I don’t remember the very first time I interviewed Teena Marie but if memory serves me well, it was around the time of her 1984 “Lovergirl” mainstream hit. I do remember the first time I listened to her: the track was “Déjà Vu (I’ve Been Here Before),” one of the standouts on her Gordy debut “Wild And Peaceful.” Given my own interest in reincarnation, sparked by a 1975 in-flight conversation with EW&F founder Maurice White, the song immediately grabbed my attention and I was intrigued. A year later, I remember well and vividly the first time I danced to a Teena Marie jam. I was at my regular NYC club haunt of the day, the famed Paradise Garage and when “I Need Your Lovin’” came pumpin’ through the speakers, I was lost in music, caught up in the rapture and being a full-on dancing machine! To this day, wherever I am in the world, when that groove starts, I get on up and boogie on down. It still captivates me just like it did back in 1980…
Fast forward to 1988: living in Los Angeles, writing freelance for different publications and I do recall interviewing Teena for “Black Radio Exclusive” (BRE), the occasion her first No. 1 R&B chart topper, her swoon-and-I-wanna-be-in-love “Ooh La La La” single. We got along just fine, our mutual love for soul music surfacing and evident throughout the conversation.
A year later, 1989, her then-manager Penny Johnson called and asked if I would be up for writing the bio for Teena’s next album. Without hesitation, I said yes. She invited me to Teena’s Pasadena home to discuss the project and I will never ever forget the experience. When I arrived, Teena was in her basement studio rehearsing with her musicians. It’s one thing to see a live performance in a crowded venue but watching Teena doing what was so uniquely hers, pulling notes out of thin air, winding her way vocally through a myriad of emotions was simply and completely spellbinding. I can see, right now, in my mind’s eye the scene, Teena moving, grooving through the room as her band provided hand-in-glove accompaniment, listening for the nuances and subtleties as Teena cast her musical spell. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
From that day on, we bonded. We sat and discussed her upcoming album and I remember Penny calling Epic Records to let them know that Teena wanted me to write the bio. Penny was open-mouthed as she listened to an Epic executive inform her – and Teena – for the first time that the album was ‘on hold’. Out of respect for both ladies, I won’t repeat the exact phrases that poured forth at the news. Both were stunned and I felt a little awkward. Penny politely explained that she and Teena would have to regroup and speak more extensively with the label before we could proceed…
As became evident, it seemed Epic hadn’t heard ‘a single’ on the album and had what they considered the ‘brilliant’ idea of flying Teena to London to work with Jazzie B. of “Soul To Soul” fame, then enjoying major success on both sides of the Atlantic with the group’s Virgin debut album. Teena was not happy. She felt she had turned in a great album (“Ivory”) and after years of self-production was less than joyful at the prospect of working in the studio with someone she didn’t know.
Her displeasure with how the sessions in London quickly became evident when I returned to her Pasadena home to do the bio interview for “Ivory.” While none of what she said about the London experience (which yielded the track “Since Day One,” her first and only single not to make the U.S. R&B charts) actually made it to the official Epic bio for obvious reasons, Teena made her displeasure with her record label perfectly clear. It came as no surprise that she and Epic parted company after the release of “Ivory” and Teena would spend the next few years crafting “Passion Play” (released on her own Sarai label) and working on “Black Rain,” a project that was never released in its original form but songs from which would surface in Teena’s last three albums (2004’s “La Dona,” the 2006 CD “Sapphire” and the 2010 release “Congo Square”).
A few specific memories stand out from that relaxed afternoon in 1990 when we were doing the bio interview for “Ivory”: Teena shared how much she wanted to write a book of poetry, the idea and her love for the art inspired by the work of Nikki Giovanni whose “The Truth Is On Its Way” 1971 album (featuring members of The New York Community Choir and containing Nikki’s unforgettable “Poem For Aretha”) had become a staple in my own LP collection. We talked of reincarnation and spirituality and while none of that material was used for the bio, it was a deeply personal aspect to our conversation that would be resumed many years later.
Teena and I would run into each other at different times during the ensuring years while she took time out to raise her daughter Alia Rose while continuing to perform before adoring crowds who loved Teena’s pure downhome soulfulness, authenticity and realness. Over the years, I saw her perform at a number of different venues and on every occasion, I was struck by the energy and emotion that Teena invested in her shows: she never held back and when the predominantly black audience responded with so much love, Teena returned it with soulful passion.
