Premium

I'm Talking Square Biz

TRACY JONES

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the untimely death of R&B legend Teena Marie. Among African-Americans of a certain age, Teena Marie was a superstar. Most people of the White persuasion have never heard of her. In a career that spanned thirty years and combined R&B, soul, funk, hip-hop, and disco, she wrote, sang, arranged, and produced more than a dozen albums — several of them ‘gold’ — with more than a hundred songs. Many of them were Top 10 hits in the world of R&B. The closest she ever came to a “crossover” hit (1984’s Lovergirl) reached #4 on the Billboard chart.

What makes this unusual is that, at least on the outside, Teena Marie was White. Very white. And yet the level of acceptance and respect that she acquired in the Black community has never been approached by any other White performer. The reason is simple: Teena Marie was real. She came by her style honestly. Basically, she grew up Black… in a Black part of Los Angeles. Her friends were Black, her godmother was Black. Her best friend in school, and indeed her life, was Black. She never had any doubt about what her musical direction would be. She probably would have preferred to sell more records, but she never made any effort to be any sort of “crossover” artist.

If you never heard of her, you missed something, because Teena Marie is arguably one of the best singer/songwriter/composer/musician/arranger/producers of the last fifty years. Her vocal range was incredible… she could go from soprano to alto and back again without missing a beat. Yet she wasn’t just a singer… she wrote and arranged the music, played guitar, keyboards, and percussion, produced the records, and at one point even owned her own record label.

One of my favorite things about her, because it gives insight into how genuine she was, is the way she handled aging. To me, there is nothing more ludicrous than these singers who try to come off as sexpots when they’re pushing 70. It’s actually fun to see Teena Marie take the stage at Sinbad’s Summer Jam, full of swagger and spunk, basically saying, “I’m forty. This is what I look like now. But I can still sing… watch
this. Indeed: watch this.
If you are unfamiliar with her work, and you just came upon that video, you could suspect that Teena Marie was just another one of those White acts who try to “interpret Black music for a White audience.” Except that Teena Marie never had a White audience, and she never tried to get one. She was the Real Deal, as the audience here attests:

Teena Marie died when she was only 54, apparently from the long-term effects of a totally freak accident. While sound asleep in a hotel room, she was struck on the head by a fairly heavy picture frame that broke loose from the wall. She was plagued by seizures for the rest of her life, and indeed suffered a grand mal seizure a month before she died in her sleep.