The Ancestors Take The Ivory Queen of Soul, The Lady T, Teena Marie
(I normally do not use too many straight from TV video recordings, but this one with the late Ivory Queen was too well played to pass up. This girl was good and everyone knows it in the hardest-to please-audience in the world, that of the Apollo Theatre’s.)
Singer Mary Christine Brockert, known professionally as Teena Marie, died in her sleep the day after Christmas. Her body was found by her daughter, Alia Rose, who is also a singer. Teena Marie was 54, and except for the time that she raised her child in the 1990s, had been performing or releasing albums regularly almost to the time of her death. Most importantly, she was one of the few white R&B singers to find an appreciative and loving black audience. As Ta-Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic put it:
Teena Marie died on Sunday, and on every Martin Luther there was a collective wail. That line—”I’m a black artist with white skin”—is the kind of comment that usually causes black people to suck their teeth and groan. But Teena Marie died with an eternal hood-pass. The term “blue-eyed soul” is presently being affixed to her, but it borders on disrespect. It”s like Negroes “liked” the Eurythmics, we “liked” Madonna and some of that Hall and Oates, but Teena Marie was beloved. She was not simply in that George Michael “Father Figure” category, she was of that Chaka Khan/Freddie Jackson/Jeffrey Osborne/Denise Williams stamp. You did not hear Teena Marie and say, “I thought she was black,” you said, “No, seriously, I’m sure she’s black.”
It’s like Eminem is a great, great rapper. But in part because hip-hop has a different relationship to black people then R&B, and in part because Eminem is the best selling artist of the last decade, I never lose sight of his whiteness. Teena Marie never crossed-over, and never seemed to much care about crossing over. There was no sense that she was—willingly or not—Elvising, and getting extra credit for being white. Part of that is her own aesthetic, and part of it was just the times. I’m sure, like any artist, she would have liked to have won a Grammy and sold more. But as it was, Teena Marie sung pariah music for a pariah people. In doing so, she offered testimony, once again, that blackness, like all culture, is not biological.
Last month, however, Teena Marie suffered a grand mal seizure. It is not clear whether she had had seizures before that episode, but it is rumored that she had continued to have smaller ones. Roland Martin at NewsOne said:
Lynn Jeter, Marie’s publicist, said a month ago, the singer suffered a grand mal seizure.
“Her and her little girl were watching a movie,” Jeter said. “(Alia Rose) was in the bed with her. Luckily someone was there. They called 9-1-1. The ambulance took her to the hospital. On the way, she had another seizure.”
Jeter said Marie couldn’t get an appointment with a neurologist for nearly three weeks, and she was provided medication to handle the seizure. But Jeter said that the medicine prescribed “made her suicidal,” so Marie “reduced the meds herself.”
Neither Jeter nor Marie’s family would reveal to me what specific medication Marie was administered for the seizures.
Reduced the dosage herself? No, you don’t do that, child. Not without talking to qualified professionals.
Teena Marie had feared yet another grand mal seizure and asked family and close friends to accompany her to bed and watch over her. An autopsy is underway, but it is generally believed that she died of natural causes. Teena Marie, though, probably suffered still another grand mal seizure while unconscious. While TMZ.com was sniffing out the possibility that Teena Marie died from an overdose, it only found that prescription diazepam or Valium in her home, which is used to treat epilepsy as well as anxiety or depression.
Sudden unexplained death in epilepsy, or SUDEP, is typically associated with these most intense seizures and likely results from problems with breathing or heart rhythm, said Dr. Jacqueline French of NYU Medical Center and the American Academy of Neurology.
Yet researchers still aren’t certain about the exact mechanism by which it leads to death, and caution that it isn’t very common among all patients with seizures.
“When seizures aren’t controlled, there’s a small risk of sudden, unexplained death,” French told MedPage Today. “But 99 percent of the time when people have a seizure, that doesn’t occur.”
There has been some speculation that the singer may have been treated for epilepsy. According to entertainment website TMZ.com, the Los Angeles County coroner‘s office found diazepam (Valium) in her home, which friends say she stopped taking due to side effects before switching to herbal remedies.
What? Herbal remedies? For something this serious?
If it is true that Teena Marie went to herbal medications because of side effects, did she have time to discuss the side effects with her physician? Did she discuss her changeover to herbals with her physician or a nurse as well? Were these herbals approved? There are other drugs that might have helped her, if she had turned to a qualified physician or neurologist in an emergency room situation, who would have stated the change in her medical file. Furthermore, why couldn’t she have hired a nurse trained in these kinds of situations to watch over her and palliate her fears? I can’t speculate on whether Teena Marie could afford a nurse from a qualified nurse’s registry. However, such a medical professional could have saved her life when it counted.
I know hindsight is always 20/20. I do like the idea of herbal or alternative medications versus mainstream drugs; but seriously, epilepsy nothing to play with. Herbals are not always as efficacious and therefore, they could have the opposite effect. If Teena Marie decided on her own–like some people decide to do these days–that she would stop taking Valium or any mainstream drug to treat her seizures, it seems that this was a decision that may have had fatal consequences. Add to the fact that her previous drug addictions (and we only know about the Vicodin) may have weakened her in other ways.
Out of the blue, Lenny Kravitz, vacationing in France, let everyone know that Teena Marie was also someone who nurtured other people’s talent when they were living rough and just starting out (h/t to Rod 2.0 for this).
