Teena Marie: The women behind the groove
Question: What can you say about 'Lady Tee' that hasn't been said before?... Well, I suppose the answer has to be: Absolutely Nothing!!? Cheers then, thanks for reading...
No but seriously, her fascinating life n' times have been well documented and surmised upon over the years - scrutinised even!? A veritable open book you might say, attracting a lot of attention whilst proving to be a bit of an enigma in her chosen market. Her mantle as being one of the few white females artists to achieve success in the, shall we say, one time 'very choosey' R&B market - receiving Grammy nomination after Grammy nomination is a feat in itself and must be commended. But there is more to Teena... A lot more....
Marie got her career off to a flying start in 1979 with the 'Wild and Peaceful' album under the legendary Motown (Gordy) umbrella whilst being labeled as the protegée of late funk legend Rick James. James was to appear on her first release/immediate hit from this album, with the single called 'Im Just A Sucker For Your Love'. Both album and subsequent single did not feature a picture of the artist as Dj's and public alike assumed Marie was black - the label did little to dispel these rumours as they thought it would effect sales. As time ticked by this diverse Diva became responsible for some of the best R&B on the planet with hits like 'Behind The Groove', 'Square Biz, 'I Need Your Lovin', 'Portuguese Love' and Fugees fans I'm sure will remember 'Ooo La, La, La' to name but a fraction. Couple that with her determination to stay at the top of her game (30 years this year) and I'm sure you'll agree Teena Marie is not only talented but also quite unique.
You want some interesting fact-iods? Ok, I have a few for Ms Mary Christine Brocket - opps! Sorry Teena Marie. She was born on March 5th 1956 in Santa Monica, California and is of Portuguese, Irish, Italian and Native American ancestry (I kid you not). Talking of kids, as a child she appeared on T.V show 'The Beverley Hillbillies' and at 10 years old one of her early claims to fame, was to sing at legendary comedian Jerry Lewis' son's wedding. In 1982 her Motown fairy-tale came to an abrupt end as the singer became disillusioned with the mighty label, whilst embroiled in contractual disagreements around the release of new material. The result of this action became known in law circles as the "Brocket Initiative" (The "Teena Marie" Initiative has a much better ring to it don't you think?) in which an artist cannot be held by an un-supportive record company, who do not intend to release material in a constructive way - thus suppressing the artists intellectual freedom (hey you asked!?). This rule has helped many artists in the same situation since.
Having a reputation of being something of a perfectionist by matching her robust vocal with her steely nature. In the main Marie writes, arranges, produces, plays a lot of the instruments (including piano and guitar) and of course sings on all her albums pretty much since (her favourite) 1980 album 'Irons In The Fire'. Her fans, and I cite yours truly 'Lee Tyler' as one of them, will tell you we love her just the way she is and wouldn't change a single thing - proof in-case that "the women doth maketh the music"... As you read on, I actually think she wouldn't change a single note of her life either... Ok, maybe one...
Lee: Hi Teena Marie!! How are you?
Teena: I'm good thank you!
Lee: It’s nice to see you back!
Teena: Thank You.
Lee: May I jump straight in and talk about Congo Square?
Lee: There’s a few tunes on the new album which are typical Teena Marie. Also we have the traditional branch out in different musical directions to the point of getting quite jazzy in places. What sort of musical direction does Teena Marie think she is going in with this album?
Teena: I've always done that with my records. I've always had pop stuff and R&B stuff and the Jazz stuff. Did you like it?
Lee: I loved it - thank you very much! It was like... I didn’t know what style of music and vocal was going to come next, and for me, that was the most exciting thing about the album .
Teena: It was fun putting it together, trying to make sure it flowed because I actually cut probably twenty five songs. I just kept the stuff that I really felt was perfect for this record and took the other stuff out. I had to make sure that things fit, you know. There were two songs on the album actually that were old - that I cut probably twelve years ago. The very first song 'The Pressure' and the song 'Watch You Got For Me'. My daughter actually discovered them one day listening to my computer. She asked me "What album is this on?" And I was like "It's not, I've never put it out!" She was like "You're crazy, you need to be working on this...". Everything has a perfect time I think and sometimes I save things for later, and sometimes things are right now. But I guess I realised that those two particular songs were probably a little ahead of their time and they still sound great like today.
Lee: I agree, on various occasions I feel your music has been ahead of the times... Do you feel that?
