In 1988, I was a freshman in high school and a fast fan of Mary Christine Brockert, known more commonly by her stage name, Teena Marie. Really, I had been a fan of hers since the early '80s when I was in elementary school and she came out on the Motown label, blowing up soon after making hit duets with the ever funky and forever legendary Rick James. Teena Marie's music came out during the time when adults and kids still largely enjoyed some of the same artists and there wasn't such a wide gap between generational tastes. My mother was a fan and bought Teena Marie's music, which I was able later to borrow and make mixtapes from. Her 1988 hit "Oh La La" was part of the soundtrack of my high school years as was the song "If I Were a Bell" that came out on her 1990 album release, Ivory.
Teena gave us her last major label recording, Ivory, in 1990 before releasing, four years later, the out-of-print, yet critically-acclaimed indie release Passion Play, which is my favorite Lady T album to date. While I credit Passion Play as being the diva's only album that is almost perfect from beginning to end--one of those rare projects that you can listen to all the way through without skipping a track--I credit Ivory with being a prime example of why Teena Marie is not just an anomaly because she is probably the longest lasting white female in the music industry singing R&B, but because she is a multi-talented musician who not only is a dynamic vocalist but also an amazing songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist.
Ivory was released two years after Teena Marie's highly successful LP, Naked to the World, which featured the classic before-mentioned song "Oh La La," which later went on to be borrowed in part by the Fugees for their song "Fu-Gee-La." Ivory was produced shortly after (and I'm sure during, also) Teena went through recuperation after breaking six of her ribs. Despite her healing from what sounded like a pretty painful injury, Teena took the helm of her project firmly. She wrote, produced and arranged all the songs for the 13-track album, including the classic ballad "If I Were a Bell" which peaked at #8 on the R&B charts. This song is a beauty in a class of its own. In the poetic form you came to expect with Teena's lyrics, the song is not only a romantic masterpiece, but is executed in breathtaking brilliance. It was incredible how she managed to deftly dip from very high and back again with not so much than a quick breath in between. In the video below where she performs the song for Donnie Simpson on BET's Video Soul with only a piano accompanying her, the magnificence of her vocal instrument is undeniable.
Teena Marie did it all when it came to the production of Ivory. In the liner notes, you'll find that she played and/or programmed many of the instruments alongside some of the industry's top musicians of the day, including American Idol's Randy Jackson who played bass on several of the album's tracks. Special gems on the album that weren't released as singles included two ballads, "Cupid is a Real Straight Shooter" and "Miracles Need Wings to Fly," which could be described in the same vein of her past hit "Deja Vu" (one of my favorite Teena Marie songs) and her later song "Air I Breathe" off of Passion Play.
Despite the classic nature of "If I Were a Bell" and Teena Marie's longstanding music history, the album, overall, was not considered a success. So, after the lackluster sales of Ivory, Teena and Epic Records decided to part ways as she took a Sade-like hiatus (after Passion Play) to devote time to raising her daughter Alia Rose.
Fourteen years after Ivory and Passion Play, Teena Marie emerged again on the Cash Money label, to our surprise and soon abated horror, releasing La Doña and Sapphire in 2004 and 2006, respectively, before moving to Stax/Concord Records where she released her latest album Congo Square. Today, still going strong at 54 years-old, Teena Marie performs regularly, headlining in Vegas and touring internationally, showing absolutely no sign of slowing down and sounding just as good as she ever has.
I bet on my
Walkman iPod that 20 years from now people will still be talking about this legendary singer who has given us such classic ballads as "Fire and Desire" (a duet with Rick James), "Cassanova Brown" (based on her affair with Rick), "Portugese Love," "Dear Lover." "Out on a Limb" and the dance cut "Square Biz." My hope is that she will still be around performing these favorites for us, as brilliantly and crystal clear as always.