A Southern California native, Teena Marie was born Mary Christine Brockert in Santa Monica, and was raised in the Mission Hills and Venice neighborhoods of Los Angeles. At the age of eight, in 1964, she tap danced in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, and in high school was active in musical theater, but she was drawn first to a broad range of music. She taught herself to play several instruments, starting with guitar, bass, and congas, and before graduating high school was leading her first group. It was in a subsequent band with best friend Mickey Hearn and brother Tony Brockert that Teena was discovered by Hal Davis. Accomplished writer/producer Davis had the band audition for Motown's Berry Gordy, who selected them to be in a film entitled The Innkeeper. The project was scrapped, though Teena was on the Motown roster by the end of 1975. Over the next few years, Teena recorded material with Ronnie McNeir, Winston Monseque, the duo of Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, and Gordy himself as producers. None of it was deemed fit for release, though Teena during this phase placed a ballad she co-wrote, "Just as Long as There Is You," on Tata Vega's 1976 album Full Speed Ahead, produced by Monseque.
Through manager Winnie Jones, a staffer at Motown publishing company Jobete, Teena was then paired with ascending funk wiz Rick James. The two made an instant connection, and with backing from James' Stone City Band, they put together Teena's debut album. Released on Motown subsidiary Gordy, like James' output, Wild and Peaceful entered Billboard's Soul Albums chart in early May 1979, and a couple weeks later, lead single "I'm a Sucker for Your Love" was on the Hot Soul Singles chart, on its way to a number eight peak. Wild and Peaceful, as with most of Teena's subsequent LPs, proved to have staying power, remaining on the charts for six months. Successful as it was -- topping out at number 18 on the soul chart -- the album merely hinted at Teena's potential. For the most part, it was a showcase for her vocals and James' writing and production. Teena co-wrote only "I'm Gonna Have My Cake (And Eat It Too)," the one song on which she played an instrument (piano). Moreover, some of the material was second hand. "I'm a Sucker for Your Love" was intended for Diana Ross, but when Motown rejected James' idea to produce a whole album for the former Supreme, he took it back. Teena picked up another Motown songwriting credit in 1979 with "Happiness," cut by Apollo, a one-album Gordy act in familial membership and label of release.
Going by her voice and lack of accompanying portraits in the packaging of Wild and Peaceful, listeners assumed that Teena Marie was Black. Motown's vision of Teena's developing fanbase wasn't exactly prescient, evidenced by a promotional tour booked in support of Shaun Cassidy. These perceptions -- and any notion that Teena was merely a fledgling protégé -- were changed with the makeup, presentation, reception of the 1980 releases Lady T and Irons in the Fire. For the first of those two albums, Teena sought Richard Rudolph, husband and musical partner of one of her inspirations, Minnie Riperton, who had recently died of cancer. Teena and Rudolph produced the album together and also co-wrote some of the songs, most notably the bounding dancefloor funk bomb "Behind the Groove," a number 21 hit on the soul chart. Teena penned and co-arranged "Aladdin's Lamp," a song with some resemblance to Riperton's work a decade earlier. Among that song's background voices was that of Jill Jones, Winnie Jones' daughter, who with Teena wrote another song for the LP, "Young Girl in Love." Teena maintained another connection to her beginnings with "You're All the Boogie I Need," written with Mickey Hearn (who would continue to collaborate with Teena for the long term). Also heard on the album is the speaking voice of Riperton and Rudolph's then-young daughter, Maya Rudolph. Lady T was only six months old when Teena's third album was racked. Irons in the Fire, written, produced, and arranged by Teena, yielded her second Top Ten soul entry and first Top 40 pop hit, "I Need Your Lovin'," and peaked at number nine on the soul album chart.
Another big year was had by Teena in 1981. She duetted with Rick James on the Black radio staple "Fire and Desire," off the multi-platinum Street Songs, and assisted another Motown act, Ozone, on "Gigolette." Between those two appearances, she released Irons in the Fire. While all of Teena's recordings are filled with a sense of gratitude toward her inspirations, it permeates Irons in the Fire, a set with nods and tributes to the Marvelettes, Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, and John Lennon, among others, and background vocals from the Temptations. Teena took a cue from Blondie's "Rapture" to rap on the number three soul hit "Square Biz," on which she references several additional influences. It Must Be Magic, which peaked at number 23 on Billboard's main album chart -- then Teena's highest-performing release -- was the first Teena LP certified gold by the RIAA, and it was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female (won that year by Franklin). Despite the growing stack of accolades, Teena's relationship with Motown became so strained that it manifested in a lawsuit and the Brockert Initiative (or the Teena Marie Law), which states that a label cannot keep an artist under contract while withholding that artist's new recordings. (Teena later noted that it helped Luther Vandross and Mary Jane Girls get out of similar label situations.)
Teena left Motown and signed a deal with Epic that also enabled her to establish her own publishing company. Her second label era began in 1983 with Robbery, the first album for which she wrote all the material on her own. Adding a little more rock and Latin jazz to her mix, Teena also got a little help from the likes of Patrice Rushen and Stanley Clarke, and with "Fix It" and "Midnight Magnet" unloaded two more hits into the Top 40 of Billboard's Black Singles chart (previously Hot Soul Singles). Pop success had been elusive for Teena, but she secured her first spot in the Top Ten of the Hot 100 with the lead single off the next album. "Lovergirl" reached number four, powered rocking parent LP Starchild to gold status, and earned Teena her second Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female. The award was won again by Aretha Franklin, whose "Freeway of Love" was co-written and produced by Narada Michael Walden, coincidentally part of Starchild's all-star supporting cast with the likes of Ronnie McNeir and Leon Ware. After she produced and wrote for Q.T. Hush, her Epic-signed backing band, she went with an even heavier sound for Emerald City -- which also contained a batucada diversion -- in 1986. Naked to the World and Ivory, issued respectively in 1988 and 1990, worked a slicker contemporary R&B style with some new jack swing flavoring. Those three final Epic LPs produced seven charting singles, including the instant-classic ballad "Ooo La La La," a Hot Black Singles chart-topper interpolated the next decade on Fugees' "Fu-Gee-La."
Passion Play, self-issued in 1994, was preceded by a break of a few years, and another ten years passed before Teena released another album. Teena devoted much of this time to raising her daughter. In the early 2000s, the artist found an unlikely if very welcoming label home with Cash Money Records, an immensely successful rap label based in New Orleans. For Cash Money, she released La Doña in 2004 and Sapphire in 2006. Both entered the R&B/hip-hop chart at number three. The former also went to number six on the main album chart, Teena's highest showing, and featured her third Grammy-nominated recording, "I'm Still in Love." The Cash Money sessions made room for guest appearances from Rick James, Gerald Levert, Smokey Robinson, MC Lyte, and Teena's daughter, Alia Rose, among others. The freely collaborative approach continued with Congo Square, a 2009 Stax release with George Duke, Shirley Murdock, Howard Hewett, and Faith Evans all aboard.
On December 26, 2010, Teena died of natural causes. For six years, up to a month before her death, she had suffered seizures after being hit on the head by a falling picture frame while sleeping in a hotel room. Numerous anthologies, reissues, and posthumous releases have followed. First Class Love: Rare Tee compiled the pre-debut Motown sessions over two discs and was released in 2011. Teena's final studio recordings, with finishing oversight from Alia Rose, were issued two years later as Beautiful. John Morales Presents Teena Marie: Love Songs Funky Beats, put together in 2021, offered new remixes of hits and deep cuts utilizing the original studio tapes. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi
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