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Posted December 31st, 2010

With the sad news of Teena Marie passing on Dec 26th..felt it only right to remember her via this fantastic article courtesy of VitaRhythms…my own small tribute to her will be on my show ‘a touch of soul’ – saturday jan 1st 10pm(uk)

The VitaRhythms Interview

Teena Marie had faced adversity in her life before but nothing prepared her for the tidal wave of calamity that engulfed her over the last five years. Her last album, Sapphire (2006), lost steam after the New Orleans-based Cash Money label that released it struggled to survive Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. While staying at a hotel, a picture fell off the wall and struck her in the head. A Sub-Zero refrigerator (typically 7 feet tall and 500 pounds) fell on her (barely 5 feet tall). She had a seizure at the 2008 Essence Festival. Beyond physical afflictions, she endured the loss of her musical soul mate, one-time lover, and longtime friend, Rick James, who died in August of 2004. “For a while I thought I was cursed, ” Lady Tee told me on the eve of the release of her thirteenth album, Congo Square. “I was in a lot of pain and it’s really amazing to me that even though that pain I could write some really joyful music.” That sense of joy permeates Congo Square, named in honor of the landmark in New Orleans where African and Creole slaves in the 1800s would assemble every Sunday and enjoy unfettered expression in song, dance, and culture before returning to a life of oppression. Teena Marie tapped into this sacred ground to commune with the spirits that energize her music. During our conversation, she rattled off the names of nearly a dozen of musical influences who “live” at Congo Square – Louis Armstrong, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, John Lennon, Led Zepplin, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Minnie Riperton, Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott. “I thought that it would be awesome if Congo Square would be the address of all the musicians that have ever come through…” she said. “Even from back in slavery times when on those Sundays the West Indians drums must have sounded really incredible and powerful and mystical and deeply spiritual and joyful and then through the whole jazz era …all the blues musicians…the great R&B musicians…and the musicians today that are still trying to keep great music alive…”

The result of this spiritual journey is her most appealing album in years. Congo Square finds Teena Marie sounding as contemporary as ever on cuts like the sultry “The Pressure, ” “Baby I Love You, ” and “Milk N’ Honey” while channeling old school R&B vibes on tracks like “Can’t Last a Day” (featuring Faith Evans), “Lovers Lane, ” and “Marry Me.” She brings old school R&B and Hip Hop veterans MC Lyte, Howard Hewitt, and Shirley Murdock along for the ride and then heads over to jazz central for the title track, “Congo Square” (featuring George Duke) and “Harlem Blues.” On the way, she treats long time fans that grew up on the lyrical intricacies and throbbing beats of hits like “Behind the Groove” and “Square Biz” to a slice of guttural funk on “Ear Candy 101.” Indeed, Congo Square is both a musical education for the listener and the foundation for Marie’s creative rejuvenation.

New Orleans has long held a special, almost transcendental, place in Teena Marie’s heart. “I really love New Orleans and New Orleans has always really loved me and it’s always felt like a second home from the moment I got off the plane years ago, ” she told me. What she did not know back then was that she had family ties to the city as well. While making Congo Square Teena literally dug up the roots she references on the album’s title track. “Right as I finished the record in December, as I was mixing the record, I actually found out my ancestors are from New Orleans.” Her cousin revealed that Teena’s father and uncle had lived in Louisiana before moving to Texas. “My great grandmother Laura Collins was actual married in the St. Louis Cathedral, which is right next to Congo Square. And I never knew any of this. That deep mystical connection that I felt back then – it was really [all from that] and really true…and that’s so amazing that I could have found this out 40 years ago but I found it out upon completion of Congo Square.”

The revelation of her family’s connections to New Orleans was the culmination of a spiritual rebirth and creative renaissance that has largely eluded post-Katrina New Orleans. “I don’t think it will ever be the same and I think it was intended like that… I think it was an intentional flooding of the Ninth Ward. I believe that. And because of that a lot of poor people had to …die… or go somewhere else and it’s really just a sad thing.”