Teena: I always try to be a trend setter. That’s what I always tell young people when I'm giving them advice. To go with their heart and don’t follow the trends. Try to do what they want and not what maybe another artist they like does, you know. It makes it more honest and truthful - true to yourself. That's what people love and respect about it, and it feels good.
Lee: That’s exactly what I was going to ask you.... This album - is this a piece of Teena Marie?
Teena: Every single thing that I have ever done is a piece of me and this is definitely a piece of Teena Marie [laughs].
Lee: Looking at the tracks, you have a few people guesting on there Mc Lite and Faith Evans. What made you pick those particular artists?
Teena: I picked artists I really love, people I really want to work with. Lite and I had worked together before and we’re friends. I have a lot of respect for Faith - I love her vocals and we know each other. She heard the song (Can't Last The Day) and she liked it. I had actually finished the song, but it was all just me. She liked it, so I took some my vocals off and dropped hers in! I love Howard Hewitt (Ex-Shalamar vocalist) he is one of my favourite artists in the whole world, I always wanted to work with Howard... I also love Shirley Murdoch you know, they’re people that I love and respect myself.
Lee: And George Duke popping up on the title track 'Congo Square' itself....
Teena: He’s a good friend of mine.
Lee: I noticed that your daughter is on there too (Alia Rose, sings under the name Rose Le Beau), someone you missed off in that queue![Laughs]
Teena: [Laughing] Yeah! She just sang with me in New Orleans at 'Essence' (music festival) over the weekend for 90,000 people. She got a standing ovation - it was pretty amazing.
Lee: I take it she is going in the right direction with her career...
Teena: Yeah, she's already working on her own music. She is song writing, and doing her vocal lessons and her dancin - it’s going to come out soon.
Lee: Is she following in the Teena Marie vain or has she got her own style?
Teena: She wants to go more pop/rock like Gwen Stefani type stuff.
Lee: Changing the subject a little - You play so many instruments, how on earth do you get time? You strike me as a little bit of a perfectionist to be honest, do you over perfect because you play everything and you do all the arrangement... or maybe not enough?
Teena: Urm I just really always try to do what's in my heart and I'm still passionate about the music, I still love what I am doing. I think that's why people still like it and gravitate too it - I definitely feel that’s why I am still around. I know it’s a gift and I am just a channel of that gift, so that's probably a lot of the reason that thirty years later I'm still being allowed to do it.
Lee: I was going to say Happy Birthday – it’s been 30 years this years in the business hasn’t it? Does it feel like 30 years, or has the time just flown?
Teena: I don’t know... I guess it does and it doesn’t cos I don’t know if I know what 30 years feels like! I guess I do! [laughs] Cos I've been through the last thirty years.
Lee: [laughing] Well I take that as a yes... You must have had fun if you don’t know what it feels like!!??
Teena: Yeah! I've had a lot of fun - I have had a wonderful life.
Lee: Just harping back to your arrangement on the album. What was the hardest part of arranging these songs, maybe something in specific that was a little bit tricky?
Teena: I wanted it to be inspiring. I wanted to do songs that reflected the things that I loved when I was growing up - every single song on the record is dedicated to someone, or some musical giant that I loved .
'The Pressure' is dedicated to Rick (James). 'Can't Last A Day' dedicated to the Gamble and Huff sound - the Philly International sound. 'Baby I love You' and 'Ear Candy' are dedicated to Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Riding down Crenshaw in L.A in jeeps and bumping to music on the 808. 'Miss Coretta' of course is dedicated to Mrs King (Corettta Scott King, American author, activist and civil rights leader. She was also the late wife of assassinated civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King). 'Solder' is for the soldiers.
'Congo Square' is for Congo Square - it's for the slaves and the great musical geniuses and giants that have come out of new Orleans, and the great Jazz era. And Louis Armstrong... So I dedicated every single song to somebody that I loved and inspired me - I think that is what’s missing in a lot of music now. You might buy an album and you may like one or two songs on the whole record, and rest of it is just fillers. I wanted a record that people could just put on, just like how we used to do it y’know. You just put it on, it’s summertime - you can just play the whole thing and just have fun and just party.
Lee: I found it a multifaceted album in the fact you can just sit there on your own, in your own world if you like - while-away the hours, or you can have it on in the background, or you can sit there with a loved one holding hands or other stuff... [Laugh to myself]. It’s one of THOSE albums [wink]...
