Teena Marie Brings a Whiter Shade of Pale to Soul Music
05/06/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT
While charging down the halls of Motown's recording studios one day, black singer-producer Rick James—Mr. Super Freak—was laid low by a voice emanating from a rehearsal room. Coming through the door, James found himself face-to-face with 21-year-old Teena Marie, all less-than-five-very-pale-feet of her. "It was wild," Teena remembers. "He had on snakeskin boots and all this turquoise. His hair was only half braided and patches were sticking up. I just thought, 'What is that?' " James was asking himself the same question. "I expected to see a writer-producer. And instead I found this short, tiny white body sitting at the piano, singing like the gods had come into her spirit."
The pair's affinity intrigued Motown execs, who eventually asked James to produce the younger singer, and he turned down working with Diana Ross in order to oblige. The result, Teena's 1979 LP Wild and Peaceful, launched a recording career that has doggedly defied racial categorization to this day. Her latest single, Lovergirl, off her sixth album, Starchild, has not only climbed to the top of the predominantly black dance charts but also zoomed up the mainstream pop lists into the Top Five.
Though Teena has been burning up dance floors for years with funk cuts like I Need Your Lovin' and her 1981 hit Square Biz, and has sold more than 2 million albums, Lovergirl and its attendant MTV exposure have given many white listeners their first look at the redhead's fiery blend of rock and soul. Motown had kept her photo off her first album cover, and even now, despite the over 600,000 sold copies of Starchild that wear her face on their sleeves, "there are people who still don't know I'm white," says Teena, shrugging. "It should make no difference; I don't see color." Nor do others, says James. "Black radio has always supported Teena Marie; it was white radio that didn't. She is the most important white female singer since Barbra Streisand; and her own race forgot her."
With her recording career under way, Teena and Rick swapped the studio for studio in 1980, playing to SRO crowds around the country. "To make 30,000 black people cry," marvels Rick, "to see them light a match for a 4'11" white woman is one of the most astounding things I've ever seen."
The couple's chemistry onstage prompted one New York critic to laud their duets as sustaining "a level of erotic intensity that has seldom been seen in a large arena." This, of course, raised an offstage question: Were they or weren't they? "He was a soulmate," Teena smiles. "No producer understood me as a person before he did. After I got to know him, he was very handsome, very brilliant," and, she laughs, "very, very macho." Mr. Macho is a perfect gentleman on the subject: "We had a very strong musical love affair. It was a great marriage."
Teena, née Mary Christine Brockert, made her professional debut in front of a 36-piece orchestra at the age of 8 and decided then to adopt her childhood nickname. Numerous commercials and wedding gigs followed ("I sang Ave Maria at Jerry Lewis' son's wedding when I was 10"), as well as a spot on The Beverly Hillbillies. At home in Venice, Calif. she began writing music at the piano as her five brothers and sisters and her musical parents (a house remodeler and nursery worker) exposed her to Mozart and Schubert, Sarah Vaughan and Aretha Franklin.
After seven years of parochial school, Teena went public and joined a clique of "all the coolest kids: blacks, Orientals, whites, Mexicans, surfer girls. We just all really liked to be cool and have fun." One day in tenth grade, her omnipresent transistor affixed to one ear, Teena lost it—her cool, that is. "All of a sudden Al Green's soulful Tired of Being Alone came on. I just leaned against a locker and went Wowww! I had never heard a sound like that before. I said, 'Someday there's going to be a Teena Marie sound.' "
A year studying English at Santa Monica College ended when Motown chairman Berry Gordy cast Teena and her band in a TV project that was later shelved. Her sometimes rocky relationship with the company endured until 1983 when a lawsuit pressed by Teena over disputed royalties was settled out of court. Since then there have been two albums with her new record company (Epic), a track for Steven Spielberg's upcoming Goonies and songs that often come to her, says Teena, while she sleeps.
Light, a gospel-ish number that ends Starchild, "came entirely out of a dream," she says. "The first time that happened to me I woke up, went to the piano and played a chord. I pulled my hands away. Then I just played the song from top to bottom with no mistakes. I'd been asking God for an answer and was such a dumb ass, he said, 'I'm gonna give you a flat-out miracle so you won't doubt anymore."
With the doubts of others now allayed as well, Teena has left the Encino home she shared with her sister and some friends and has begun looking for pricier digs. In her spare time she avoids the L.A. club scene for quiet nights at the movies or evenings in front of a friend's VCR. "Clubs are too much like the studio where I spend all my time," she says. "They're certainly no place to meet a guy, and the conversation gets pretty bad." But she's not complaining. "I don't look at my life as anything less than a blessing. My voice—that's the greatest gift I can think of," she says. To a growing number of Teena stalwarts, the truth of that is as plain as black and white.