Marie saw this same kind of thing play out in her hometown of Venice, California where she grew up a few blocks away from Oakwood, a neighbor predominantly populated by poor Blacks. During the Sixties, these residents were all that stood in the way of the kind of commercial development that could fit nicely with the rest of Venice’s reputation as a tourist Mecca. Gentrification executed in the guise of “urban renewal, ” code enforcement, and rezoning forced many poor residents of color out of their homes. Marie has long lent Oakwood an air of regality by dubbing it “Venice Harlem” but to most people it was just the ghetto. Government officials alternated between deploying social service agencies to meet the needs of disadvantaged residents and then threatening to pull funding for such agencies just as they were making progress. Cries of “urban removal” in the Sixties segued to shouts against the heavy-handed “community policing” of the Seventies that led to clashes between black youth and the cops. Mexican-Americans who turned the ghetto in the barrio also faced harassment by the police but that did not turn Oakwood into a model for the Great American Melting Pot. Blacks and browns were as distrustful of each other as they were of the police and government. By the time Teena Marie graduated from Venice High in 1975, the school population was 51% white, 27% Latino, 11% Asian, 9% black, and 2% Native American. By the turn of the decade, not much besides the racial and ethnic composition of the community changed. Oakwood was still poor and became a hot spot for gang violence. By the mid-Eighties, one-fifth of Oakwood residents were still living in poverty and crack cocaine fueled crime even as yuppie gentrification pushed through and the greater Venice area attracted a more affluent populace. Fast-forward nearly 25 years later and sadly the headlines are still the same. Residents fight to hold onto their homes in the face of persistent code enforcement and encroaching development while they watch gangs and police battle it out for the streets.

The two locales that resonate deeply with Teena Marie sound strikingly similar. The thousands of people who have remained in or returned to New Orleans are fighting to stay in trailers, rebuild homes, reunite families, and stay alive amidst soaring murder rates, racial tensions between blacks and Latinos, and scarce jobs. It did not take a massive storm to reveal the fissures in Oakwood as it did with Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans yet both teeter on the edge of existence. “You know if you go into the French Quarter – nothing really was damaged in the French Quarter because it’s [on] higher [ground]…so the damage was easy to fix, ” notes Lady Tee. “But outside the city it’s still really going to take years to rebuild. I think certain people will never be able to go back, you know, because, they just don’t have the money to go back. And I think that was what was intended, really.”

Clearly, it riles Marie that the city that serves as Congo Square’s inspiration continues to be in such a sad state. She gives voice to the city’s suffering along with her own on cuts like the bluesy “the Rose N’ Thorn” where she acknowledges the risk of pain one takes in order to experience the beauty of life. Growing up in and around Oakwood, Marie took lots of risks, perhaps more than the typical young white girl coming of age in the Sixties. She hung out with black kids and the white kids called her racial epithets and chased her home for it. As painful as that was, it did not stop her from rolling with Blacks, Latinos, and Asians at Venice High School. That does not mean she shied away from having white friends. Yet, even in those early days, Black culture and music moved Teena Marie in a way that would lead her to become known as “Off White, ” “Casper, ” “Vanilla Child, ” “Brown Sugar Covered in Snow, ” and eventually “the Ivory Queen of Soul.” Perhaps it started when she heard her brother playing Sly and the Family Stone records or her sister playing Smokey Robinson records or her parents playing Sarah Vaughn records or when she heard Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone” for the first time. Whenever or whatever it was, Teena Marie’s brain was wired for soul music. True, she was cosmopolitan enough to enjoy Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the Beatles, and her parents exposed her to classical music but R&B music seemed to set off a chemical reaction in her brain. She showed an interest in performing at a young age. By eight, she was singing in church, in front of orchestras, in television commercials and had a bit part in an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies. By 10, she was singing at weddings (most notably Jerry Lewis’ son’s wedding). By 13, she had her first band. During high school, she worked the local R&B club scene and then set her sights on Motown Records.

