Diva. In today's world of reality stars gone mad the term has come to mean pampered ill-mannered and usually non-to-mildly talented-individuals, or the most blinged-out, wind-swept sequined woman with an attitude. But that wasn't always the case. As a gay man, it's genetic that I gravitate towards and love Divas, and my iTunes library is the better for it. Streisand, Garland, Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, Nina Simone, Edith Piaff, Chaka Khan, Midler, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson, Patti Labelle, Cyndi Lauper, Cher, Maya Angelou, Diana Ross, Hillary Clinton and many other women obtain the moniker and rightfully so. They have style, class, power all their own, and the talent to back up their oft-seen eccentricities. Teena Marie was a Diva.
I first found Teena in 1981, when I was a year out of high school. I was 19 and gay and already getting in to the scene. I went to Odyssey, a teenage disco in Hollywood at the time that catered to the gays (for 17 and older at the time, after 10pm 18 and over) and Square Biz was a huge hit. I had heard her music at lunch at my high school, Long Beach Poly, because, well, it's an inner city school and we heard Marie, Parliament, Confunktion, Earth Wind and Fire with the Emotions... no Journey or Boston here. However, I didn't know it was her until 1981 when I started writing music reviews in local newspapers, heard her new single at the disco (Square Biz) and dove in to the world of Lady T.
Her groundbreaking rap on Square Biz exposed me to Maya Angelou, Giovanni and more. But more important to me at the time, she was a little white girl from Venice Beach high school making all kinds of R&B, the first little red headed white girl to be signed by Motown Records in 1976 and the woman that would become the Ivory Queen of Soul. I was a white gay boy that grew up poor surrounded by African Americans and Hispanics, always the face of poverty in America (up until the Bush Era Depression when American is simply the face of poor). I lived for R&B and soul and Teena embodied both.
Her music continued to provide a soundtrack for soul, from 1983's "Casonova Brown" to her biggest selling album Starchild in 1984 yielding the hit "Lovergirl."
In 1988 I was working as a writer and photographer to help pay the bills (entertainers wearing many hats) for PowerPlay Magazine based in Orange County, CA. Marie had just released Naked to the World on Epic Records with her only #1 charting song of her career, "Ooh La La La" (#1 Billboard R&B/Hip Hop Charts). I was thrilled to be finally meeting her, having heard her music and seen her live for almost a decade.
I met her at her home on Laguna Road in Pasadena. She had an office and a studio (she knick-named it Bedrock Studios as I recall) and I was seated while she was on the phone. There she was, a little funky red head, just chatting away. I noticed a magazine on her floor, The R&B Report. I read it while waiting for her, and thought about it as a possible outlet. I asked her about it and she said she loved it, so I took the info.
We had a great interview about her recent Pop and R&B success, her music and life and what clearly emerged was one of the most down-to-Earth, honest artists I have to date interviewed. Her candor, her wit, and her focus on the music, all aspects, singing, writing, producing, creating, was singular. We spoke of how Venice Beach often pops up in her songs, with either landmark references or inferences in her music and she spoke of how the diversity of Venice, CA and going to high school there really opened her up. Later, she would come to know a young kid on the streets in the area, would take him in, foster him, expose him to her music, hand him instruments... mother him... and he would become Lenny Kravitz. She knew that if you exposed people to their creative selves and let them explore great things could happen. She was living proof.
After the interview I called The R&B Report's Burbank, CA offices and told them I had just interviewed Teena Marie and would love to write a version for them. We met, and they hired me. I would meet a woman at the magazine that later became my best friend and wife (married my best friend after my husband died so she could have health insurance, we're divorced now because she retired and has coverage) and another best friend Thea Austin, who would go on to write and record the iconic dance hit "Rhythm Is A Dancer" and countless others, but more importantly became my best friend that would sing in to the heater in her kitchen with me because the acoustics were great and would later produce everything I ever sang (or will sing) and be there for every birthday, funeral and event in between; Led to Karen, Thea, incredible times and that magazine by Teena Marie keeping me waiting and then their want of my interview with her.
I then went to work as a publicist and became friends with R&B Diva Vesta Williams. Vesta was having hits with "4 U," "Sweet Sweet Love" and her biggest "Congratulations" (written by another funky white girl, Tena Clarke). Vesta also did work with Jazz artist like Najee and others, so we often came in contact with Teena at various events or at places like the Strand in Redondo Beach, CA. I continued writing in R&B, covering, interviewing and photographing Marie and her music and appearances.
Marie was respected by everyone I ever interviewed in R&B, as many talk about other artist's work. Patti Labelle loved her, Chaka, all the R&B icons that I was lucky enough to speak or work with over the years, when it came around to the power houses of the industry, the innovators, the singer's singer, Marie's name always came up. That continues now past her untimely death on December 26, 2010, as artists young and old pay tribute. In 1996 the Fugees took Marie's "Ooh La La La" and turned out the huge hit "Fu Ge La" and her hits still populate FM radio and satellite alike.
