a DJ was really a DJ not some poser in a club, or some creep with a half a dozen I pods docked up to a P.O.S. they bought at Best Buy. Lady T was cool.

Philadelphia, circa 1980. Listening to FM 95.7, competing with the great WDAS as far as urban contemporary radio. Hearing several selection from the "Irons in the Fire" collection. Who is that passionate singer?? The radio personality said "Teena Marie." Running to the record store to buy the album.....then in shock when I discovered she is white. But it didn't matter and she had a fan for life! She will be missed indeed. R.I.P., Tina.......

Teena; "dear lover" is one of my favorites that you ever sang, and you sang it to marvin gaye. now, I dedicate it to you sweetie. I was so looking forward to seeing you next month at nokia, your music will always be part of my life.

Like Teena, I am a white woman who has loved black music. Teena made it okay for people like me to disregard color differences & like whatever music I want to like. Thanks, Teena! You will be missed.

R.I.P our beautiful songbird! You touched all of our souls with your incredible talent and grace! I feel so incredibly privileged to have seen you perform live-YOU WERE TRULY ONE OF A KIND!!! Our prayers go out to your daughter Alia Rose and your whole family. You'll be missed!! Thank you for sharing your beautiful voice. You were unique and irreplaceable!!

She was a gift from God! Rest in Peace.

Loved her first album and was a fan from day 1 her music got so many of us through so many high and low times she was very inspirational to me and im sure to others may she get the credit she deserves and many blessings to her surviving daughter make sure your mom's legacy continues
Love always and thank god we have your music One of the greats!

Teena who? All I know is that she was a heavy drug user... We sure know how to pick our celebrities and heroes...wake up america!!!

I met Teena on one occasion through a mutual friend who invited me to one of her recording sessions. I was 19 and crazy about R&B and Teena. I spent countless hours singing to her records-feeling every lyric and every note, and there I was sitting next to her at the piano! She shared with me a story of having just met her own idol, Sarah Vaughn, and her face lit up explaining how excited she was when Sarah asked her to hold her shoes for her backstage while she performed. I couldn't believe Teena was describing my own feelings in that very moment and I knew she understood what meeting her meant to me. She began to play and it was then that I heard the gorgeous "Casanova Brown" for the 1st time. By the time she finished I could barely breathe-it was so beautiful. For many years I thought about writing her to thank her for that day, for sharing her story and for her music but I never did. Perhaps I was afraid she wouldn't remember me. I often wondered if she was bold enough to let Sarah know just how much she loved her, and I hoped she did. Thank, you Lady T, for the gift you shared with me and with all those who will forever love you as you were-Wild and Peaceful. We keep you and your music in our hearts forever.

I heard one of her newest songs on the radio this morning and could not stop crying :(
I've played here from teens to 50....she has been part of my life
I own every album, cassette, cd......
I always thought wow after all these years she can still hit every note without effort....

Lady Tee thanks for all the great memories, thanks for showing me what love and romance and being a woman is all about....

my deepest condolences to your family

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