january 2011


‘The Ivory Queen of Soul’

Teena Marie

March 5, 1956-December 26, 2010

Soul singer Teena Marie (born Mary Christine Brockert, later christened “The Ivory Queen of Soul”), the most successful of the few white artists signed to the Motown label and a protégé of Rick James who proved she could do quite well on her own, thank you, was found dead in her home in Pasadena, CA, on December 26, 2010. Although it was announced she had died of natural causes, the singer’s death came a month after she had suffered a grand mal seizure. She was 54.

Ms. Marie always credited her godmother with introducing her to black music—especially that coming out of Detroit on the Motown label—and her fascination with it was enhanced during the years the Santa Monica, CA, native spent growing up in the largely African-American enclave of Oakwood, CA, west of Los Angeles. Drawn to show business early, she appeared in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, and as a 10-year-old sang at the wedding of one of Jerry Lewis’s sons. In high school, she appeared in a student production of The Music Man.

rick jamesSigned to Motown in 1976 through the auspices of staff producer Hal Davis (who had worked with the Jackson 5 and Brenda Holloway, among others), Ms. Marie (who followed the Rustix and Rare Earth as Motown’s first white singings; both groups recorded for the label’s Rare Earth subsidiary, whereas Ms. Marie’s records were released on Motown proper) recorded a raft of unreleased material with several producers—Motown reportedly spent more than $400,000 on the sessions and still was uncertain of how to present her commercially; Motown founder Berry Gordy is said to have signed her initially not as a singer but rather as an actress. Her fortunes—and her life—changed when Rick James and former Champs guitarist Paul C Saenz began directing her career. James, who was slated to produce a Diana Ross album, opted instead to work with Ms. Marie, and produced the artist’s 1979 debut, Wild and Peaceful, which yielded a Top 10 single, “I’m Just a Sucker For Your Love,” a duet with James. Motown’s fears that its black audience would not accept a white artist singing soul music led the label to keep Ms. Marie’s picture off the album packaging entirely. Those fears were laid to rest when Ms. Marie and James performed their hit duet on Soul Train that year.

Teena Marie did not fake singing black, or singing soulfully. She could wail a husky blues-based grinder or growl some sensuous funk-flavored come-ons, and could also roll out a sensuous, liquid whispery voice on torchy soul ballads. On stage she cut an alluring figure with her voluptuous figure and her thick mane of shoulder-length brunette locks, along with a no-nonsense attitude of a woman in charge of the funkified fury going on all around her.

Three more Motown albums followed Wild and Peaceful: Lady T (produced by Richard Rudolph, husband of R&B hitmaker Minnie Riperton, who had died a year earlier) and Irons In the Fire, which she wrote, produced and arranged herself; from the latter came her first Top 40 hit, “I Need Your Lovin’.” That same year she appeared on James’s hit album Street Songs, engaging him in a steamy duet on “Fire and Desire.” A year later, her album It Must Be Magic went gold and included her highest charting R&B single, “Square Biz.”

Disillusioned with her Motown contract and by the label’s plans for holding or releasing her new material, Ms. Marie sued and won a decision that has become known as The Brocket Initiative, which makes it illegal for a record company to keep an artist under contract without releasing new material on that artist, thus freeing the artist to sign with another label. Downplaying her role in the case, Ms. Marie told the Los Angeles Times, “I just wanted to get away from Motown and have a good life.”

Teena Marie at Artscape, Baltimore, MD, 2006, performs one of her most touching love ballads, the Rick James-penned ‘Déjà Vu (I’ve Been Here Before).” Posted by Stevie’s Soul channel at YouTube, stevie0323

Even so, she told Lee Tyler at www.bluesandsoul.com, in an interview published in January 2010, that being a Motown artist was a dream come true. “I always wanted to be there from the time I was a child, watching the Ed Sullivan shows,” she said. “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 planned my writing style off of, you know. So to end up in a place with all the giants that you love...”

From 1983 to 1990 Ms. Marie experienced a successful run at Epic Records (where she was reunited with Hal Davis (who was also Michael Jackson’s project manager at that time), and a more daring one than she had engaged in at Motown. As a writer, she was delving more into her personal history for songs such as “Casanova Brown,” one of many reflections she penned about her often-turbulent romance with Rick James, who died in 2004. The Epic years included two interesting concept albums, 1983’s Robbery (which contained “Casanova Brown” as well as the #21 R&B single “Fix It”) and 1986’s rock-driven Emerald City, with one track, “Lead Me On,” co-produced by film composer and electronic music savant Giorgio Moroder for the Tom Cruise vehicle, Top Gun, one of the year’s top box office hits. She returned to her R&B roots on 1988’s Naked To The World and the move paid off with her first and only chart topping single, “Ooo La La La.” The Epic years ended with 1990’s Ivory album, a disappointment to the label despite its two hit singles (“Here’s Looking at You,” #11 R&B, and “If I Were a Bell,” #8 R&B).

