*Teena Marie bought us pots and pans.
The year was 1978 and photographer Bobby Holland and I, both 23 and cutting our teeth at Soul Newspaper, had just become roommates in a two bedroom mid-Wilshire Los Angeles apartment. World Headquarters. Without a cooking stove.
Teena would come visit Bobby in her little blue Chevy Vega with the black racing stripe and find us preparing “meals” (okay, grilled cheese) on a reversible electric waffle iron as if it were a six burner O’Keefe and Merritt. The day we got a stove, Teena came over with a bag from Fedco, where she’d bought us a Teflon skillet and some pots.
Back then, she wasn’t Teena Marie, as in TEENA MARIE. She was just this sandy-haired little white girl who, as seen in the black and white headshots Motown hired Bobby to shoot (they’re in cyberspace), resembled a teenager instead of an unknown 21 year-old singer/songwriter who, in the hands of bewildered staff producers, languished at the label for three years.
Teena was welcomed into our family of friends. She didn’t drink; back then, you couldn’t even get her to take a hit on a joint. A warm and simple young woman with a wise and folksy soul, Teena was also introspective and subtly melancholic, the way one is when their spirit searches for something.
Sometimes she’d sing her original songs for us, either a cappella or while accompanying herself on acoustic guitar or, when we came upon one somewhere, piano.
The three of us would ride in the front seat of Bobby’s white Pontiac Grand LeManns–the plates read “FUNK MOB” in honor of Parliament/Funkadelic–with Bobby behind the wheel, me on the door and Teena in the middle, tending to every song that came out of the radio.
Imagine cruising down La Brea one evening, on the way to have Mexican, with a voice harnessing the power and agility of say, a young Teena Marie– just months away from becoming TEENA MARIE–in your right ear. Think of that voice randomly slicing the car’s conversation with an exquisitely crafted ad-lib to Aretha’s “Until You Come Back Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” or quietly putting a hurting on Enchantment’s “It’s You That I Need.”
She wouldn’t be showing off. I imagine much of the time, she wasn’t even conscious of it. Teena was simply one of those gifted people whose creativity was forever trying to be freed.
She was a soul singer who counted Smokey Robinson as a major influence. She liked ’70s R&B singer/songwriter Ronnie McNeir (with whom she later recorded a duet) and loved dramatic, swaying, soul and vocal jazz.
Which is why, when she excitedly told us Motown had assigned their hottest new artist to produce her first album–the Bootsy-after-taxes in dirty Levis and cheap jewelry (this was before the money) we’d seen swaggering through the halls of the label named Rick James–I thought it was all wrong. Rick was about the funk, which we absolutely loved, but Teena was more melodic and potentially expansive musically.
No matter. The day Teena began recording with Rick at Marvin Gaye’s private Sunset Blvd. studio, there were so many of us in the control booth, it’s a wonder Rick didn’t ask us all to leave. We were giddy over Teena finally getting the shot she deserved.
Her 1979 debut album, “Wild And Peaceful,” written and produced by Rick James, did exactly what it was supposed to. Marketed by Motown as a successful act’s protege, Teena got plenty of airplay at black radio.
Initially, record buyers thought she was black. Motown wanted it that way: fearing a white R&B singer wouldn’t get any love from a black demographic, the label strategically left Teena’s photo off the album’s cover. Ironically, in the ’60s, Motown also occasionally did this with its black artists, figuring if black faces weren’t on the cover, whites would feel more comfortable in buying the black music they loved.
As it turned out, blacks couldn’t care less about Teena’s hue. The more they learned about her through magazine interviews and television appearances, the more they embraced her. For the whole of her career, Teena’s fan base was 99.9 percent black (Joking, she mentioned to me playing Europe for the first time and quizzically looking out into an audience of mostly white faces). If blacks didn’t like her, it was because they didn’t care for her voice or style, not because she was some patronizing white chick.
The acceptance was incredibly gratifying to Teena (during first appearance on “Soul Train” in ’79, she was over the moon). Despite what anyone may have thought, she never tried to be anyone but herself. She couldn’t help that as a child she’d been raised among blacks and loved artists of another era, including Duke Ellington, Ella, Billie Holliday and a particular favorite, Sarah Vaughn.
However, while Teena enjoyed recording and performing, she was never entirely comfortable with celebrity. Too often it called for her to be something other than the curious, down-to-earth little girl she was back then.
Despite her blossoming talent as a writer, Teena had to plead with Motown for the opportunity to produce own her records. Females generally weren’t allowed to produce (Motown’s Valerie Simpson of the duo Ashford and Simpson was an exception); they weren’t considered qualified to tell a studio full of mostly male session musicians what to play.
To be sure, not every artist, male or female, is a producer. But Teena, proficient on piano and rhythm guitar, possessed a succinct understanding of what she wanted her music to sound like. When Motown let her write and produce her own albums is when the world was presented a clearer musical portrait of Teena. Songs like “I Need Your Lovin’,” “Ooh La La” and “Square Biz” illustrated her ability to create a radio-ready ditty, while “Portuguese Love” and “Casanova Brown” revealed clear compositional skills.
Time and personal goals change everything. Teena and Bobby parted ways. At some point, the only time I saw Teena was when I was assigned to interview her. But we all remained friends. Many of the people we introduced her to during that period, just regular ol’ people, she kept in contact with over the span of her life. Last time I saw Teena was a little over a year ago, backstage somewhere. She was the same Teena–loving and warm, asking about people. Asking about me.
Bobby, who’d introduced me to her all those years ago, was the first to call with the news. Numb actually has a sound: it resonates a quiet, pained resignation. It vibrates with the ominous fear of personal mortality.
Teena would have been moved at how quickly word of her passing traveled through a stunned black America. She’d be humbled that pop music giants such as Motown founder Berry Gordy, producers Gamble and Huff, the hip hop community and others in between all publicly express sadness that she is gone.
I was surprised to see that Teena was only 54. I knew that, I guess. But after all this time, she still felt like my younger sis. To me, her tender disposition had forever cast her as a much younger spirit–a spirit I sincerely hope has finally found what it was searching for.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].