Motown and the King of Punk-Funk

By that time, Motown had moved from Detroit to Los Angeles and had added movies and television to its portfolio. In 1975, Teena auditioned for a role in a television pilot called Orphanage Children. The networks did not pick up the show but the gig did get Teena in front of Motown executive Hal Davis and then founder Berry Gordy. Gordy plucked her from the show’s talent pool and set her to work on songs with various producers. Surprisingly, they could not find a groove and several years would pass without the release of Teena Marie’s debut album. Meanwhile, Teena lived with Berry Gordy’s brother, Fuller, and his wife, Winnie Martin Jones, Fuller’s daughter, Iris, and Winnie’s daughter, Jill. That made Iris Gordy, Jill Jones, and Teena Marie something akin to sisters. Iris would become an executive at Motown, and Jill would later establish her own career working with Prince. It took another “brilliant genius, ” Rick James, to find that perfect combination of producer and artist to launch Teena’s recording career. James had been all set to produce Diana Ross’ next record and had gone as far as to write a track, “I’m Just a Sucker for Your Love” for the project. James intended the song to be duet, but when he found out Ross only wanted to record a few songs with him he passed on the whole project. Around the same time, Winnie Martin Jones and Iris Gordy were pushing James to work with Teena Marie. Teena and Rick had already met in the Motown offices when Teena was singing and playing on Stevie Wonder’s piano. James was impressed and Teena was smitten. After listening to some of Teena’s demos, James agreed to work with Teena and he wrote and produced her debut album, Wild and Peaceful, in 1979.

The fact that Motown did not know what to do with Teena Marie up until that point had little to do with the fact that she was white. There had been other white artists on Motown. It had everything to do with chemistry and together Teena and Rick had it. Still, Gordy hedged his bet and declined to put Teena’s picture on the album cover, a decision she took in stride. “I probably wanted my picture on the cover but was more into the fact that I was working with Berry Gordy and he was a brilliant genius, ” she says today. Laughing, she says, “I was like ‘whatever Mr. Gordy wants to do is cool with me.’ He was like ‘Let’s let this music stand on its own and then we’ll show them the picture later.’ I don’t know if it worked or didn’t work but people loved it.” The album hit #18 on the R&B album chart. “I’m Just a Sucker for Your Love, ” a duet between Marie and James, hit #8 on the R&B chart in June of 1979.

While Wild and Peaceful undoubtedly bears James’ fingerprints it is no less a Teena Marie album. Far from being James’ protégée, Teena immediately distinguished herself with the beautiful ballads “Turnin’ Me On” and “Déjà Vu (“I’ve Been Here Before)” and then declared “I’m Gonna Have My Cake (and Eat it Too)” on the jazz-infused song of the same name (co-written by Teena).

Teena moved from ingénue to enchantress with her second album, Lady T, released in 1980 and produced with Richard Rudolph, best known for his work with his wife, the late Minnie Riperton. It opens with “Behind the Groove, ” a tour de force that radiates with throbbing bass, irresistible percussion, luscious horns, and vocals that cast a spell on listeners. The track only went as far as #21 on the R&B chart but its impact, like the album that spawned it, was so much greater. Teena wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s songs save one (“Now That I Have You, ” originally intended for Riperton). She moved from the swinging funk of “You’re All the Boogie I Need” to the breezy “Why Did I Have to Fall in Love with You” with ease. She also co-produced the album with Rudolph. Moreover, on the album’s cover was the shimmering image of style and grace that was Lady Tee. If Wild and Peaceful was a debut then Lady T was an announcement that Teena Marie was for real.

