Why Teena Marie was our ‘Ivory Queen of Soul’

Just as most music aficionados of a certain age probably recall exactly where they were when we first heard Teena Marie, we’ll likely never forget what we were doing when we received word of her untimely demise. News of the singer, songwriter, and producer’s death, which occurred on the 31st year of her music career and six years after the death of her mentor Rick James, was in large measure a reflection of the social networking age: unconfirmed reports resounded throughout Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere before finally being confirmed by her publicist.

It was both a measure of fans’ disbelief and a coda of the public’s skepticism about Internet rumors that the news of Marie’s death was initially dismissed, given that it came immediately on the heels of bizarre reports that actor Charlie Sheen had died over the weekend. The circumstances surrounding Marie’s death at the far-too-young age of 54 were eerily reminiscent of those involving the death of music icon Michael Jackson in 2009, another music icon who died with no advance warning.

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Born Mary Christine Brockert, the R&B chanteuse with the powerhouse voice grew up in a predominantly black Los Angeles neighborhood, and counted mostly African-American musical icons among her musical influences. She first rose to prominence by way of her professional and personal relationship with the late James, and was one of Motown’s first Caucasian artists. At the time of her signing to the label in 1976, Motown executives reportedly fretted about possible backlash from black audiences should they discover she was white.

According to Marie’s biography on Billboard.com, her debut album in 1979 didn’t even feature her picture: most programmers at black radio stations operated under the assumption she was black. Over time, she became affectionately referred to as “the Ivory Queen of Soul” — a hat-tip to the fact that whatever she may have lacked in melanin, she most assuredly compensated for in singing talent.

Not that anyone who spent a moment listening to her sing would have any grounds to question her authenticity as a soul artist. Who among us doesn’t recall being bowled over by her debut with James on “I’m Just a Sucker for Your Love”, or the chill we got from hearing her sultry voice alongside James in their signature ballad, “Fire and Desire”? In a musical genre often noted for the “baby-making” qualities it engenders, Marie stood out for her ability to project fiery passion through her ballads, or clear a dance floor with pulsating, rhythmic beats such as those found on her immortal ‘Square Biz.’ Marie’s songs have withstood the test of time, and found new life in the music industry’s sincerest form of flattery and imitation. Her smash hit ‘Ooh La la la’ was sampled in part by The Fugees on their 1996 single, ‘Fu-Gee-La.’

But for all of the early brouhaha surrounding her ethnicity, Marie stood out for her enduring appeal to black listeners. The music industry is replete with examples of “crossover” artists — Madonna, Boy George and George Michael being among the most prominent examples — who achieved initial acclaim from African-American audiences through the use of R&B-influenced sound. These same artists later transitioned into full-fledged (and more lucrative) pop careers, and never looked back.

For her part, Marie remained true to the genre, and audiences repaid that loyalty with their unyielding support. Even as her career appeared to peak in the late 1980s and she was dropped by her label, Epic, fans continued to flock to Marie’s live shows and played her songs endlessly.

Marie’s success as a soul singer also has much to teach us as music fans, specifically about the color-blindness of talent, and the content of a musician’s character. Her decidedly white lineage notwithstanding, the embrace of Marie by black audiences illustrates the extent to which her ethnicity probably never should have been an issue in the first place. Like people of all races who love music, blacks recognize talent when they see or hear it. It goes without saying that Teena Marie was a woman of unparalleled musical deftness.

Farewell, Lady T. You will be sorely missed.