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