Following her amicable split with Epic, Ms. Marie devoted more time to raising her daughter Alia Rose than to pursuing career interests, but during her hiatus she was recognized by way of cover versions of her songs by younger R&B singers and samples of her earlier recordings showing up on hip-hop records. James’s death in 2004 was a wrenching time for Ms. Marie, who became addicted to Vicodin, which she had been taking to relieve pain from a number of accidents she had suffered during her touring years. Last year, in an interview with www.essence.com, she explained: “Once I realized that those pills not only took away my physical agony by masking my emotional pain I really became addicted. When I was on the medication I never cried about him, but then I went cold turkey and I cried so much and have been for the last three years. He was my musical soul mate. We were like an extension of each other. I miss all our talks. We were like family; only family can talk about family, not anyone else.” She said she had successfully beaten her Vicodin addiction when she went on tour to support her most recent album, Congo Square.

Teena Marie & Rick James, ‘Fire and Desire,’ the smoldering duet from James’s Street Songs album

In 1994 she released Passion Play on her own independent Sarai label, and later cut another album, Black Rain, that she decided not to release at all. However, bootleg copies made from a promotional-only pressing began circulating, and selected Black Rain tracks would surface in different arrangements on her later albums, 2004’s La Dona (a gold album and at #6 the highest charting LP of her career), 2006’s Sapphire and 2009’s jazz-influenced Congo Square, the latter released on Stax/Concord Records.

In the aforementioned interview with Lee Tyler for www.bluesandsoul.com, Ms. Marie revealed that the content of Congo Square was purposely designed to reflect her appreciation of those artists and sounds that had influenced her approach to music.

“I wanted it to be inspiring,” she told Tyler. “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, 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.

Teena Marie, ‘Ooo La La La’ live on Soul Train, from her Naked To The World album (1988). The single was her first and only Number One hit.

“'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.”

Asked by Essence.com if she had ever been criticized as a white woman singing black music, Ms. Marie said in the end “people like good music.” Motown founder Berry Gordy, she said, decided not to put her photo on her first album because he thought the music was so soulful “that he wanted to give the music an opportunity to stand on its own merit. Instead of my face, they put a seascape, so by the time my second album came out people were like, Lady T is White? Omigod? Overall my race hasn't been a problem. I'm a black artist with white skin. At the end of the day you have to sing what's in your own soul.” —David McGee



Bernie Wilson, Blue Note

July 12, 1946-December 26, 2010

wilsonBernie Wilson, the baritone vocalist in the classic lineup of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, passed away on December 26 (Sunday, 12/26/10) from undisclosed medical complications at Kresson View Center in Voorhees, NJ.

A Philadelphia, PA, native, Wilson was born on July 12, 1946.  He joined Melvin, Teddy Pendergrass, Lawrence Brown and Lloyd Parks in the classic lineup that was signed to Philadelphia International Records in 1972, beginning a four-year string of hits for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes that were integral in defining the Sound of Philadelphia. Originally formed in the 1950s as The Charlemagnes, the group’s music ranged from sweeping, extended proto-disco dance tracks to silky, smoldering ballads, all framed by the lushly orchestrated production that became the signature sound crafted by label founders/producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff.

‘The world won’t get no better/if we just let it be…’—‘Wake Up Everybody,’ a lush, socially conscious message from Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, a #1 R&B hit (#12 pop) in 1975.

The group made its chart debut in 1960 with “My Hero” (#78 pop, #19 R7B), and earned a Grammy nomination for its first #1 R&B hit, 1972’s “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” More #1 R&B hits followed, with “The Love I Lost” (1973, #7 pop), “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” (with Sharon Paige, #42 pop) and the lush but socially conscious gem, “Wake Up Everybody” (1975, #12 pop). Other Blue Notes classics during that time include “Bad Luck” (#4 R&B; #15 pop).

The passing of Mr. Wilson, who joined the group in 1954, leaves Lloyd Parks as the sole surviving member of the classic lineup of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024