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.

Posted on June 9, 2012, in Being 20 Series. Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. I was raised on old school music by my mom, a lot of soul and funk. So cool to see you mention Teena Marie here. She was really soulful. David has so much potential as a soul singer. To have it develop, he’s going to have to do what Janet Jackson sang about, anad Teena did early in her career–be the one in CONTROL. Teena not only wrote her own songs, lyrics and music on most of them, she also produced her own music. She played multiple instruments, did most of her own arrangements. I read some critic called her “self-contained,” like a Prince or Stevie Wonder. Having that kind of talent gave her two things, leverage and power. That power led to her having a significant number of straight up jazz songs she wrote and released. I could also see David doing some great jazz. I doubt that was easy for an artist back then. They were at the mercy of labels. These days it should be easier. A studio can be built in a basement, distribution can be do electonically and markerting can go ditectly to fans. If David wants to have a more soulful sound, he needs to just get out there and do it. He has the fans. For real, Teena Marie laid the groundwork, broke barriers for singers like Mariah, Madonna, Adele, Thicke. I took a peek at Amazon, and long after her passing, one of her albums is currently in the top 100 sellers in three catergories–dance, quiet storm and 70’s music.

  2. i’m so glad to see teena marie featured. i believe she was an incredible, multidimensional musician. “ESSENCE Magazine” interviewed her daughter shortly after her death. i was glad to read that beyonce reached out to her.

  3. someone just tweeted this link to david singing “falling stars”. i think it was his most soulful rendition ever. at 3:58, watch the hosts’ reaction. she then asks david “do you realize just how gifted and talented you are?” i miss soulful david. 😥

    • I loved falling stars. This is a great rendition. I am so glad that “Eman’ and Jess Cates along with Claude Kelly wrote this song for him. They also helped write “Crush.” David should continue his involvement with them when he returns to his career as they helped him produce his great hit pop single. I though “Eman” really understood David’s musical talents.

  4. It’s really hard to know what style of music David will sing when he returns. He seems to love many genres of music and can sing them all well. Like Randy said, “he can sing the phone book.” Last year around this time he was at Bonnaroo enjoying the Indie artists. Right now he’s hearing music that is popular in Chile. I’m anxious to hear what his sound will be like when he returns.

    • Thanks Peter for posting this. It put a big smile on my face. It was just a fun rendition of that song. It’s nice to keep things light and to have a sense of humor in the music industry.

    • I love this. Thanks for posting it , Peter. I think Carly Rae is very talented and Jimmy is so funny. It is hard to believe that she is 26 yrs. old as she looks younger to me. Just like David looks younger. But 26 is very young to me. lol.

  5. Do you guys think it’s so easy for David to go R&B? Doubtful. Since you brought up Teena Marie, she offers a cautionary tale. It was another generation, and it was no sure thing she would be accepted by black audiences. She was hidden by her label at first, then introduced by Rick James, one of the hottest singers in R&B and funk at the time. In a way, he was her calling card, but she had to step out and gain her own acceptance. She did, from LA to London. It helped that she was on Motown. They were soul music. What entree does David have into Urban/R&B? Even Bieber had/has Usher.

    David is years off of Idol and has no cred in Urban music. Deandre and Joshua from this current season have a much better shot at making a go of it in this genre. Ironically, Teena Marie was who Donny Osmond turned to when he wanted to change his teen image and move away from mainstream pop. By then he was married. After meeting with Teena, who told him that he ran the risk of alienating a good portion of his white fans if he really went R&B, he rethought that route and went for a more rock sound.

    If David goes into Urban music, he’s going to have to go all the way, tour with other Urban acts, support local Urban stations by making appearances, and above all have some valid reason for singing the music. Teena used to say it was what God put in her to sing–this coming from a woman who turned down the chance to travel to Italy as a teen and study opera. Basically, David can’t just show up singing soul music and think he’s going to be embraced by black audiences. He won’t. At best, he’s be laughed at, but more likrly, simply ignored.

    Teena left her family as a teen and was raised by a black woman. She went on to live with a member of Barry Gordy’s family. The few writing partners she had were black, as was her manger, close friends, lovers, the majority of her band memebers. She had her only child by a black man. She was a walking talking repository of the history of African american music, from jazz to soul, funk to rap.

    And David? He has a soulful tone to his voice? That won’t get him one spin or gain him one fan in the Urban audience.

    • hell0g0rge0us

      A girl can dream, can’t I? I know David would need all kinds of “intro” into a certain audience. BTW, you’re not the same Idolfan who used to post here, are you?

