I’m not a person that usually gets broken up over celebrity deaths, even though it was hard to not be genuinely shocked when Michael Jackson passed away 18 months ago.
Teena Marie’s death Sunday at the age of 54 left me stunned and heartbroken. Thanks to my older sister, I grew up on her incredibly acrobatic voice belting out hits such as “Out on a limb,” “Casanova Brown,” “Square Biz,” and of course the all-time slow jam, “Fire and Desire” with her partner in crime (and apparently romance), Rick James.
What made Teena stand out from her peers of song in the early stages of her career (right or wrong) was the fact that she was this little hip white girl from California that was blessed with a voice that could knock you to the ground and lift you up to Cloud Nine. In fact, Motown was so shook when her debut album “Wild And Peaceful” dropped in 1979, they left her picture out of the cover art and liner notes because they were unsure of how a black audience would receive her. Not surprisingly, she was welcomed with open arms.
Teena forged a partnership with Rick James, who along with Stevie Wonder was keeping the lights on at Motown at the time, and they teamed up on her earliest recordings and his albums. 1981’s “Fire and Desire” is the Black love song. Ranked frequently at the top of most slow jam list, the back-and-forth narrative of former lovers who run into each other and still share, well, “Fire and Desire” for each other resonates to this day.
Outside of her songs with Rick, Teena wrote, played and produced many of her hits, including “Lovergirl” from 1984’s Starchild album, which was her highest charting single, hitting No. 4 on Billboard’s pop charts.
Even though she never really received accolades due to her in the pop world, her urban audience showered her with affection for the 30-plus years she was in the business. It was understood that when you went to a Teena Marie show, you would get just that – A SHOW. Live band, strong vocals, Teena herself with the guitar…epic.
She also was a trailblazer in record contract business. Motown lost her services in 1982 when they failed to pay Teena her record contract stipend (which was 9,000 a year if you can believe it). That in effect voided her Motown deal and made her a free agent (sports analogy, I’m sorry). It stood up in court and became known as the Brockert Initiative (Mary Christine Brockert was her given name) and now is an industry standard.
Her untimely death leaves her adoring legions of fans saddened and at a loss for words, but one thing they all can hold on to is her spirit that lives on through her many hits. And for the original “White girl that can SANG,” That’s a legacy Teena Marie I’m sure is proud to have left for us.