[17 December 2002]
There has been no greater tension within the tradition of black pop music than that associated with the performance of “black” styles by white musicians and performers. The beginnings of this tension can be dated to the early 19th century, when white performers began to get their “charcoal” on, donning black faces, tattered clothes and act out what they perceived as authentic black style. There is no small irony in the fact the very first image of a “black” male in film, a Thomas Edison short made at the beginning of the 20th century, was a white male in blackface. Black men have been chasing, affirming, challenging running away from this cartooned caricature for the last one hundred years.
In the field of jazz, Mezz Mezzrow could live an “authentic” jazz life (meaning black) while Paul Whiteman could arrogantly claim that he was sanitizing jazz via his “symphonic jazz” arrangements. No one has elicited more concern on this front than Elvis Presley, who has faced derisive scorn from black (and white) audiences and artists for what seemed a blatant appropriation (or theft) of black musical style. Feelings about Elvis Presley among black audiences were perfectly captured a few years ago when Ray Charles responded to a Bob Costas query about Elvis with the quip, “What the hell was so special about Elvis . . . all Elvis did was shake his ass and black folks been shaking their ass for hundreds of years.” Presley’s relationship to black music is of course much more complex, but it is clear that there are hard feelings in the field, especially given his status as the “King” of rock ‘n’ roll. Anybody wanna query Little Richard or Chuck Berry on this point?
Paul C. Taylor describes comments like Charles’ as emblematic of the “Elvis Effect”. In his essay, “Funky White Boys and Honorary Soul Sisters,” Taylor writes “When white participation in traditionally black avenues of cultural production produces feelings of unease, this is the Elvis Effect. I could easily call it the Benny Goodman, the Dave Brubeck or the Vanilla Ice effect.” Taylor adds that it is usually when a “white person finds his or her was into the practice, becomes proficient, and is ‘discovered’ by the white community” that the forms of black music reach widespread commercial acceptance.
While there are examples of black pop music that counter this claim, the Motown recordings and Michael Jackson’s output in the ‘80s immediately come to mind (though we can have a separate discussion as to why they succeeded to the extent that they did), there is a clear legacy of artists like Presley, Eric Clapton, Pat Boone, and most recently Eminem that have had huge commercial success essentially because they were white artists performing so-called black music. It is not simply a question about cultural interlopers and I’m not accusing any of these men of being cultural interlopers but the impact that their dexterity at performing “black” music has within the political economy of popular music.
Black pop is not simply a style of popular music, but a commodity, in which someone benefits financially from the production, distribution, consumption and critical gatekeeping of the music too often it is not the black folks whose minds and spirits loom large in the creation of the music. Figures like Clapton and Boone are instructive in this regard, as their initial mainstream success in the United States (I’m not including Clapton’s work with Cream as evidence of mainstream success) came via their covers of black artists. Covers were the well known practice in which labels consciously used white acts to record the songs of black artists in order to “cross-over” those songs to white audiences. In practically every case, the white artist originally outsold the black original.
Pat Boone was a virtual cottage industry of “cover” music recording pop hits that were originally associated with legendary Rhythm and blues and doo-wop artists like Fats Domino (“Ain’t That a Shame”), Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”) and The Flamingos (“I’ll Be Home”). The practice was also connected to more insidious methods where some black artists, who lacked both music business acumen and quality legal advice, were often paid pithy one-time amounts for their compositions and recordings with no royalties from future sales or access to publishing rights to songs that they themselves may have penned. Reebee Garafalo also cites the impact of dated copyright laws that in the ‘50s still did not include recorded music. According to Garafalo “while a publisher received a royalty payment for the use of his publications and a composer received a royalty payment for the performance of his music, no royalty was derived from the actual recording. The performer was only paid for the sales of his records. In this heavy period of cover activity it was the performer who suffered. Most of the performers whose songs were covered were black.” (Rhythm and Business: the Political Economy of Black Music ,ed. Norman Kelley)
Thus it is against the backdrop of this rather well known history that many black audiences and performers have cautiously encountered whites who were getting too close to the music or music that was getting too close to the mainstream and was thus ripe for appropriation and annexation by some whites. Despite this history, I am less interested here in defending or challenging black attitudes towards white cultural interlopers or citing the continued problematics of the “Elvis Effect”. Rather, I’m interested in dealing with the aesthetic issues surrounding white appropriation of black musical styles, particularly in the context of soul music.