Lady T matched the chart success of its predecessor (#18 R&B) and just missed the Top 40 of the pop album chart. Yet, people were taking notice of the color of her skin as much as they were her music. While Marie downplays any conscious attempt to defy racial categorization, race was clearly on her mind. She sang about “rainbow colored people happy as can be” on “Déjà Vu (“I’ve Been Here Before)” from Wild and Peaceful and how “it would be bliss if we were color-free” on “Too Many Colors” from Lady T. If scientifically black is the absence of color and white is the combination of all colors then it is fitting that Marie planted herself right in the center of the spectrum. Culturally and musically, she was bridging two worlds. “I don’t think people should be restricted to singing a certain kind of music, ” she says straightforwardly. “All black people don’t just love soul music. Some of the greatest opera singers in the world are African American females. So what – they’re not supposed to sing opera because they’re black? That doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s what’s in their hearts, that’s what’s in their soul… Music is a reflection of the soul that we have.”

Handling all songwriting and production in a bid to show Motown the depth of her talent, Teena put all of her soul into her next album, 1980’s Irons in the Fire. The album opened with a pulsating bass line that ushered in “I Need Your Lovin’, ” a sumptuous track replete with string orchestration, piano, and horns. Beyond showing her technical prowess, Irons in the Fire was a meditation on the dialectical nature of love. On “I Need Your Lovin’, ” Teena eschews the pursuit of material security in favor of love’s spiritual bonds. “Chains” finds her in ecstatic bondage to all-consuming love. On the lush title track, she calls out for a divine hand in coping with the vagaries of romance. At the same time, “Irons in the Fire” gives voice to her defiance toward the naysayers who said she couldn’t have it all – a self-directed career, passionate love, and unity with a higher power. She carries this theme over to “You Make Love Like Springtime, ” a track infused with Latin-jazz that evokes Marvin Gaye and thanks God for the rejuvenating power of romantic love.

This love gave Lady Tee such a head rush that she couldn’t stop singing about it. 1981’s It Must Be Magic celebrated the mystical power of love on the album’s title track, “365, ” and the masterpiece “Square Biz.” “Square Biz” is a dance floor declaration of real love wrapped in funk. Yet It Must Be Magic also acknowledged the pain of love, particularly unrequited love, on songs like the fervently hot-blooded “Portuguese Love, ” and achingly blue “Yes Indeed.” That same year, Teena recorded “Fire and Desire” with Rick James for his album Street Songs. Though it was never released as a single, the song became a staple on Quiet Storm radio and an affirmation of Rick and Teena’s intense love affair. When they performed the song at New York’s Madison Square Garden on the Street Songs tour in September of 1981, New York Times reporter Stephen Holden couldn’t help but notice how the two “sustained a level of erotic intensity that has seldom been seen in a large arena. By comparison, even the steamiest exchanges between couples such as Ashford and Simpson and Teddy Pendergrass and Stephanie Mills seemed tame.” While James denied having a conventional romantic relationship with Marie, they were indeed a couple and Teena was talking about it on It Must Be Magic.

James’s charisma was matched only by his audacity and Teena was able to see these sides of the King of Punk Funk both on-stage and off. In 1980, Prince opened for James on the Fire It Up tour. James complained that Prince stole his stage moves and according to Marie, Rick paid Prince back by stealing his gear. “Back then people weren’t really programming their own synthesizers, ” says Teena. “Prince – you know – he’s a genius… he was one of the only one’s who could really do that – probably him and Stevie [Wonder] were the only one’s really doing it…[Prince] was programming all his synthesizers and setting the presets with his own sound and …at the end of the tour [Rick] took [Prince’s] synthesizers.” Teena cannot help but chuckle as she recounts the story. “He took them to Sausalito and he actually used them on the Street Songs album and then he sent them back to [Prince] with a thank you card. He was a piece of work…and a brilliant genius, too!”