When Teena Marie’s albums were first released by Motown, her color and ethnicity were not disclosed because Berry Gordy was afraid of the reaction that would occur from black audiences. (This reminds me of the reaction blacks had to the singer Phoebe Snow, who for a long time in the 1970s with her voice and looks appeared to be a light-skinned black woman. Many thought Snow was a black woman passing as white. When she was younger, Snow had natural tight, curly hair in a kind of ethnic Afro–and she wasn’t alone among whites in having that grade of hair flowing free. In a famous incident, she was jumped by several black women after an early club performance and her hair, face, skin and eyes were examined over and over with a flashlight until the women were satisfied that she wasn’t black. For the record, Snow is Jewish.)
Teena Marie could not even tour until her second album. Gordy needn’t have bothered. This time, Teena Marie was embraced. She was real. She knew who she was; she also knew where she came from–from a black, working class section of Venice, California where one could hear Sly and The Family Stone, Harry Belafonte, as well as Latin music. From Essence.com:
Black people would always say, “I didn’t know you were White.” But people like good music. Back in the forties and fifties they made the race records where a group like The Temptations wouldn’t appear on the cover of the album. Mr. Gordy used the same concept with me for my first album. He said that is was so soulful that he wanted to give the music an opportunity to stand on its own merit. Instead of my face, they put a seascape, so by the time my second album came out people were like, Lady T is White? Omigod? Overall my race hasn’t been a problem. I’m a Black artist with White skin. At the end of the day you have to sing what’s in your own soul.
Teena Marie recently discovered that her father’s ancestors came from New Orleans, just before she wrapped Congo Square. She was a mix of almost every American ethnicity except African; but she identified as being Portuguese. In her 1981 song, “Square Biz,” she named her influences in song.”I like spirituals and rock/Sarah Vaughan, Johann Sebastian Bach/Shakespeare, Maya Angelou/and Nikki Giovanni just to name a few.”
But it was her relationship with Rick James that made it all possible for Teena Marie. She was his protegée, then his lover, and finally, his lasting friend. From the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. James and Teena Marie had by then (around 1980) established a personal as well as business relationship. “She’s the most important female singer since Barbra Streisand; and her own race forgot her,” Mr. James told People magazine in 1985. Teena Marie estimated in 2005 that 90% of her audience was black women.
Her early career climaxed with 1981’s “It Must Be Magic,” which finished the year at No. 23 on Billboard’s overall chart, and No. 2 in R&B. It included the languorous “Portuguese Love” and “Square Biz,” which featured a rap section about one of the diminutive singer’s favorite themes:
“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’t cramp my style”
Of Rick James, Teena Marie had this to say last year:
After his death I became addicted to Vicodin, which I had been taking for my physical pain because I’d had a lot of accidents. Once I realized that those pills not only took away my physical agony by masking my emotional pain I really became addicted. When I was on the medication I never cried about him, but then I went cold turkey and I cried so much and have been for the last three years. He was my musical soul mate. We were like an extension of each other. I miss all our talks. We were like family; only family can talk about family, not anyone else.
However, Amir Shaw at Rolling Out.com thinks that her work with Rick James, especially “Fire and Desire,” (my favorite) rated as one of the greatest love duets in soul music, and blamed the pair’s drug addictions for shortening their lives far too soon.
For music lovers and Motown enthusiasts, they were the funk era’s version of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
However, the beautiful songs that James and Marie created in the studio were a far cry from the issues that they dealt with in real life. Both artists battled drug addictions over the course of their careers.
James battled cocaine addiction until his death. He claimed to have spent as much as $7,000 per week on drugs and served 15 months in prison beginning in 1993 for imprisoning a girl in his home and torturing her with a cocaine pipe for three days.
James died in 2004, and an autopsy revealed that the soul-funk legend had more than nine illegal drugs in his system.
Marie soon became depressed after her mentor’s death and became addicted to Vicodin. She recently told reporters that she was able to kick the habit after three years. However, the damage that drugs did to to her body over the years may have played a role in her death.
About that break with Motown: Teena Marie made a lasting impression on music recording and the law. It was because Teena Marie sued to leave Motown that the exclusive contracts that Berry Gordy (and other recording companies) had relied upon to keep his acts in check were effectively broken.
For many of her fellow musicians, Teena Marie’s biggest accomplishment was made offstage. Her lawsuit against Motown in the early 1980s, for nonpayment of royalties, resulted in a clarification of California law — known in the music industry as the Brockert Initiative or the Teena Marie Law — that made it much more difficult for record companies to keep an act under an exclusive contract. After leaving Motown, she signed with Epic and reached her commercial peak. Her 1984 song “Lovergirl” — featuring her impassioned squeal in the chorus, “I just want to be your lover girl/I just want to rock your world” — went to No. 4 on Billboard’s pop chart and became her biggest seller.
According to the WSJ, Teena Marie continued to tour, often with Rick James, through the 1980s, and she remained close to him until his death. In recent years, she liked to bring her daughter Alia Rose Brockert onstage for duets. In the first decade of the century, she released “La Doña” in 2004, her comeback album, which sold well. These were followed up by “Sapphire” in 2006 and “Congo Square” in 2009, her 13th and last album under the reconstituted Stax label.
Teena Marie has been cited as an influence by such varied acts as the Fugees and Mary J. Blige. I know she did not want to leave this life; I’m sure that she wanted to stay and keep going and do her music as she always did, but it was not to be. Rest easy, Lady T. Come back to us soon, trailblazer.