Taylor notes that “knowing of the historically racist trajectory of white American appetites for cultural commodities can change the way one hears Eric Clapton or the Canadian dancehall dj Snow . . . can erect affective obstacles to the reception and enjoyment of otherwise impeccable arrangements of sounds.” In the past, it has been all too easy to identify many of these white artists under the rubric of “blue-eyed soul”. But I’d like to argue for a separate category known as “white chocolate” that which “looks” different but contains all the flavor and the texture of the original.
These would be the artists that challenge essentialists arguments about who is allowed to sing black music (and this essentialism travels in all directions including in the direction of those black artists who are not deemed “black enough”) and also provide examples of white performances of black pop that transcend simple appropriations (and in the worst case, theft) and legitimately add to the tradition. Thus, clear distinction could be made between Michael Bolton (still a hack after all these years) and George Michael, or Vanilla Ice and Eminem, or The Righteous Brothers and Laura Nyro. In my mind, no one artists captures the essence of white chocolate soul than Teena Marie.
A product of Venice Beach, CA, Teena Marie was signed to the Motown label in ‘76, at a time when the label was struggling to maintain its footing in the commercial marketplace. The Jackson Five had ended their relationship with the label the year before (signing to Epic) and flagship acts like The Temptations (sans classic leads David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick), The Supremes (some seven years removed from Ms. Ross), The Miracles (minus the then solo Smokey Robinson) and the Four Tops (who by ‘76 were no longer with the label) all began to show the effects of commercial aging. With the burgeoning Philly Soul empire of Gamble and Huff reigning dominant in the field of black pop and many of the “white” owned labels aggressively pursuing and promoting black artists, Motown was forced to rely on the star power of some aging solo acts like Robinson, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and a new generation of acts that included Lionel Ritchie and the Commodores, Switch, and Rick James.
Though Lionel Ritchie would become the most popular of these next generation Motowners, it was clear in the late ‘70s that Rick James was both the label’s most charismatic artist and creative force. James is generally credited with “discovering” Marie, and he was behind the boards (along with longtime Marvin Gaye engineer Art Stewart) for Marie’s debut Wild and Peaceful, which was released in March of ‘79. The collaboration was the beginning what would be an intensely personal and somewhat volatile relationship between the two. According to James, he first noticed Marie at Motown’s LA offices when he “heard this little girl singing her ass off. And I walked in and here’s this short munchkin white girl.”
Motown brass and Marie manager Winnie Martin then encouraged James to take a more active role in Marie’s initial project. The lead single, “I’m a Sucker For You Love”, was the first of many duets between James and Marie, whose passion on wax always suggested there was a more sexual subtext to their relationship. If Marvin (Gaye) and Tammi (Terrell) playfully and coyly suggested that they wanted to “do the nasty”, Rick and Teena always sounded like they were only taking a five-minute break from doing the nasty.
The cover art for Wild and Peaceful notably lacks any photographic reference to Marie, and was clearly an effort by the Motown to obscure Marie’s white identity. Marie was not Motown’s first white act. Sylvia had moderate success in ‘77 with the single “I’ve Never Been to Me”, and Rare Earth released two albums for the label in the early ‘70s, including a rollicking “rock” cover of the Temptation’s “Getting Ready”. Some, though, have speculated that Rare Earth was really a front band for The Funk Brothers (Motown’s famed studio musicians, who are currently celebrated in the film In the Shadows of Motown) thereby creating an interesting subversion of the classic cover scam.
