The recent loss of Lady T closed the chapter on not only another great of soul music, but arguably one of the most influential and gifted singers of her time. Yes, Teena enjoyed hit singles, initially with Motown and later while residing at Epic Records, but somehow she never fully reaped the rewards her obvious talent and ability craved.
It’s been said that no white artist ever sang R&B more convincingly than Mary Brockert, best known to the masses by her stage name Teena Marie. Many listeners often wondered if she was a light-skinned African-American; her debut album WILD AND PEACEFUL deliberately kept her image from the artwork, and even when she scored a huge crossover hit with mentor Rick James on “Sucker For Your Love”, audiences questioned if she was lip-syncing another’s work. She wasn’t, and in time she won over white audiences almost as easily as she had her core black fan base.
Marie left Motown in 1983 after a handful of top-selling albums in a dispute over royalties. While she would remain great friends with Berry Gordy, at Epic she was offered something the Motown founder never could – commercial accessibility. Whereas her Motor City recordings were immersed in the gritty Detroit-bred funk of her mentor and beau Rick James, the processed guitars and synth curlicues of Minneapolis in her Epic recordings had a more mature and refined sound of a singer growing. After the relatively slow out of the blocks ROBBERY set (the quiet storm favourites “Dear Lover”, “Shadow Boxing” and “Casanova Brown” all included here), it was STARCHILD, her sophomore set for the label that would become the most successful recording by the multi-instrumentalist, producer and performer. Besides housing her biggest hit, the racing pop-funkster “Lovergirl”, the set also included her emotive tribute to Marvin Gaye, “My Dear Mr. Gaye” arranged by Leon Ware, and the scorchingly complex ballad “Out On A Limb”.
Although 1986’s EMERALD CITY was regarded more as a conceptual album, the growing pains and twisted emotion still shone on “Sunny Skies”. The rest of the set was likened to a female Prince in full Hendrix mode jamming with Gilberto Gil and Jade Warrior, but the omission here of “Lips To Find You” and “Batucada Suite” was a surprise to this reviewer. NAKED TO THE WORLD renewed her on-off relationship with Rick James on the emotion-charged “The Once And Future Dream”, but it was the sublime “Ooh La La La” that gave her an instant radio hit, with references harking back to Bloodstone’s “Natural High” and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”. By 1990, with a changing market enveloped in the sound of new jack beats, Teena’s particular blend of funk was no longer registering with the new kids on the block. Her parting shot for the major was IVORY – an ironic title for a singer black at her core – and despite featuring few pop crossover opportunities, cuts like the meandering “If I Were A Bell” and the wordy “Just Us Two” marked a return to vintage Lady T.
Misleadingly titled THE VERY BEST OF TEENA MARIE, none of her biggest hits with Motown are featured here. That said, “Irons In The Fire” (the title-track from her 1980 Motown opus) has somehow slipped under the radar, and this is all the better for it. Likewise, “Can’t Last A Day”, a duet she recorded with Faith Evans for what would ultimately be her final recording, CONGO SQUARE, in 2009 is included. The set marked her 30th year in the business and amazingly her unique vocal delivery was as good as ever sitting comfortably alongside Evans’ vocal stylings on a shuffling midtempo delight.
Teena’s voice was - thanks to near perennial best of and reissues of her catalogue – and will always remain a beautiful instrument that she never stopped strengthening and developing during her 13 album career. There are a few gripes – why, for example, do you have to download the sleeve notes when you purchase the physical CD? – surely a contradiction when you are purchasing a CD in the first place. And of course, the title is a little misleading as we’ve already discussed, but really that’s immaterial compared to the pluses on display. Teena was a true pioneer of ‘80s R&B, beguiled with sharp musicianship and a sophisticated, ferociously commanding lead vocal performance that few will ever aspire to match; Lady T’s crystal clear tonality and crisp vocal style will take you back to a time when singers could actually sing and show depth, vision and soul; that’s truly one to savour.
About the Writer
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and the BBC, in the process compiling and/or writing liner notes for over 200 CDs (including a number for SoulMusic Records). Lewis currently consults for Kings Of Spins and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America.