Being 20: Spotlight on Teena Marie
If anyone decides to put together a “greatest blue-eyed soul singers of all time” list, Teena Marie would most likely come out on top. So, I thought to spotlight her in the Being 20 series (or being 21 or 23). What exactly was Teena Marie doing around David’s present age, and why does she come to my mind when I think of David’s soul-singing potential?
Well, when Teena Marie (born Mary Christine Brockert) was 20 years old, she caught the attention of folks at Motown Record. She had formed her own band, growing up in Venice, California, and established an R&B soul style. However, Berry Gordy had no interest in signing bands and decided to sign Teena Marie as a solo act. While being mentored and developed at Motown, she caught the attention of Rick James, who was establishing himself in 1970s soul funk music. Teena Marie was 23 when she released her debut album in 1979, Wild and Peaceful. What’s most interesting about this debut album? Her portrait is nowhere on the album cover.
Yep, Motown didn’t know quite how to “market” a white artist to a black soul-loving audience. As a result, when audiences heard songs like “I’m Just a Sucker for Your Love,” they assumed that Teena Marie was a black woman. That is, until she showed up on Soul Train:
I imagine it’s hard for us to wonder why race would ever play a role in marketing music artists to audiences, but consider the stereotypical, often offensive images used to market early African American artists on “Race Records” to a racially segregated society in the 1920s or how someone like Elvis Presley basically had to “whitewash” rock music, becoming a marketable “white boy who can sing colored.” In other words, music labels always had to rely on white music artists to “mainstream” black music, from blues to jazz to rock-n-roll. Teena Marie was unique in that she was someone whose sound wasn’t “white enough” to mainstream black music. Her sound was “too black,” so to speak, and so her racial identity was actually covered up by her record label! Why is race an issue when it comes to promoting artists to certain audiences?
Indeed, even today, certain artists are limited to racial music categories, as had occurred with The Voice’s season 1 winner Javier Colon, whose interest is pop/rock music, not R&B, and yet his album was erroneously released as an R&B album. This is where labels get very lazy with convenient labeling. I’m sure such mislabeling helped to get Colon dropped (or is it “parted ways”?) from his label.
At the same time, it’s interesting that while certain artists are pigeon-holed into genres, others can cash in on “black culture,” a la the “blue-eyed soul singers” of late, like Justin Bieber or Justin Timberlake or Robin Thicke or John Mayer, whose versions of “soul” make me roll my eyes so hard, I could go blind from the effort.
Obviously, an artist like Teena Marie, whose soul-singing credentials are a staple among black audiences, has established reverse cross-over in music, so much so that her music is often sampled for hip-hop tracks more than any other white female artist – given that Teena Marie gave us perhaps the first female-rapped song, “Square Biz” (my favorite roller disco song!).
Something else: when she was 26, Teena Marie also established a law called “The Brockert Initiative,” which made it illegal for record labels to not release new material by artists and which gives artists the right to release new music with other labels that are willing to support them. That came out in 1982 when she warred against Motown and eventually left the label for Epic Records, a label that now includes perhaps the most recognized blue-eyed soul singer in Adele.
Despite her early death at age 54 in 2010, Teena Marie helped to lay some important music business foundations for artists like David. More than that, she laid the foundation for soul-singing artists to find different kinds of diverse audiences.
I’m still one of those Archies who is a die-hard fan of “Soul David.” What I would give to hear him do more “Ribbon in the Sky” type songs, which I personally think would put any of the current “blue-eyed soul singers” to shame. Maybe it’s because an artist like Teena Marie set the bar high on white soul-singers, I know “soulful soul” non-black soul-singing singers when I hear them.
Too bad David’s team convinced him that there was no potential market in that chosen genre while he performed on American Idol (apparently he was told to avoid his “Soul Man from Utah” persona to develop “inspirational David” instead).
Maybe one day, when David returns to music, he’ll get his groove back.