The difference between Marie and the aforementioned white acts is that Marie’s sound was decidedly “black” and the label, by then the crown jewel for budding cultural nationalism within the black community, was in a quandary as to how to market her. In this regard the storystory of James’s discovery of Marie (like Diana Ross’s fictional discovery of The Jackson Five), and his presence on her recordings, was crucial to the acceptance of Marie by black audiences. James was riding a wave of popularity courtesy of his post-P-funk “punk funk” and signature tracks like “You and I” and “Mary Jane” (puff, puff, pass) both from his debut and “Bustin’ Out” from his second disc. James’ role in the promotion of Marie would anticipate the role of Dr. Dre, nearly two decades later, in the career of Eminem. (See Todd Boyd’s brilliant read of Dre and Eminem in his new book, The New H.N.I.C.).
James’ relationship with Marie also fit into his own sense of self-importance: which included celebrated rants against newbie video channel MTV for refusing to play music videos by black artists; his fairly well known clashes with Prince (they were competing for the same non-black audiences)’ and a cottage industry of punk-funk that included James’ development of groups like The Mary Jane Girls (Prince had Vanity/Apollonia 6), The Stone City Band, Process and the Doo-Rags (that one’s for you, FP) and Eddie Murphy (“my girl love to party all the time, party all the time”).
But with Marie’s increasing maturity as an artist, composer, and producer (she was one of a handful of women who produced themselves in the early ‘80s), James seemed less the svengali. Rather, Marie was someone that James willingly shared the stage with. Nowhere was this more apparent than on their now classic “Quiet Storm” ballad, “Fire and Desire” (from James’ Street Songs, ‘81) which has arguably made them the most popular love duo since Marvin and Tammi. Marie’s opening verse midway through the songs blows the hell out of any pretensions that she was somehow “faking the funk”. I still jump out of my pants whenever I hear it. (For my money, though, their duet “Happy” from James’ Throwin’ Down (‘82), is every bit the equal of “Fire and Desire”).
Marie followed up her debut with Lady T (‘80), which was produced by Richard Rudolph, a founding member of Rotary Connection. The album was dedicated to Rudolph’s late wife Minnie Riperton, who succumbed to breast cancer the year before. Six months after the release of Lady T, Marie dropped Irons in the Fire. The disc was the first that was wholly produced by Marie and included her first foray onto the pop charts with “I Need Your Lovin’”. But it was with the release of her fourth disc, It Must Be Magic (just re-issued) that Marie brought together the full power of her songwriting, vocal skills and production.
Released in May of ‘81, It Must Be Magic was propelled by the assertive lead single “Square Biz”. While the song was easily one of the most popular party songs of the summer (also made popular at roller skating rinks in the boogie-down like Stars and The Skate Key), it also provided Marie with the opportunity to “speak out” about her identity and influences. The song’s title is taken from a then popular colloquialism within the black community, which affirms something as the truth (a few years later “word” or “word-up” would take its place). Though Deborah Harry is always propped as the fly-white girl who did the rap thing on Blondie’s “Rapture”, Marie’s own rap on “Square Biz” is often ignored for its significance. And it is with her rap that Marie lays claim to her intimate connection to black culture.
Addressing the name calling she faced as a child, Marie states, “I’ve been called Casper, Shorty, Lil’ Bit/And some they call me Vanilla child/But you know that don’t mean my world to me/Cause baby names can cramp my style”. Showin’ the folks in the hood that she’s down, Marie affirms that she loves “chickiken and Buff’s collard greens.” But ultimately the power of Marie’s rap is evidenced in the wide range of influences that she cites (“You know I like spirituals and rock/Sarah Vaughn, Johann Sebastian Bach/Shakespeare, Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni just to name a few”) many of whom might have been obscure to the black teen-age audiences that formed her core fans at the time.
Throughout It Must Be Magic Marie pays tribute to John Lennon, who was gunned down in front of the Dakota (NYC) in December of ‘80. On the heartbreaking “Where’s California” Marie alludes to Lennon’s death in the opening line “Manchester, England looks a lot like me today/ain’t no sunshine in the feeling”. Later in the song Marie sings, “I called your mama and I asked her what to bring/She said London Fog would be the thing/I couldn’t find the fog, The Beatles or myself” again alluding to the sense of loss she felt after Lennon’s death.
