On Sunday night, the internet was abuzz with the news that singer/songwriter Teena Marie passed away unexpectedly at the age of 54.
While most mainstream music sources and casual fans only know Teena for her 1985 Top Ten pop hit “Lovergirl”, there was a lot more to her story than that one song. Over the course of a thirty-plus year recording career, Teena recorded thirteen studio albums, amassing several Gold albums and a handful of soul classics, including “Behind the Groove”, “I Need Your Lovin'”, “Ooo La La La” (a #1 R&B single in 1988) and “Square Biz”, a groundbreaking fusion of rap and R&B way back in 1981. A few years back, Teena completed one of the more surprising comebacks in recent music history, returning after a 10 year absence in 2004 with the album La Dona, which sold over half a million copies. Her most recent album was 2009’s Congo Square.
As a white artist who had a predominantly black fan base, Teena Marie paved the way for artists like Madonna, Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake. However, her music was way too eclectic to be confined in any one genre. Teena was capable of serving up disco, jazz, Latin music, rock, pop and soul in a mixture that was only rivaled in her day by artists like Prince. She was constantly evolving as an artist. The disco/funk flavor of her early albums eventually gave way to a more eclectic vibe, as best evidenced by the adventurous Emerald City album from 1986. More recent work found Teena making music with more of a classic soul vibe, often incorporating her teenage daughter Alia Rose LeBeau, a singer in her own right.
In addition, Teena served as a mentor and benefactor to many modern-day soul singers, up to and including Faith Evans, who featured heavily on Teena’s last major hit, “Cant Last a Day”. Teena was one of the few female artists in any generation to serve as singer, songwriter, arranger, instrumentalist, and producer on her records. She was a self-produced artist starting with 1980’s Irons in the Fire, her third album and running through to the end of her life.
Aside from music-related pursuits, Teena was instrumental in getting a law passed that affects many musicians today. The Brockert Initiative (Teena’s real name was Mary Christine Brockert) was a law that limited a record company’s power to keep an artist under contract without releasing any new material by that artist.
Unjustly ignored by the mainstream, Teena Marie was one of the singular talents of her generation-able to function on her own without the need for outside writers, producers and musicians. She controlled her music and her image, and she deserves your props. Rest in peace, Lady T.