Teena Marie, female blue-eyed soul phenom, would have turned 62 this week. Her unexpected passing in 2010 left fans shocked. Teena Marie’s passing was almost as sudden as her appearance in the realm of American r&b. Almost a decade after her death, it is important to recall the significance of the songs that highlight the talent of Teena Marie.
Teena Marie, early years and albums
According to albumsin.com, Teena Marie went to work at Motown in her early 20’s. While there, she met Rick James, and before long, the man who brought the world songs like “Super Freak,” and groups like The Mary Jane Girls, had written a complete album for Teena Marie. Given America’s issues with people performing outside of what is expected of their race, Teena Marie’s first album didn’t feature her picture. (Side note: Before the advent of Music Television it seemed that this happened ever so often in popular music. Madonna, Boy George are others who were not always identified as white by virtue of their singing voices, and as a result, were able to garner listeners via black radio stations.)
That first album, “Wild and Peaceful” was released in 1979, and was immensely popular. Teena Marie followed that release with “Lady T.” “Irons in the Fire” (1980) contained the hit, “I Need Your Lovin’.” A video exists of Teena Marie performing on “Soul Train.” It would be the first of several appearances the singer would make on the venerable program.
“I Need Your Lovin'” by Teena Marie
Teena Marie was a guitar and percussion player and even before fans saw her in videos with her guitar strapped to her, somehow it showed up in her work that Teena Marie had an innate sense of rhythm and arrangement. The way she performed indicated that she wasn’t just a “singer,” but she was a musician.
“I Need Your Lovin'” is an often “anthologized” song of Teena Marie’s. Her language is unpretentious – – “Mother Nature gave me two hands to hold you,” she sings. Teena Marie makes the case for love being a “natural” occurrence between her and her beloved.
Throughout the song, the words “lovin'” and “money” are spelled out, in instances in the song that are as close to rap as the singer is going to get. Love is more important. For some, when Teena Marie mentions her “third eye” it might seem a little pretentious, in a surrealistic sort of way. But it doesn’t matter. The mid-tempo soul song with its up and down rhythms is immediately danceable and in the “Soul Train” video, watching Teena Marie dance to her own song is worth the time it takes to watch the video. Her energy, body movements and facial expressions all indicate someone who enjoyed every bit of the song she created. She is convinced of her message’s truth.
“Square Biz” by Teena Marie
By 1981, even as some black American fans still wondered if Teena Marie was just light-skinned (I can recall such debates at the time), her track, “Square Biz” became an r&b hit in 1981. The song is similar to the approach taken in “I Need You Lovin’.” The lyrics find the singer making an impassioned plea to her love object. She is promising that she is telling the truth about how she feels. As narrator, she describes what the object looks like, or rather what he does, and in a rap, she talks about her height, (four feet, ten inches) her favorite food and her nicknames. The various elements she includes in the song further solidify her place in r&b. And regardless of her race, people couldn’t deny that Teena Marie made effective, danceable songs.
“Lovergirl” by Teena Marie
After difficulties with Motown, Teena Marie switched to Epic Records. In 1983, she released the “Robbery” album. But by 1984, her sixth album “Starchild” showed the singer mixing up her style a bit, and the song “Lovergirl” worked in pop and rock elements while allowing Teena Marie to stay true to the sort of messages that were the hallmarks of her style. Her rapid-fire delivery, searing guitar, and urban sensibility all made the song distinctly Teena Marie’s. The message was like that of her earlier works, she is making the case for her love to an object of her affection.
Teena Marie was a groundbreaker in the realm of r&b. Her strong vocals and down-to-earth style paved the way for female singers of all races.