Photo of Teena Marie and Shelah Moody by Carmelita Harris
"Beautiful ones, gone on to soon, where did you go, back to the moon, to the stars where angels host, and to the one who loves you most…talking ‘bout eternity” --Teena Marie, “Makavelli Never Lied,” from the 2004 album, “La Dona.”
On Dec. 26, the music world lost one of its finest voices, Mary Christine Brockert, also known as Teena Marie. She was 54, gone too soon. She was found by her beloved teenage daughter, Alia Rose, whose birthday is Dec. 25, Christmas Day.
It was indeed a sad day for her fans around the world.
I’ve always felt bonded with Teena Marie through her music. I first heard Teena Marie’s mellifluous soprano voice on the radio while visiting my grandmother in Marin County, CA as a teenager.
Since I knew so little about Teena Marie’s personal life (other than she was a white woman who sang like a black woman and was embraced by the African American community), was able to focus intently on the quality of her artistry and production.
When I first heard “Square Biz,” in 1981, I was hooked. I would sit by the radio for hours listening to KSOL on lazy summer afternoons waiting for “Square Biz” to come on so that I could make my own mixed (cassette) tapes. .
I loved “Square Biz,” the joyful, boisterous, syncopated rhyme, which earned Teena Marie the title as the first successful female rapper. I realized that Teena Marie was giving us the straight talk—the 'square biz' of who she was all about and I identified with her as a person. Like myself, Teena Marie was into poets Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and jazz artist Sarah Vaughn. She even liked one of my favorite foods, hot water cornbread! I did not know what a “cat daddy” was back then, but I know now! (According to the Urban Dictionary, a cat daddy is dude over 55 who can still 'get it'! ha ha).
My cousins and I would hold competitions as to who could remember all of the words to “Square Biz.” When she sang her ballad “Portuguese Love,” literally 'blowing the song out of the water; I yearned to sail off to distant lands.
Ironically, Teena Marie died in Pasadena, CA, the city where I was born.
For Teena Marie, soul was an inborn concept. She grew up in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles, four blocks from a predominantly black community dubbed 'Venice Harlem' which was the inspiration behind many of her songs. She played piano, percussion and guitar and began singing professionally at age 8. Marie’s early musical education came from the Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra recordings her parents played at home. While attending Catholic school, Marie studied classical artists such as Schubert and Mozart. She remembers being riveted to a hallway locker after hearing Al Green's voice on the radio for the first time in high school.
In her early 20s, Marie landed a job at Motown Records, where she met her friend, lover and mentor, Rick James, who wrote and produced her debut album, "Wild and Peaceful," in 1979.
In 2005, I had the pleasure of interviewing Teena Marie over the telephone while on staff at the “San Francisco Chronicle,” soon after the release of her Grammy nominated album, “La Dona” dropped. Marie was scheduled to appear at the Eighth Annual KBLX Stone Soul Picnic, featuring the Gap Band, the Whispers, Angie Stone and Ledesi, at Cal State East Bay , Pioneer Amphitheater in Hayward , CA .
Our interview also took place in several months after Rick James died in 2004. Rick James and Teena Marie's steamy duet "Fire and Desire," from James' 1981 "Street Songs" album, is still one of her most popular songs. Although Marie and James broke up in the early '80s, they remained friends.
Marie’s emotions were bittersweet at the time. She found comfort in Alia Rose.
"I've been up and down," said Marie. "I'm getting better as the days go by. But sometimes, I still have real bad days. We were very close, and Rick was a part of my life for a long time. So, I'm sure I'm gonna have my bad days for quite a while. Basically, I've always been a very happy person. I have a wonderful daughter, and life goes on."
Marie, has influenced a new generation of artists including Nicki Minaj, Ledisi, Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill and the Fugees, who sampled her ballad "Ooo la la La" on their 1996 hit "Fu- Gee-La." Marie took pride in her mentorship role. Alia Rose, aka Rose LeBeau, appeared in a duet with her mother on the track “ Milk N' Honey” on Marie’s final album, “ Congo Square ” recorded in 2009. Like mother like daughter, Alia Rose demonstrated some of Marie’s legendary jazz sensibility and rapping skills. Marie was so open and down to earth during our phone conversation that at some point, I suggested that she and dancehall DJ Sean Paul (who is part Portuguese) might consider a remix of “Portuguese Love.” “That’s a good idea,” she said. “You know? That’s a really good idea!”
After our interview, Marie invited me to come back stage at the Stone Soul Picnic and say "hello" in person. I told her I would bring her a gift, since her music meant so much to me.
“No, honey, just bring yourself,” she said.
Although members of the media have dubbed her the Ivory Queen of Soul. I do not like that title, 'cause I believe that soul transcends the boundaries of race and ethnicity.
When I saw Marie perform live for the first time at Pioneer Amphitheater, I discovered that she was also a girl who rocked, playing the guitar on many of her tracks including “I Need Your Lovin” and “Behind the Groove” and stepping out in the audience (with security in tow) to serenade them with her elegant cover of “If I Were a Bell.” Her beloved Alia Rose always stood in the wings watching her perform and almost serving as he mother’s protector and guardian.
During our interview, Marie, a regular on the Stone Soul Picnic circuit, reflected on her experience performing in the Bay Area as well as her musical ministry.
"The Bay Area, to me, is the same as Philly,” said Marie. “It's just exciting to see smiling faces. You hear certain music and it reminds you of certain times. I think that God put me on Earth to bring a lot of people together through music and to let them know that you don't have to be a certain color to sing a certain way. You can be a black woman and sing opera like Marion Anderson. It's just really about feeling and spirit and soul. I've been able to project mine and make people happy. That was my destiny, I believe."