Teena later found herself wedged between the two future legends when she went on the road with Prince. “We were on the Dirty Mind tour together… [Prince and I] never had a problem. We would kick it…neither one of us drank so after the concerts we’d go and sit and have our little orange juice or whatever. He had a lot of respect for me. There were some nights that I would come on stage and I would kick his butt, you know, and [afterwards] he’d walk by me and go “Whew! I have to work hard tonight’ and there were some nights that he would come by and say ‘I whooped you! I whooped you tonight!’ so it was really awesome and he’s always been really wonderful to me.”

For James, however, it was a different story. “I don’t think Rick really liked the fact that [Prince and I] were friends but you know….The rivalry to me as I look back on it – it was really Rick. It wasn’t really Prince. It was more Rick than anything. I never really saw Prince feeding into it too much. It really actually saddened me because I think the two of them would have made some amazing music together. It would have been ridiculous…but you know…it was what it was…I’m not really sure why it started. Rick always said it was because Prince snubbed his mother.” Indeed, James claimed that Prince had insulted his mother at the 1982 American Music Awards by refusing to give her an autograph. The mood should have been celebratory – Teena was nominated for Favorite Soul R&B Female Artist and Rick won Best Soul/R&B Album for Street Songs – but Rick was having none of it. Backstage, Prince’s manager at the time (the late Steve Fargnoli) hastily arranged for Prince to apologize but James ignored him. Even today, Teena views the story skeptically. “I really find that hard to believe and if it did happen, I don’t think it was intentional because Prince just isn’t that kind of guy. So it could have just been unintentional where she was around and he didn’t see her, you know what I’m saying? And Rick really knew how to take stuff and run with it…but from everything that I know [Rick] really, really did like [Prince’s] music….” Laughing, Teena adds one more caveat: “Although he would never admit to it. He would never admit to that.”

Rick did admit his love for Teena at the end of “Portuguese Love” and they sounded like soul mates on “Happy” from James’ 1982 album Throwin’ Down. However, James just could not hold himself back from other women and dangerous pursuits. Teena’s next album, Robbery (1983) chronicled their affair from start to finish. On Robbery, Teena sounds shell-shocked and vulnerable. She’s been played by the ultimate playboy. “Shadowboxing” picks up where “You Make Love Like Springtime” and “Portuguese Love” left off only this time instead rejoicing in rapturous love Teena finds herself fighting with a lover who’s already gone. On the song “Casanova Brown, ” she declared the affair was over and pleaded for them to remain friends. Their lives would remain intertwined right up until James’ death. James’s sister managed Teena for a time and played in her band. James’ brother served as her bodyguard and another brother handled her legal work. Teena sang at the funeral service for Rick’s mother, Betty Gladden, in 1991.Teena and Rick recorded together on several occasions over the years. Nothing had quite the energy of “Fire and Desire” but songs like “Call Me, ” and “Once and Future Dream” (both from 1988’s Naked to the World) and “I Got You” (from 2004’s La Doña) reminded audiences of the pair’s undeniable chemistry. Teena was there as Rick endured addiction and prison in the 1990s and they toured together right up until a few months before his death in August of 2004. Five years later, the pain of losing Rick a second time sounds as fresh as ever. “I guess that if Rick and I had stayed together as a couple I think that a lot of things would have been different, ” she says now. “I think he probably still would be here.”