Teena: That's how my 'Irons In the Fire' album worked - my third album on Motown. And the fourth one, 'It Must Be Magic' - I wanted to do an album that reflected that feeling that I had, when I was... young.
Lee: Is this the same feeling you had then?
Teena: Yes, I love this album like I loved 'Iron's In The Fire' and I've never ever had a favourite album other than that.
Lee: So you would say that this is a joint favourite album now?
Teena: Yes, because it's spiritually connected with who I am and what I love. You don't always do that - you don't always spiritually connect?
Lee: No, no course not.
Teena: Is this a time for you looking back at your career then - Because you've reached this milestone?
Teena: Yeah I guess so, you know I think more than anything it's important to love what you do and if you can love the records and it makes you happy, then that’s the most important thing I think. Then you hope what your feeling affects other people, you know, it seems to be doing that.
The reviews on the album were awesome, all the comments, all the reviews and the sales... If this record had came out about five years ago it would be through the roof right now. [Laughs to herself] Unfortunately we are in a recession, but it's still doing really, really well. The first day it came out it was the number one and most digitally sold record in the country (U.S) in Rn'B.
Lee: What made you call the album Congo Square?
Teena: Well, Congo Square is in New Orleans and I love New Orleans. In slavery times the slaves were allowed to go dance and sing on Sundays - I thought that must have been an amazing sound. I have a deep affinity for New Orleans - its like a second home to me, they treat me like I'm their own. I'm like, really beloved in New Orleans - and from the moment I stepped off the plane years and years ago I felt that I had been there before... I was actually looking for a home there, when (hurricane) Katrina hit - I was on second to the last flight to get out of there!
I thought about Congo Square, I thought about the great jazz era - people like Louis Armstrong, who is the father of Jazz and I thought of Billie Holiday. That why I'm singing in the vocal style I'm singing in on 'What U Got 4 Me'. Because when I warm up I use that voice - my co-producer said "Sing it for me again..." cos I sing like Billie Holliday in imitation when I warm up on the mic sometimes. When I was doing that song he told me "Hey, use that voice, lets use that voice on it..." That’s how that sound came about... Then I thought about all the musicians that are still coming through - people like Sarah Vaughn and young people like Jill Scott... Erica Badu and myself and all of those blues musicians... People like John Lee Hooker who influenced Robert Plant and his vocal stylings - he planned his style off how John Lee Hooker plays a guitar - I thought that it would just be awesome to address this... The address of all musicians whether your famous or not - who at the end of the day came through.
And right when I finished the record in November, my cousin from Washington State and I were talking - I was telling her the same story that I just told you and she told me that's where our people are from!? I had no idea what she was talking about. I said "Our father’s were brothers, they were from Texas". She said "Yeah they're from Texas, but before they were in Texas they were in Louisiana - they were in New Orleans". She then said "Our great, great grandmother Laura Collins was married in the St Louis Cathedral right next to Congo Square". I could have found this out four years ago - I could of found this out 10 years ago, but I found this out right as I was completing this particular record 'Congo Square'. So it really, really let me know that everything that I was feeling about New Orleans and my life, wasn't some crazy bulls**t in my head - It was real magical. I went to St Louis Cathedral on the Monday when I was flying home from the funeral (Michael Jacksons). I stopped - I had the driver stop cos I hadn't been in there, I took my daughter in there and we said a prayer before we got on the plane to come home and it's really, really beautiful.
Lee: It all sounds like it was meant to be – do you feel that?
Teena: Yes, and I say that on the record - there's some liner notes and it sez serendipity.
Lee: Yes of course. It all falls into place very nicely doesn’t it? From the artists, to your arrangements, to the name of the album, it just feels like something that was meant to be......
Teena: I don't even know the word for it. It's timely and deeply spiritual - I don't know if I'll ever be able to do it again.
Lee: But you have done it! You have done it now! I presume you are rejoicing in that fact?
Teena: Yes I am.
Lee: I am really interested in your history as it really sounds to me that you know a lot about yourself and your roots. Is it something that really interests you?
Teena: It really interested me as a child. That’s why I was so shocked that I never knew about my parents - my father’s people being from New Orleans. I knew they were in Texas, but how would I know that unless one of my family members told me that fifty years back.... Before they were in Texas they were there you know. I've always been an historian, so I was really, really thankful for her bringing that to the forefront.
