Born Mary Christine Brockert in 1956, she was billed as Tina Marie Brockert when she appeared on an episode of the TV comedy The Beverly Hillbillies in 1964, and later took up the name Teena Marie. She was raised in Venice, California, two blocks away from a black neighbourhood.
“I had a lot of black friends and I learned a lot about blacks and black music,” she said. “All the kids used to call me ‘Off White’ because I acted sort of black and I was comfortable with the black kids.” Her best friend Mickey, a black girl, accompanied her when she appeared on Soul Train.
“I can remember being chased home a couple of times and being called ‘nigger lover’. I was only 13 or 14, and to a young mind, that’s heartbreaking. I can remember going in my house and sitting in my room and crying.”
Teena wasn’t the first white female singer signed to Motown – the Californian Chris Clark and British vocalist Kiki Dee preceded her in the 1960s – but she certainly had the most impact, blazing a trail for many of the crossover R&B to pop artists who followed.
Between 1976 and 1978 she worked with various producers at Motown’s LA base but grew frustrated when no recording met Gordy’s approval. She was even reticent when a tie-up with the flamboyant Rick James was suggested. “Why should Rick be able to work with me after everyone else had failed?”
She was subsequently mentored by James, who produced and wrote most of her Wild And Peacefuldebut album – including the gorgeous Deja Vu (I’ve Been Here Before) and the direct I’m A Sucker For Your Love (her first UK chart entry).
Still, in 1979, Motown wasn’t quite sure what to make of this alabaster-skinned girl with red hair who sounded black and purposely packaged Wild And Peaceful in a nondescript seascape sleeve that didn’t include a picture of her.
The strategy worked and empowered Teena, who would grace the covers of the 12 albums she subsequently issued, starting with the 1980’s Lady T, which was co-produced by Richard Rudolph, the husband of the late Minnie Riperton.
Issued between 1979 and 1981, her four Motown albums were full of soulful, slinky, sensual, self-penned ballads such as Irons In The Fire and Portuguese Love, while her uptempo, funkier compositions, such as Behind The Groove and I Need Your Lovin’ (her two 1980 British hits) dominated daytime playlists and the dance floor.
She became a gifted songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and performer in her own right. Her desire to control her career led to conflicts with Gordy, who refused to release her from her Motown contract, yet wouldn’t sanction any more records by her either.
This resulted in a legal case and a historic ruling that granted her freedom in 1982 and became known as the “Brockert Initiative” after her real name.
After signing to Epic she made the US Top 100 with Starchild (1984), Emerald City (1985), Naked To The World (1988) and scored a Top 5 hit in the US with the Prince-like Lovergirl in 1985. She remained a constant presence on the US R&B charts throughout the 80s, hitting the top again in 1988 with the sublime Ooo La La La (later referenced by The Fugees on Fu-Gee-La ).
But despite the involvement of Soul II Soul‘s Jazzie B, who produced and co-wrote the single Since Day One, 1990’s Ivory album didn’t fare as well and Teena and Epic parted company.
Teena always recognised the crucial role RickJames had played, both on a personal and professional level, and was devastated when he died in 2004. The death of her former mentor and lover hit her hard, and she turned to prescription drugs, though she overcame her dependency. In 2009,
Teena issued Congo Square (named after a historical meeting place for slaves in New Orleans) on the revived Stax label and made a triumphant appearance at the Indigo 2 in London in January 2010, her first UK visit in 18 years.
Teena Marie died in Pasadena, California, on 26 December 2010.