Sunday, December 26, 2010

Teena Marie Passes at 54

I was all set to write about the snowpocalypse happening outside my window when I learned that Teena Marie has died, at the age of 54; in her sleep of unspecified causes. Teena Marie is often dismissed as a sideshow to the late Rick James, with whom she was long associated. But she was an amazing musician in her own right, a prodigy of so-called "blue-eyed soul." She recorded a number of albums for Motown, before moving on to Epic and then to indie-label purgatory. Famously her first Motown album was released without her picture on the cover because the record company knew she was gonna be a soul-music hit but worried that the records wouldn't sell if consumers' first impression was her skin color and not her amazing voice. Fortunately, she was a lot smarter than that. Although it has been years since one of her records was popular in the mainstream, she continued to put out albums, though sadly like many women musicians who aren't easily pigeonholed or aren't creating lowest-common-denominator pop confections she didn't seem to get much exposure.

I loved her funky danceable tunes from the late 1970s and early 1980s like Square Biz and I Need Your Lovin', but I have to say my weak spot is for her mellow "quiet storm" ballads and her jazzy mid-tempo numbers. She could really swing, and her soulful, jazzy delivery, and amazingly flexible voice was really special. One of her post-Motown songs, Casanova Brown, about her failed personal relationship with Rick James, is one of those songs you can (and I have) listen to over and over again. Her soaring vocal swoops and emotional delivery is devastating.

Here's a live clip recorded in 1990, which while not as polished as the album version, shows the emotion she conveys. It also cuts off at the emotional highpoint of the song, "Did you hear me crying baby?/It sounded a little bit liiiiiiiike this", that word "like" drawn out into many syllables of exquisite pain. Track down the whole single.

One of her most moving songs is a spiritual tune written by Rick James for her first album. Deja Vu (I've Been Here Before) is an odd bit of spirituality, both exulting in reincarnation and karma, and then, in the end, suggesting that now she's above all that. It's extraordinarily beautiful and the song starts out simply with her voice, ocean sounds, a guitar and flutes.
"I Am Young And I Am Old
I Am Rich And I Am Poor
I Feel Like I've Been On This Earth Many Times Before
Once I Was A White Gazelle On Horseback Riding Free
Searching In The Darkness For A Piece Of Me.
I Can Feel This For Sure.
I've Been Here Before."

Then a harp clicks in and the background chorus, and the song moves to a sort of spiritual gospel climax. It's over seven minutes long.
"And I Can Feel This For Sure………..
If Hate Is On Your Mind And U Can't Give Love in Kind
If Anger Is Your Friend
Don't U Know When U Die You Will Come Back Again
In The Master's Plan, You Will Come Back Woman Or Man.
If Your Life Is Full Of Sin,
Don't U Know When U Die U Will Come Back Again!
I Thank God! I Thank God! I Thank God!
I Am Not Coming Back No More!!
I've Been Here Before.
I Thank God! I Thank God! I Thank God! (I Don't Want To Come Back No More!)"

I loved Teena Marie's music but I also loved how she decided to embrace being a white woman making soul music. She was respectful of its traditions, and mindful of the social justice embedded in that tradition. You can hear her sing a bit of Donny Hathaway's anthem "Someday We'll All Be Free" on an added bonus track to one of her CDs, for instance. And unlike so many of today's musical posers, she had actual, incredible talent, both as a singer and an instrumentalist. She proved herself every ounce the real thing. What a great loss to the world her passing is.

"Too many colors, too many colors I can't blend
One million different shades
Too many colors, too many paint-by-number minds
Too many twisted minds
It would be bliss if we were color-free
But I'm asking too much
So if you hear me cry, just know that I
I want to be touched
I need to be loved
I long to be touched and loved by too too many colors"

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