Musical Orbits: Teena Marie (1956–2010)

Teena Marie, "Emerald City"

Teena Marie, "Emerald City"

Prince was a massive talent, no doubt. That he was producing and selling music somewhere in the range of forty years or so, makes his presence on the scene both formidable and legendary. Just like millions of other fans, I’ll miss his music, but his death has me reflecting on others with similar work ethic and, occasionally, producing songs that somehow channel the spirit of Prince.

Today we take a look at singer and multi-instrumentalist Teena Marie (vocals, guitar, bass, piano, percussion). Not her entire body of work—worthy of your listening pleasure—but her seventh album, 1986’s Emerald City. Marie’s musical arch came by way of R&B, Jazz, and Rick James. Because Marie’s first album didn’t feature a portrait and it spawned a #8 single on the “black singles chart,” everyone assumed she was a black woman for the earliest parts of her career. It was a point of fascination in my neighborhood to wonder how a “white” woman could sound like that. At the time, there weren’t any others and plenty of folks grudgingly supported Marie’s work. (Once again, I know this is historically ignorant and limited thinking, but these are but some of the cultural shackles that need breaking.)

Overall, my race hasn’t been a problem. I’m a black artist with white skin. At the end of the day, you have to sing what’s in your own soul.
— Teena Marie

She was as commonly known as “Lady T” (the title of her second studio album) as her given name and sometimes referred to as the “Ivory Queen of Soul.” By her third album, she was producing all of her own work and by her fourth, found herself in a heated battle with her label over contracts and releasing material. Sound familiar, Prince fans? At the time, for a woman in her position, it was a rare thing indeed to be writing, producing, and singing all of her music. Her lawsuit agains Motown resulted in new law which made it illegal for record companies to hold an artist under contract without releasing new music.

Marie released Emerald City during the time Prince’s 1999 double album warped the R&B landscape. Considered controversial by her usual fans (again: sound familiar?), the album didn’t do as well as previous efforts. Regardless, she was in good company, at the time, with other acts riding the new music wave being defined by Prince. It’s not just the music that reflects Prince’s influence, at the time, but in both the lyrics and the concepts on some of the songs. Here’s a sample from opening lines of the title track:

It was the kind of sex you read about in storybooks/
where everybody showed but no one cared
And every time I looked into the monster of your face/
it seemed that I was gonna change the names

The second track continues the musical and lyrical trend, full of staccato or bright rhythm guitars, alternating high and low keyboards and bass. The entire album careens from big beat, electro-keyboard driven dance mixes to modern Jazz and back with Rock influences in the guitar solos, all with Marie’s signature classic R&B torch singing.

If you’re a fan of Prince, this record is well worth checking out.