    • Bieber owes much of his success to Usher IMO. I agree with you on that point. I believe that having a very high profile and successful urban soul/ R&B / pop music artist as his mentor sure did help him. I still don’t quite understand JB’s success when he can’t sing. lol I also think great social media marketing had a lot to do with it. I still think that if David really wanted to do pop/R&B music with a soulful vibe and had the right “team” behind him than he could do it and be successful.

      • I agree with you Marie, with the right backers David would be successful with a pop/R&B music with soulful vibes. I’ll say it again, just put out music that the masses like and you will be a big success.

        I’m actualy kinda of thinking that the BEGIN. album will give us a clue as to what direction David will go when he returns to his career. Then again, I also thought that David was going to be a mega star by now and that he wasn’t going on a mission, so my record is really lousy at guessing, lol.

      • I don’t think the BEGIN album will be clue as to what David will be doing in the future because it will be mostly covers with just a couple originals. I guess the originals could give us a bit of a clue. This was another album put together in a hurry so not sure how much thought went into it. I do love the OPM album so I’m pretty sure I will love this one too, but it’s not going to be a groundbreaking album.

      • I agree with you grammyj. I don’t think that BEGIN will be any clue as to what way David will go with his music career in the future for the reasons your stated. I honestly have very low expectations for the album.

      • Understood grammyj, really wasn’t thinking that the BEGIN. album was going to be groundbreaking. I have already resolved to the fact that probably it will be the same old thing….fans will, of course, love it, but won’t be a hit. I’m always just thinking and dreaming outloud, lol. And as far as the album being done quickly…sometimes magic happens that way.

      • cq there is nothing wrong with dreaming and hoping for David to do well in his music career. I hope he does too. That is why we are fans. lol No one knows what the future holds for him.

    • Cosign 100%.

  6. hell0g0rge0us

    Also, one more thing: which audience do you see “laughing” at the prospect of David singing R&B? Singing this new crap that folks are calling “R&B,” yeah, I don’t see David singing that genre. But old R&B, old soul? You betcha! 😛

    • I’m with you HG. I can see David singing old R&B, but not he new crap that folks are calling R&B. The pop stuff with some rapping in the middle seems to be everywhere now. It’s not unique any more. I really hope that pop music moves on to something else soon. Maybe when David gets back he can start some new trend. A girl can dream….

  7. I’m not the same Idolfan. I am African American, and I know the genre. I have to admit that I think some African Americans who sing in the genre are posers, tools. They sing what’s put before them, as do most artists who don’t write, read or produce their own music. That’s not new or uniqure to Urban music. I do know that David needs more than a “team.” He is going to have to articulate a passion for the music. When I say he will get laughed at, I mean that literally.

    There is crossover of pop oriented and rap R&B, but the majority of African American Urban artists, especially those in the Urban AC market see little to no play on mainstream pop stations. That line of segregation is still out there. How much Maxwell, Kem, Tyrese, Fantasia, Ledisi, Estelle, Marsha, Raphael Saadiq, John Legend, Marsha Ambrosius, or Charlie Wilson do you hear on top 40 Pop, or even Rhythmic? Rhythmic is the Urban’s chart equivelent of Top 40 and is dominated by teh likes of Lil Wayne, Drake, Young Jeezy, Rihanna, and yes, even the Biebs.

    The question that will come up with David is why is he doing Urban/Soul music and why now? I feel he has some potentially great answers. He has the voice, an interest in the genre, a respect for and has drawn inspiration of the great singers and songwriters in the tradition. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, to name just a few have come out and said pretty much that.

    • I agree with you that David has to articulate a passion for the music. I think he needs to have a passion and driving ambition to want his music career period regardless of what music direction he goes in. He can’t do it by himself and he does need a skilled management team behind him. I am just not so sure what he wants to do. I guess time will tell.

  8. Forgot to add that at about David’s age, Teena was composing, producing, singing and playing intruments on these diverse tracks. “You Make Love Like Springtime.”“I Need Your Lovin’. ” I don’t know if she wrote the bass line for this one, maybe her boyfriend did.

    At the end of the day, it wasn’t about black and white with Teena, and it won’t be with David. It will be about the music.

  9. Off topic, but look at this picture of a float in a parade in Orem, Utah. A picture of David is in between Gandi and Martin Luther King. Only in Utah! It made me laugh. I’m sure David would be embarrassed. It reminded me of the corn maze of David.


  10. Teena Marie, “Everybody get up!” LOL! Maya Rudollph’s daddy cowrote “Behind The Groove” with Teena. Who knew Maya’s daddy got down like that?! Still funkalicious after all these years.

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