On December 26th the music world suffered a great loss with the death of Teena Marie. Quite a bit has already been said in her Soul Train tribute which you can check out here, but let’s take a minute to reflect on Teena’s music and the memories she left us.
Consider the first time we heard her sing back in 1979, joined by funkster Rick James on “I’m A Sucker For Your Love,” the single from her debut album Wild and Peaceful. We all assumed she was black and since the record company strategically omitted her photo from the album, we were all blown away that Saturday when we saw her performing with James on Soul Train. Once that episode aired, the streets and radio airwaves were abuzz with talk of “that bad white girl” that was singing with Rick. To understand what a big deal that was, one must take into consideration that this was back before every artist had a music video, along with the fact that there was no YouTube, no Internet …back in the day, Soul Train was our YouTube. Once we heard her sing, when it came to R&B music fans, “The Vanilla Child” was all ours, the color of her skin didn’t matter to us, she was our sister.
Throughout her career she continued to bring it…incredible music, flawless vocals and lyrics that were poetic and heartfelt. She was rapping on “Square Biz,” touting influences like “Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni, just to name a few.” She was scatting on jazzy songs like “Casanova Brown,” and it was Teena’s voice that helped make Rick James’ “Fire and Desire” one of the hottest slow jams of 1981, giving any club or party DJ a guaranteed packed dance floor as soon as the needle dropped and flooding the Quiet Storm radio playlists. When Prince kicked off his first tour as a headliner, to promote his Dirty Mind album, it was Teena who was chosen as the opening act. And does anyone remember Jill Jones, the blonde haired waitress in the movie “Purple Rain”? She was one of Teena’s background singers, which wasn’t surprising since her mother was Teena’s manager at the time.
While other artists altered their music, striving to crossover, Teena continued to be true to herself and true to the soul. Even when she got attention from pop audiences in 1984 with “Lovergirl,” from what would be her biggest selling album Starchild, she did it on her own terms, keeping it funky and still showcasing that beautiful voice on soulful ballads like “Out on a Limb” and her Marvin Gaye tribute “My Dear Mr. Gaye.” Even up to her untimely death, Teena was wowing audiences in concert, many times kicking off her set with the Soul classic “Think” by the late Lyn Collins.
So while we could go on and on with memories of “Lady T,” suffice it to say that Teena Marie will truly be missed, but the funky, soulful, jazzy soundtrack she left will remain with us forever.
— Montrose Cunningham
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Montrose Cunningham is an independent funk/rock/soul artist and devoted music aficionado residing in Dallas, Texas. When he isn’t digging through the crates–digital and analog–he’s jamming with his band or hanging with his daughter; sometimes both at the same time. Visit him online at www.MontroseMusic.com and on Facebook.