Epic Hits and the Passion Play

Robbery could have also referred to Teena’s strained relationship with Motown Records. She had delivered three smash hits to Motown within a year – “Behind the Groove, ” “I Need Your Lovin’” (#9 R&B), and “Square Biz” (#3 R&B). Both Irons in the Fire and It Must be Magic had hit the top ten of the R&B album charts and the top 40 of the pop album charts. By 1982, she had earned the first of her three Grammy nominations for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Female and her total sales were approaching a million. Yet, while Motown was earning millions of dollars from sales of Teena Marie’s records Teena was only earning a hundred dollars a week from the label. In May of 1982, she told Motown she would not record for the label any more and sued the label for the money she was due. Motown responded with a lawsuit claiming breach of contract and seeking to stop her from recording for another label. Officially, Teena’s contract with Motown was not due to expire until April 1983. Still, record executive Larkin Arnold signed her to Epic Records in November of 1982. Motown was able to win an injunction that stopped Teena from releasing a new album through Epic. Yet, Teena persevered and prevailed. Despite Motown’s delaying tactics, the court proceedings revealed that Teena was the victim of the record industry’s standard operating procedures. She was discouraged from reviewing her contract. She had no lawyer present when she signed the contract in 1976. Motown had not paid her like a star when they signed her nor had they compensated her with royalties appropriate for an artist who had achieved her level of success. Therefore, the court ruled, Motown could not cry foul when Teena breached the contract’s exclusivity clause to sign with Epic. Robbery was finally released in late 1983 and the case was ultimately settled in September of 1984. Initially, there were bitter feelings all around and Gordy and Marie would not reconnect until 1995 when he attended one of her shows. Yet Lady Tee is a testament to the adage that time heals all wounds. In 2007, she sang at the ceremony dedicating “Berry Gordy Jr. Boulevard” in Detroit and Gordy attended her daughter’s Sweet 16 birthday party later that same year, offering the first toast. It was Gordy’s niece, Iris, who presented Teena with the R&B Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 2008. “We’re family and once you’re a Motown artist you’re always going to be family no matter what, ” says Teena, who still reverently calls the Motown founder “Mr. Gordy.” “What we went through was a long, long time ago. We always remained friends. It’s always [been] a really deep, deep family.”

Teena’s Motown heritage paved the way for some of her boldest experiments and biggest successes at Epic. Robbery played off the burgeoning electronic funk-rock movement led by Prince’s 1999 and Purple Rain. 1984’s “Lovergirl” was a crossover smash that reached #4 on the pop charts and propelled Starchild to half a million in sales. 1986’s Emerald City opened with P-Funk’s Bootsy Collins and closed with the lush jazz of “Sunny Skies.” 1988’s Naked to the World featured the wicked funk of “Surrealistic Pillow” and “Trick Bag, ” and her first number one (R&B) single, “Ooo La La La” (later sampled by the Fugees on their 1996 hit “Fu-Gee- La”). 1990’s Ivory hit with the new jack swing of “Here’s Lookin’ at You” (#11 R&B) and the soulful ballad “If I Were a Bell (#8 R&B).

Many record companies would kill for five straight top 30 albums by an artist, yet, after Ivory Teena Marie found herself in the most unexpected of situations – dropped from Epic. By this time, Sony Corp. had bought Epic’s parent company, CBS, and Larkin Arnold had left the company to start his own firm. Teena was down but not out for the count. In 1994, she released Passion Play independently. The album counted Larkin Arnold and Rick James’ sister, Penny, as executive producers, and featured Lenny Kravitz, who had just come off the hit “Are You Gonna Go My Way.” On Passion Play, Teena Marie sounds like a woman in love. The album has a quiet storm eroticism that is both classy and commercial. The album had no shortage of potential hits. “Warm as Momma’s Oven, ” “Main Squeeze (with Kravitz on backing vocals), and “Sweet on You” were as funky and contemporary as anything Marie had recorded in her career. “Wild Horses” is a rapturous power ballad. “Hypnotized” features old school male background vocalizing that makes listeners nostalgic for the Stylistics, the O’Jays, and the Spinners. Teena serenades listeners in Spanish on “Petty Man, ” a sensuous ballad wrapped in Flamenco-like acoustic guitar. However, poor distribution doomed the album’s chances for commercial success and neither the album nor any of its singles charted. This makes Passion Play something of a lost treasure on par with the Beach Boys’ Smile, and Prince’s Black Album. “It was just a nightmare, ” recalls Lady Tee. “It’s one of the best albums that I’ve ever done and most people have never even heard it. To not be able to have a distributor that was powerful enough for a ‘Teena Marie’ was a travesty because the record just is that good.”

