It was among the things that led to the phrase “You lying!”
Growing up, every time someone said Teena Marie was white, that was the response. Every time someone said she could sing her butt off, even enemies and racists agreed.
That Teena Marie, one of a handful of white performers to understand and successfully interpret rhythm-and-blues, died Sunday was a shame.
But the response to news reports that she died of natural causes?
There is nothing natural about the music world losing that voice and an age when many singers are beginning their second acts.
She began her career at Motown. Years earlier, Berry Gordy set the standard for interracial recruiting by signing the white rock band Rare Earth to the Motown family (Motown and Tamla Records). But it was the Sound of Young America – the Supremes, the Miracles, the Temptations – that defined Motown and led it to create music that became iconic.
Still, early Motown happened when we were children, and Motown was Mama and Daddy and ‘em’s music that we loved anyway.
But when Rick James arrived at Motown, full of jheri curls and vinegar, it led to a whole new Motown. Rick jammed a prom or a house party full of kids whose parents were driving around the neighborhood looking for them.
And when Motown signed Teena, the company began breaking all the rules. And so did Teena and Rick, beginning an onstage and off-stage affair that angered black women and reminded America that even in the music industry, racial tensions rule. Another successful black man chose a white woman: who did he think he was? He thought he was free.
For her first album in 1979, Motown wanted Teena to pass for black. There was no recognition of her background, her face, her beginnings. (The great irony was that so many black artists and groups had to do this in the industry’s early years.)
Teena passed, ruling black radio stations and remaining colorless until the following year, when it was her face that graced the cover of her second album, Lady T.
Four years ago, she told a National Public Radio interviewer that: “I still have people coming up to me 26 years later and looking at me and all of a sudden going, ‘I didn’t know you were white!’ ”
The rash of obituaries following her death all included a mention of her lawsuit against Motown, which wouldn’t release her from her contract, but wouldn’t let her release records – a prison no artist should endure. She won, and the Brockert Initiative (Her real name was Mary Christine Brockert.) eventually changed the lives of many artists.
Beginning with Teena.
She left Motown for Epic and soared higher than she ever had. She released “Lovergirl,” her biggest seller ever – after she left Motown.
Soon thought, like many women, she began to focus more on motherhood than the. But a decade later, she faced off against Alicia Keys for a 2005 Grammy. Keys won, but Teena was back.
Teena Marie once said: “I’m a black artist with white skin. At the end of the day you have to sing what’s in your own soul.”
At least she admits it.
But her dying at 54? There is nothing natural about that. There is only a great sense of loss at what she still had in her soul.