Teena Marie, Trailblazing Singer Known As The Ivory Queen Of Soul, Has Died

Originally published on December 28, 2010 9:19 am

Lady T. Vanilla Child. The Ivory Queen of Soul. Mary Christine Brockert earned all kinds of nicknames over the course of her career. The one most people knew was Teena Marie.

Marie died yesterday at home in Pasadena, at the age of 54. A white woman whose exceptional voice made her a success in the traditionally black genres of soul, R&B and funk, her career began on Motown in the late 1970s. The cover of her 1979 debut album, Wild and Peaceful, didn't feature her photo; Marie later said that Motown chief Berry Gordy wanted people to listen to her voice without getting distracted by the color of her skin.

Talking to Audie Cornish on All Things Considered on Monday, University of Pennsylvania music professor Guthrie Ramsay explained Teena Marie's talent in technical terms:

"She sings with a very robust chest voice but she also has what we call a coloratura range. And that is, she can sing -- I tested it out -- she's singing high Cs, high C sharps. And she moves effortlessly through the range of her voice; she has a signature and very fluid melisma -- singing lots of notes on one syllable. And although her voice had a naturally wide vibrato, there was a sense that she was very much in control of it."

Rick James was one of many fans of Marie's voice. The two were romantically involved for years, and made songs like "Fire and Desire" and "I'm a Sucker for Your Love" together.

Marie had an acrimonious split with Motown; she filed a suit against the company that led to a law preventing record labels from keeping a musician on contract but refusing to release records. Ramsay says that Marie came into an industry that was in transition, and sometimes hesitant to embrace unconventional artists.

"You had some of the smaller labels being bought by larger corporations, and at that time they began to exercise a lot more artistic control over these artists in terms of what kind of music they wanted them to put out and what kind of image they wanted them to have. So she kind of stood out as an anomaly because first of all she was a white woman singing very soulful songs throughout all of the genres. She was participating in R&B ballads. She sang over funk songs. She did pop songs. Her "Ooh La La La" song is an early smooth jazz type of song. So she was really quite ambitious in her stylings, but at the same time she had to fight record labels in order to get the full range of her musicality out there."

Marie continued recording for labels like Epic and Cash Money; she recorded hits like "Ooh La La La," "Fix It" and "Lovergirl" in the '80s. Her final album, Congo Square, was released in 2009 on Stax.

Ramsay says Teena Marie's connection with soul was deep.

"She was a person who personified the idea that culture is learned. And for whatever reason, she was raised in a situation where she was exposed to soul music, R&B music, and she embraced it as her own. She believed that if it moved her, she could be part of it."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOO LA LA LA")

TEENA MARIE: (Singing) Every time you come around, I feel my world starts turning topsy-turvy.

CORNISH: Lady T., Vanilla Child, Ivory Queen of Soul. Mary Christine Brockert earned all kinds of nicknames over the course of her career, but her stage name was Teena Marie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOO LA LA LA")

MARIE: (Singing) Oh, you've got me singing ooh la-la-la...

CORNISH: And her death yesterday at age 54 turns the page on a certain bit of music history. Marie was one of the first white acts to sign with Motown. The company was so skittish about her debut record that they didn't put her face on the cover. But she'd captured the ear and the heart of funk super artist Rick James. He became her producer, mentor, lover and collaborator.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A SUCKER FOR YOUR LOVE")

MARIE: (Singing) I'm just a...

RICK JAMES: (Singing) Well, all right, you freaks, give it up...

MARIE: (Singing) I'm just a...

JAMES: (Singing) ...for Lady T.

CORNISH: Guthrie Ramsey is a professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania. He joins us to talk about Teena Marie. Guthrie, welcome to the program.

GUTHRIE RAMSEY: Thanks.

CORNISH: So what made her voice different?

RAMSEY: What's really striking about her voice is that it is a huge range for a pop singer. She sings with a very robust chest voice, but she also has what we call a coloratura range, and she moves effortlessly through the range of her voice. And although her voice had a naturally wide vibrato, there was a sense that she was still very much in control of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SQUARE BIZ")

MARIE: (Singing) I'm talking square biz to you, baby. Square, square biz. I'm talking love that is square, square biz.

CORNISH: Guthrie, when Teena Marie was signed to Motown, it was sort of late '70s. It was 1976 when she first joined the label. What was going on in popular culture and popular music?

RAMSEY: And coupled with this idea, the music corporations were beginning to buy up the smaller ma-and-pa black record labels that were the originators and the keepers of this R&B music. So you have a really kind of a perfect storm for someone like Teena Marie to come in and make everybody nervous.

CORNISH: She once said to a reporter, as recently as 1980, she said, I wish I was colorless. And I mean, I thought that was really interesting because how did race complicate her career?

RAMSEY: I think that it was the record label's assumption that they had to be nervous about someone who was hugely talented as she was and who didn't fit the female type for the kind of music that she did so well.

CORNISH: And, Guthrie, what exactly is going to be Teena Marie's legacy?

RAMSEY: I think that the kind of fire and sense of when she was on stage or when she was in the recording studio that you were getting 300 percent of her energy and focus. I think that you almost have to go to the gospel singers to get that kind of fervor. And let's hope that, you know, future singers learn their lessons from her.

CORNISH: Guthrie Ramsey, thank you so much.

RAMSEY: Thank you.

CORNISH: That's Guthrie Ramsey, a professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of "Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip- Hop." We were talking about R&B singer-songwriter Teena Marie, who died at her Pasadena home this past weekend. She was 54. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.