Lee: Can I change the subject and ask what's it like being at Stax. Another label that is heaped in tradition and could also be said is a cornerstone in music history?
Teena: It’s been very nice...
Lee: Is it like...
Teena: Motown... There will never be another Motown.
Lee: No, no of course not...
Teena: There will never be that kind of group of people that inspired each other, and competed against each other , and loved each other and when we competed it was a healthy competition - I've never ever felt that. I probably... I will never feel like that again. Like there will never be another Michael Jackson.
Lee: I'm glad you brought up Motown, can we talk about their 50th birthday?
Teena : Ohh yeah - Their 50th and my 30th...
Lee: That’s what I eluding to – it’s two anniversaries in one... Obviously with your ties with Motown... I wanted to ask you your recollections of the label and how you think that Motown developed during your time there and subsequently after you left.
Teena: I always wanted to be there from the time I was a child - watching the Ed Sullivan shows. You know, standing up in front of the TV pretending to be one of the Supremes just like every other little girl in America. Whether you were black, white, brown or whatever - all wanted to be a Supreme! For me to end up in the place that I loved, with all these artists... Smokey Robinson, I really feel is who taught me how to write music because I studied his writing and his writing style. That's what I panned my writing style off of you know. So to end up in a place where all the giants that you love...
Walking down the halls and coming round the corner and you bump into Bobby DeBarge. Sitting in Stevie Wonder's office writing 'Casanova Brown', you know it was absolutely amazing... There were so many Motown artists at the service (Michael Jackson's memorial)... Lionel (Richie) was sitting in front of me and I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and said “Oh God I didn’t even know that was you!” We started talking. You know we shared the stage together at Essence (Music Festival). I just said "I heard you were flawless!" We were just talking and he was like "Man it’s just like old, old times right?" I was like "Yeah, really beautiful - nothing at all can touch what it was".
Lee: Can I ask you what is your most endearing memory of Michael Jackson?
Teena: I have a photo on my mantle... I came into Epic (Records) one day and we had the same project manager (Hal Davis) and he said "I have a present for you". I said "Oh what's that?" With that he handed me this beautiful, beautiful picture of Michael in 'Thriller' - it was right around Thriller time, in the red leather jacket and Michael had signed it... I said “Oh my god!" I had met him before at Motown and a few times before that... He said "Michael came into my office today and your poster was on the wall and he (Michael) was looking at the poster and he said; Teena and I were at Motown together, she's here at Epic now?" And was like "Yep she's here too" And with that he said "I will be right back". Michael went straight to the art department and got them to give him a big picture for me, he signed it and brought it back to give to my project manager and said "When she comes in, would you please give it to her". And I thought that was so sweet.
Lee: Yes he was a very, very sweet man.
Teena: Yes he was...
Lee: That brings me sweetly - excuse the pun - to my last question. When I mention your name, the name Rick James always comes up...
Teena: Yeah, always, because that was my musical Soulmate and I think it's kinda obvious through those records. For a long time I took 'Fire and Desire' (a duet the pair performed at the 2004 BET awards, Rick James died later that year) outta my show because it was too hard to sing, but I had to put it back in because it was just so magical to so many people - it's undeniable. I think God places certain people together to make magic and that's what the combination of Rick and Teena did.
Lee: Was he as big a mentor for you as people surmise?
Teena: Oh yes most definitely, I learned a lot about production and arranging from Rick.
Lee: He was indeed an extraordinary artist... Unfortunately, I think that's all our time used up!
Teena: Thank you so much Lee.
Lee: Thank you Teena Marie! Thank you for sharing so much with me and good luck with 'Congo Square'.
Teena: Thank you.
Teena Marie the 'Ivory Queen of Soul' died of natural causes in Pasadena, California on 26 December 2010, at a mere 54 years of age. Of course it is understatement to say she will be missed greatly by her family, friends, fans and music lovers - her legacy will live on through those mentioned and her accomplished back catalogue will speak volumes for a long time to come.
I would also like to take a moment to send my deep felt condolences to Teena Marie's family at a time of immense sadness. And having had the pleasure of interviewing this legendry artist, I can only say, she was a lovely lady on all fronts. Ever the professional and as an human being she shone so bright.
Words LEE TYLER