Motherhood and the Milk and Honey Land

It would be ten years before the world enjoyed a new Teena Marie album. While she toured regularly in the interim, her focus was on raising her daughter, Alia Rose (who now goes by the professional name Rose LeBeau). Listening to Marie talk about her daughter makes it clear that motherhood is the most satisfying aspect of her life and the most important piece of her legacy. “I’m not just passing [on] music. I’m passing [on] who I am… I’m passing [on] integrity… I’m passing [on] milk and honey, ” she says echoing the name of a track she and Rose perform together on Congo Square. “Milk and honey is biblical. I can give my daughter jewels, I can give her diamond rings but the things that sustain her through her life – things that I’ve taught her – [are] what I can really give her.” Now Rose is about to record her own album with New Orleans based hip-hop label, Cash Money Records, the same label that put Teena Marie back in record stores after her ten-year absence.

She had completed a new album in 2001 when she received a call from the Cash Money team about making her the centerpiece of its new classics division. The association confounded many industry watchers but the move proved to be a shrewd one. Teena maintained creative control of her music, and Cash Money’s deal with Universal guaranteed the distribution an artist of her stature deserved. 2004’s La Doña debuted at #6 on the Billboard 200 album chart and sold half a million units. Both “Still in Love” and “Ooh Wee” (from 2006’s Sapphire) were top 40 hits. When she parted ways amicably with Cash Money she could have gone the independent route again, something many veteran artists are doing in the Internet age. However, the Passion Play debacle made her uneasy about doing everything on her own. Instead, she signed with another legendary soul label, Stax, which has solid distribution through Concord Music Group.

Her approach to Congo Square was to get back to basics. “I [reached] back to something that I felt a long time ago… trying to recreate that same kind of inspiration that I got when I was young…to recall a time when I was inspired by music…” says Lady Tee. “Probably the closest thing I felt to that [experience] was the Irons in the Fire album.” Irons in the Fire was Marie’s declaration that she had come into her own as a musician, songwriter, and producer. More importantly, Marie says the album made plain “who I am as a human being…just a deeply kind and compassionate spiritual human being.” Congo Square draws from the same well of faith and love. It is Marie’s affirmation of the healing powers of music, place, and family. Yet, the journey that led to Congo Square was largely a solitary experience. “I wrote most of this album in my room by myself alone late at night with just a candle lit. And I prayed a lot, ” says Teena. “One day I woke up and I realized that actually I was blessed because with all the stuff that had happened I was still standing and was still able to write some really positive beautiful music.”

By now, anyone would be a fool to bet against Lady Tee. Congo Square debuted at #20 on the Billboard 200 with first week sales of 20, 000. She continues to tour and has plans for an inspirational album, a book, and perhaps even a re-release of some tracks from Passion Play.

And hopefully she has seen the end of the bad juju that followed her around before Congo Square.

Special thanks to Jeff Newman, Rick Nuhn, Jasmine Vega, Mike Gardner, and the incomparable Lady Tee.

May 14, 2009

Celebrating 30 Years of Lady Tee

The most any artist can hope for is to have a body of work that stands the test of time. For the musician and performer, this hope lies in songs that display longevity and excursions that stretch the artist and challenge the audience’s conception of that artist. Teena Marie – Lady Tee – is such an artist. She is a pioneer, a living legend, and an unsung hero in the realms of funk, soul, R&B, jazz, rock, and rap.

