LOS ANGELES — Long before she became an ‘80s funk-pop infanta, or Rick James’ protege and lover, Teena Marie was a Motown-enamored schoolgirl in one of L.A.‘s last historic black enclaves.
The singer-songwriter, who died Sunday at her Pasadena home at age 54, grew up in Oakwood, a working-class wedge of Venice sandwiched between the 405 Freeway and the tonier beach areas. With an African American population that peaked at 45 percent in 1970, a substantial Latino presence and a small white minority, Oakwood was a “stable, close-knit community” where different ethnic groups lived side by side and the barriers between private homes and public spaces (parks, churches) were blurred, said Darnell Hunt, a UCLA sociology professor who has studied the neighborhood.
So too were the barriers between formerly stratified musical genres. Marie’s culturally mashed-up youth marked her life and career, enabling her to become one of the crossover pop stars of the era when classic R&B/soul shimmied its way onto the disco floor, then muscled up the beat into hip-hop. Like her contemporary and fellow Motown label mate Michael Jackson, who “kind of crossed the barrier the other way,” Hunt said, the artist born Mary Christine Brockert made music that shook up, and ultimately shattered, narrow-minded marketing categories.
“Here’s this white woman who’s this legitimate R&B star, who can really sing, who had flair,” Hunt said, recalling how he and other African Americans first reacted to the doe-eyed, cherubic singer nicknamed “the Ivory Queen of Soul.” “To this day, people still think of her as an honorary black icon.”
In the 1960s and ‘70s, when America’s pop charts were becoming as ethnically polarized as America’s major cities, Marie grew up singing covers of Harry Belafonte and others and performing in minor TV roles. In 1976, she signed with Motown Records, whose founder-owner, Berry Gordy, initially questioned whether black listeners would accept a white diva with African American intonations. The cover of her 1979 debut record, “Wild and Peaceful,” passed up any images of Marie in favor of a romantic oceanscape. There even was talk of putting the album out under the more demographically correct-sounding name of “Tina Tryson.”
But from the disc’s opening bars, there was no mistaking the singer’s authentically soulful timbre. Although she later had a falling out with Motown over royalties, spurring a landmark artists’ rights legal decision known as the Brockert Initiative, Marie fit naturally into a lineup previously comprising almost exclusively black talent, from the Temptations and the Supremes to the Jackson 5 and James. “She had so much soul,” Gordy said in a statement. “The only thing white about her was her skin.”
Far more than simply a talented mimic, Marie absorbed a broad array of African American musical influences, then imbued them with her own effusive top 40 coloratura. On up-tempo hits such as “I’m a Sucker for Your Love,” a bass-powered, horn-blasted duet with James, she growled and purred her way through the salacious grooves. Segueing easily from the profane to the sacred, she turned “Deja Vu (I’ve Been Here Before)” into a testimonial of pure gospel-pop exhilaration: “I thank God!” Marie exults toward the song’s end, “I am not coming back no more!”
She could send raw emotions soaring stratospherically on “Fire and Desire,” another duet with James, or project sex-kitten poutiness on irrestible dance-floor staples such as “Lovergirl.”
By the time her second album, “Lady T,” appeared in 1980, with her picture on the jacket sleeve, Marie’s skin tone was effectively a nonissue. By that point, disco had brought Latinos, whites and blacks, gays, straights and everything in between, into bumping, sweating contact beneath thousands of spinning mirror balls. Simultaneously, hip-hop had arrived, coaxing Iowa farmboys to dress and talk like Bronx B-Boys. Pop’s color-blind age was dawning.
Later in her career, Marie, who played keyboards and guitar among other instruments, ventured deeper, and daringly, into rock idioms with the 1986 concept album “Emerald City”; also rap (“Square Biz”), demonstrating a creative restlessness that accounts for her being one of the period’s most frequently sampled musicians (the Fugees memorably used “Ooo La La La” for the hook of their “Fu-Gee-La”). Her kewpie-doll appearance — heart-shaped mouth, masses of light brown ringlets — made her a photogenic and charismatic live-concert presence.
Although her spotlight had dimmed, Marie kept recording and evolving through the decades that followed. Meanwhile, her example opened doors for a host of blue-eyed (literally or metaphorically) soul and dance divas, from Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera and Amy Winehouse right through to Lady Gaga, as well as to post-hip-hop soul queens such as Mary K. Blige. Among those whom Marie directly mentored was Lenny Kravitz, who paid tribute to her in a moving video that he posted on YouTube.
Perhaps the surest sign of Marie’s impact, and that of bigger crossover stars such as Jackson, is that in today’s pop universe it would be a fool’s errand to typecast artists by their ethnicity. Teena Marie was a brief, bright light streaking across that firmament, straight out of Oakwood.