We did an interview for “Billboard” around the time of the release of 1994’s “Passion Play” and upon the release of her first two Cash Money albums, we caught up again and it was like renewing a friendship, talking music, talking life. I was always impressed with how Teena had developed, cultivated and maintained a solid following within the black music community and much like Frankie Beverly & Maze was never dependent on the release of a new album to ensure that audiences turned out to see her shows. When I asked Teena, during the course of our 2004 interview for “La Dona” about her relationship with her mostly black audiences, she responded, “You know I’ve loved black music since I was born and I feel like God put me here to unite people. I’ve always sung what’s in my heart and it’s never been about wanting to ‘cross over’. I never sat down and said let me write something that will be a crossover hit. The most beautiful blessing God gave me was to have this relationship with black people and black music…”
In 2008, I worked hard with former Motown executive Iris Gordy and fellow board member at The Rhythm & Blues Foundation to ensure that Teena got her due with a Pioneer Award from the prestigious organization. It was an unforgettable night: Chaka Khan was the Lifetime Achievement Awardee, Dionne Warwick one of the hosts and Aretha Franklin, arriving as an unexpected guest for the star-studded show in Philadelphia. I saw Teena at soundcheck and she was a little perturbed about who was going to be musical backing for her performance but after reassuring her that it would all be fine, she relaxed and when it came time to accept her Award, Teena broke down and cried. She then delivered an absolutely brilliant performance of “Déjà Vu (I’ve Been Here Before)” with just a piano accompaniment. Her ultra soulful delivery brought Aretha, Chaka and the whole audience to its feet for a rousing and much-deserved standing ovation.
A year later, when Jeff Lorez interviewed Teena for Soul Music.com at the time of the release of “Congo Square,” Lady T made it clear that she wanted to come back and perform in the UK. She hadn’t done so since 1991 and Jeff wisely informed me of Teena’s desire. Within weeks, I was speaking with her manager Mike Gardner (whom I’d known for his long association with The Whispers).
It took a while: understandably, Teena wanted to travel with her own musicians and background singers and her own tech people. After eighteen years away, she wanted to make sure that her London performance would meet and exceed the expectations of the 2,000 people who would show up for that unforgettable January 30 show at Indigo.
I have so many memories from Teena’s visit, from meeting her at the hotel when she arrived, to sitting in with her as she dealt with a non-stop round of press interviews, to finally getting a few minutes of quality time (during which we resumed our conversation from twenty years prior about matters of a spiritual nature), watching her soundcheck, standing proudly in the wings as she gave the packed venue an unbelievable two-hour experience that included a tribute to her mentor and longtime best friend the late Rick James and The Mary Jane Girls and culminated in a six-song acoustic encore. Slightly embarrassed, my London friend Damyan ended up onstage with Teena as she serenaded him on “Fire And Desire” much to the audience’s delight and when Teena and I got to catch up for a few minutes after the show, she told me – much to my delight – that she had watched me grooving away on the side of the stage, no doubt picking up where I left off in 1980 with my dance routine for “I Need Your Lovin’”!
Before Teena left London, we had dinner, her beautiful daughter Alia with her along with two of her assistants. It was a time to celebrate, to bask in the glory of that January 30 show and to look to the future for a return visit. Teena shared how much she wanted to see different cities in Europe since she’d never visited anywhere outside the UK and we talked about how we could make that happen…
We did manage to secure two shows for February 27 and 28, 2011 at the same venue, Indigo in London and I was eagerly looking forward to spending more quality time with Teena. When I awoke in the early hours of December 27, 2010, I thought maybe I was still dreaming when I scanned emails that included the subject line, “Teena Marie passes at age 54.” I shook my head, looked back again and saw a slew of emails from different people with the very same subject line.
I am still reeling from the reality that I won’t see Teena Marie in London in February; that the deep and wonderful conversations about music (we shared an appreciation for the amazing Linda Jones and her work among many, many other soul music favourites), about our affinity for black culture, about 18th Dynasty Egypt, about coming back (or not) for another earthly journey, about God, about spirit and about love that we shared over several decades are over – at least in this form. I have some treasured memories to look back on and I have indelibly etched in my consciousness the awareness that I got a glimpse into the world of a woman who saw music as a way to bring people together, who poured her heart and soul into living a full life. Like thousands everywhere, I still have the music of Teena Marie to forever remind me that soul – like love – has no colour. Teena is with the other soulful angels who have shed this physical condition to move higher and to guide us whenever we need reminding that we are not alone and that spirit is eternal. In the words of Donny Hathaway, as Teena herself sang many years ago, someday, we’ll all be free…
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.