I remember meeting Teena Marie in 1988. She was promoting her album Naked to the World (Epic, 1988) with an in-store appearance at Tower Records at 66th Street in Manhattan. I waited in line to see the glamorous Lady Tee depicted on the cover of her single “Ooo La La La, ” which I held in my hand for her to autograph. When I finally got to the front of the line, I was astonished to see a petite white light of a lady, dressed in white, adorned with blue tinted John Lennon sunglasses and fiery red hair. Teena graciously signed my 45. As she did, I nervously said something like “I want to work in the business behind the scenes setting up events like this for musicians and promoting music.” “Well, then, ” said Lady Tee, “You need to talk to Laverne Perry at Epic Records.”
Years later, in 1996, when I was working in the record business at Atlantic Records I attended a party with many other industry professionals. A colleague introduced me to Laverne Perry. Amid the din of music, voices, and glasses, I recounted my Teena Marie moment to Laverne. All she could do was share the biggest smile and give me a giant, gracious hug that said to me”Wow! You remembered!” and “Wow, you made it to where you wanted to go.”
Teena Marie always took me where I wanted to go, at least in my mind. I still vividly remember hearing “Behind the Groove, ” “I Need Your Lovin” and”Square Biz” as a child and being moved by the bass, carried by the horns, and transported to Xanadu each time. Is it any wonder that some thirty years later I still hear Lady Tee calling me (“Everybody get up!”)?
Thirty years ago we did not have YouTube and so now I have the chance to catch up on things I missed and relive things I enjoyed. There is Teena on Soul Train in 1980 – a tiny figure wearing a yellow turtleneck blouse and black pants in a sea of young people dancing to “Behind the Groove, ” and “I Need Your Lovin'”. There is Teena and her mentor and friend Rick James in Long Beach, California in July 1981 singing “Fire and Desire.” Rick in blazing red towers over Teena in her cool blue outfit. Teena wows the crowd as she keeps pace with Rick’s powerful voice and carries the song through a jazzy vamp that goes toe-to-toe with saxophones. There is the video for1984’s monster hit “Lovergirl” that shows off Teena’s guitar playing prowess, band-leading skills, and frenzied twirling. There is Teena in 1990 belting out “If I Were a Bell” while radio personality and Video Soul host Donnie Simpson looks on in absolute awe and contentment. There is Teena stunning the audience at the 2004 BET Awards as she and Rick James (in his last televised performance) enter from the crowd and sing “Fire and Desire.” James’ voice is shot while Teena’s is golden but nonetheless the performance is devastating. There is Teena displaying her still strong voice during a medley of ballads at the 2008 R&B Foundation Awards where she is recognized for her lifetime contributions to music. She moves across the stage with the swagger of an old school preacher mixing it up with the choir as she lets loose on “Déjà Vu, ” “Dear Lover, ” and “If I Were a Bell.” As she struggles to catch her breath, the audiences shouts out”Take your time!” as both encouragement to Lady Tee and a plea to her to make the moment last forever. Iris Gordy, Teena’s friend and advocate from the Motown days, presents her award to her. Gordy is Berry Gordy‘s niece and announces Teena as “Berry’s baby.” Overwhelmed with emotion Teena accepts her award and says thankfully “Everything I ever asked God to give me he gave me.” She recounts how she asked God to get her signed to Detroit’s world famous Motown Records and that “Detroit came to L.A.”
Teena Marie’s first album, Wild and Peaceful, came out on Motown in 1979. She will celebrate this milestone 30th anniversary with a new album on a new label in 2009. We will celebrate with her as she takes us back to where we were when we first heard “I’m Just a Sucker for Your Love, ” “Now That I Have You, ” “Square Biz, ” “Casanova Brown, ” “Lovergirl, ” “Lips to Find You, ” “Work It, ” “If I Were a Bell” “Warm as Momma’s Oven, ” “I’m Still in Love, ” and”Ooo Wee.” Yet, I sense that Lady Tee has never been one to remain in the past. She learns from the past, enjoys visiting the past, but keeps her eyes fixed on the future, on where her spirit wants to go. And just like she did on “Behind the Groove” she wants to takes us with her. With Congo Square (Stax, 2009) is inviting us to celebrate her history by moving us with new songs and moving us forward with new visions of what is possible through faith, love, and passion.

Courtesy of www.vitarhythms

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