Lady T's music and influence was intertwined with all her fan's lives. In the late 1980s she would cause a fight with my brand new boyfriend who became my husband, the late Andrew Howard. I took him to the Strand in Redondo Beach to see Teena and meet her as one of our first dates. But half way through this little white boy from Orange County, CA just couldn't take it and wanted to go to the car and listen to Depeche Mode while I stayed. I thought that was rude. He went to the car anyway. For the next 11.5 years of our relationship until his death I never let him forget it and he would respond with his poor imitation of Lady T's vibrato. In the 1990s I would sign my own recording contract with Jellybean Records/Jellybean Benitez and in that contract was "The Brockert Initiative" better known as the Teena Marie clause. Marie, whose real name was Mary Christine Brockert, got in to a heated legal battle in 1982 with Motown Records. They weren't releasing product on her, but had her under an exclusive deal which prevented her from recording for anyone else... and didn't have to pay her anything over that time. Marie fought this and the resulting legislation makes it illegal for a record company to keep someone under contract without either releasing material or paying them. She once told me "I never set out to change any laws or make a big stand, I just wanted to get away from Motown and get on with my life making music, being creative, and making a living at it. But I'm glad it happened, because Luther (Vandross), the Mary Jane Girls and a few others were able to get out of their contracts, too, so it all turned out all right." Yes, she changed the way labels were able to deal with artists forever for the better without even setting out to do it.
What she set out to do was make music, and that she did. After the Motown Deal (1979-1982), the Epic Deal (1983-1990) she continued with an independent release Passion Play in 1994 (Sarai Records). Later in the 1990s she would record Black Rain but didn't want to release it on her own again. Bootlegs abounded and tracks appeared on later projects, but Marie was busy with another, more important project to her, raising her daughter Alia Rose (whose stage name is Rose La Beau, 18 and now recording). It's Rose that found her mom on the morning of December 26, 2010 in bed, having passed during the night. 18 and mom gone the day after Christmas. As someone whose father passed December 28, and mother December 29th, I know what the holidays hold for Alia in years to come; easier, but always remembering.
In 2004, after 14 years away from the daily grind of the music industry, Marie signed with Hip Hop powerhouse Cash Money Records and released La Dona which would peak at #6 on the Billboard 200 chart (her highest ranking album). The album had a track with Al Green samples which did very well, "I'm Still in Love" (#23 R&B Chart, #70 Pop) and a duet with the late Gerald Levert (Eddie Levert, father, founder of the O'Jays, Gerald member of the group Levert and solo artist) "A Rose By Any Other Name" charted as well.
In 2005 Grammy nodded at Marie with a nomination for best R&B Performance for "I'm Still in Love" and as a voting member of NARAS, I cast my vote for her. That made me proud and happy.
Not sitting still in 2006 she released Sapphire peaking at #24 on the Pop Charts.
With Alia Rose all grown up in 2009 Marie released Congo Square a jazz infused album that Marie herself said brought her back to the roots of what she loved about music. An intensely personal music, it's steeped in sounds of New Orleans, of great Jazz, remarkably in what is thought of as "Black" music. To Teena, it was her roots, because as she had sung so many times "there's too many colors, I can't blend..." She knew true soul had no color attached.
Christmas night, 2010, while finishing watching "Scrooged" on AMC for the 1,248 time my iPhone began to light up. My best friend Ken, who I've known almost as long as I've loved Marie's music, called. A huge fan himself, he was devastated. Then Thea called, then Vesta, then John Giltzow then, then, then. So many friends who truly felt the loss of a great singer, of a great soul, a great diva. Not household names, like Lionel Richie or Lenny Kravitz, fans, industry professionals, just lovers of music.
And, each near 50 and realizing 54 is just too young for anyone to die, let alone someone with such talent experiencing a resurgence.
Some have since written of Teena's flaws, her humanity. Yes, she had a problem with prescription drugs, who hasn't? What artist isn't damaged in some way, doesn't medicate the process of being an artist in some self-destructive way? Art comes from dysfunction when it's great, a sad but true fact. Sad for the artist, great for fans of whatever the medium.
But Marie was no drugged out loser on Celebrity Rehab (sorry Drew, love ya, but...) She kept her demons at bay, was a great mother, a caring friend and a musical dynamo that turned in to a legend somewhere along the way.
I spoke of Joy and Happiness and what that means in the New Year on my December 27 2010 radio program. And played Teena Marie music all day as bumpers. The songs gave me joy again, reached my heart, my soul, and made me cry... all the things great art does.
Diva, legend, Ivory Queen of Soul, each a deserved moniker but just words, really; Marie was music, and the music industry. She was a woman that wanted to work and record, in lean times or flush. Notice I didn't mention much of her work with or relationship with Rick James. Yes, she and Rick were great friends and mentors. Yes, they worked together, from her "Say What!" retort on his hit "Give It To Me Baby" to their duet "Fire and Desire;" from her first albums for Motown to a duet at an awards show that would be their last before he died, Marie was tied to Rick James. It was intensely personal and emotional for her. But she was so much more than that and his life and death should neither tarnish nor enhance memories of Marie. She was an entity all her own.
One day, when a groundbreaking artist is making music that pays tribute to others, like the raps or lyrics that filled Marie's songs, they'll rap or sing about Lady T. Her daughter will keep her music alive and her fans will never, ever forget the little white girl with the huge voice that gave the young end of the Baby Boomer generation some of the funkiest music in the world to be a teenager to and some of the most heartfelt ballads with which to fall in love over. She defied stereotypes and opened doors for people like Anastacia, Taylor Dayne, or any of the soulful ladies that lack pigment.
And like so many, she's gone far too soon.
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