The introspection of “Where’s California” is countered by the strident political tome “Revolution” which dared to answer the Beatles’s call for “Revolution.” Damn near a political manifesto, during one of the choruses Marie screams “I wish I had the right solution/cause any ole revolution/won’t due this situation’s gotten too far out of hand/we need a moral contribution (we need a whole new constitution)/‘cause any ole revolution won’t due we’ve got to take a stand/Stand up and throw up your hands”. At another point, Marie directly links Lennon’s murder to lax gun laws as she sings “Brother Soul has gotten killed and he’s just standing there/readings captions from The Catcher in the Rye/It didn’t take too many dollars to get his hand on a revolver.” In the song’s closing breakdown, Marie openly asks “why must they kill off all our leaders”.
Marie drops a nod to the old-school (or at least what would have been the ‘80s version of one) on tracks like “365”, which featured cameo vocals by the legendary Melvin Franklin, who kept the bass-line for three decades as a member of the Temptations, and the street-corner funk of “The Ballad of Cradle Rob”; Marie sounds ethereal on the plaintive ballad “Yes Indeed”, which harked backed to earlier ballads like “I Can’t Love Anymore” (Wild and Peaceful), “Aladdin’s Lamp” (Lady T), and “Irons in the Fire”.
The centerpiece ballad on It Must Be Magic, if not the most significant solo ballad in Marie’s body of work, was “Portuguese Lover”. Clocking in at 7:48, the song, a straight-up, slow-jam classic big upped by CL Smooth and Pete Rock on “They Reminisce Over You”. (Back in the day when I was still a wanna-be playa, “Portuguese Lover” was on the sex-mixtape alongside TP’s “Turn Out the Lights”, The Ohio Player’s “Heaven Must Be Like This”, any ballad by Ready for the World, and of course The Art of Noise’s “climax” song “Moments in Love”.) The joy of the song is the three minute closing break-down that features exchanges between Marie and saxophonist Danny Lemelle (reminiscent of Phillip Bailey and Larry Myricks’s star-turns on EWF’s live “Reasons”), and what seems like post-coital exchanges between Marie and Rick James. It Must Be Magic was Marie’s last studio recording for Motown. Her relationship with the label ended in a bitter legal dispute over non-payment of royalties. Marie signed with Epic Records, then home to Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross, and released Robbery in ‘83. The recording including some of Marie’s finest work, including the breathtaking ballad “Casanova Brown” (about Rick, perhaps?) which was the sequel to an earlier big-band called “Tune in Tomorrow” (Irons in the Fire).
But it was in the break-out success of the lead single of her follow-up, Starchild (‘84) that Marie finally crossed-over to the mainstream. More a glam-rock track, “Lover Girl” catapulted Marie to the top-ten pop charts in an era that was dominated by blah, blah over-the-top pop acts like MJ, Lionel Ritchie, Van Halen, Culture Club, and Cyndi Lauper. “Lover Girl” is easily the least “black” song that Marie had recorded to date. And thus was the irony of her career up to that point: the “munchkin white girl” was perhaps too “black” for some white audiences. In a gesture that is not as absurd as we’d like to believe, James asserts that Marie was the “most important white female singer since Barbara Streisand; and her own race forgot her.” (People Weekly, 6 May ‘85)
The re-issue of Teena Marie’s It Must Be Magic (Universal, 12 November ‘02) should stimulate renewed interests in Marie’s body of work. And with all the hoopla surrounding the solo release of Justin Timberlake and the recent discs by current Motown artist Remy Shand and Thicke (see Neil Strauss’s piece on the trio in the New York Times, 3 November ‘02) it might be just the thing to put the current “neo-blue-eyed” soul movement into some perspective. The jewel of the re-issue is a 12-minute live version of “Déjà Vu” (the artistic centerpiece of her debut Wild and Peaceful) that was recorded during the summer of ‘81 when Marie and James were touring in support of It Must Be Magic and James’ commercial breakthrough, Street Songs. In the song’s key lyric Marie sings “I can feel this for sure/I’ve been here before” and she has. Hopefully, this time Marie will get her due as one of the finest purveyors of soul and r&b that has been produced in the last 30 years.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/criticalnoire021217/