Today marks the one year anniversary of Teena Marie’s passing. When I heard about her death (via Twitter, like we do), I was stunned. Even thought she hadn’t had a hit in a few years, she was still releasing albums and touring, and I easily could have imagined her becoming the grand dame of R&B. Leaving this world as soon as she did should not have even been an option.
For those of you who don’t know, Teena was not only a white woman who found success singing R&B, she was also a pioneer in the business, inadvertently leading the charge on how artist contracts were drawn up and how artists were paid. While that in itself is something to be proud of, I would be surprised if that’s a victory she would have even claimed. From the way she chased down a recording contract to the innovative way her career laid itself out, Teena Marie was no one’s puppet. She was her own woman, and even when being molded by a producer and writer as strong-willed as Rick James, her power never flagged. In fact, James was gasoline to Marie’s flame, and there is no stronger proof of this than their duet “Fire and Desire” from his 1981 album Street Songs. The clip below is a rare video of the two of them in their prime performing “Fire” live, and the passion between those two fiery souls must have been amazing to witness live:
While I knew the music that Teena Marie was making in the early 80s, it wasn’t until 1984’s Starchild with the #4 pop hit “Lovergirl” that my attention was fully captured. Starchild hit high rotation on my tape deck, but it was “Out on a Limb” that quickly became my jam. I was 15 years old, but somehow this woman’s ode to an amazing love resonated with me. We speak about “the best” this and that, but for me, “Out on a Limb” is one of the greatest R&B ballads of the past 50 years. It was timely and timeless, all at the same time, and Teena’s delivery elevated it above just a solid song into a blueprint of how you sing a ballad. Singers like Shirley Murdock owe Teena Marie a great debt for utilizing her influence in making their own hit records. While the song was not a hit at the time, it quickly became a Quiet Storm staple on R&B stations across the US.
Surprisingly, some of Teena Marie’s most enduring songs were never hits. Along with “Out on a Limb” is “Deja Vu (I’ve Been Here Before),” a song that appeared on her first album Wild and Peaceful. Despite it never being a single, it is a signature Teena Marie track that remained a favorite at her concerts up until her death last year. You would never know that the song was written by Rick James by the way she sang it because the conviction of her delivery made it her own from the opening lines: “I’m young and I’m old/I’m rich and I’m poor/I feel like I’ve been on this Earth many times before.” [Update: if you check the comments, you'll see that Teena revised her opinion on who wrote "Deja Vu."]
No matter what adversity or challenges she experienced in her life, it was clear that music was her passion instead of her job and nothing would deter her from sharing it with the world. We should all be that lucky. Rest in peace, Lady Tee. Your memory and your music lives on.